Deputy Merrigan touts sustainable agriculture's success

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2012 -Some of the best known names in the locally grown and marketed movement and its loudest voice inside the Obama Administration rallied 1,200 sustainable agriculture advocates at the 21st annual Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference in Little Rock, Ark. Many of the attendees were first-timers, and particularly noteworthy was the large number of 20- and 30-somethings who came to learn the ways in which sustainable farms operate - without pesticides and, in most instances, modern production technology - and how their products are marketed.

“The emphasis on selling to local markets is so well supported now by consumers and the opportunity for larger profit margins makes it easier for a person to get started” in a sustainable operation, Jim Lukens, executive director of SSAWG said.

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Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan felt at home speaking at the conference, telling the audience she had participated in several of the group's previous meetings. The former Senate Agriculture Committee staffer also recalled her involvement in the battle to define sustainable agriculture in the 1990 Farm Bill.

“It's really gratifying for me to fast-forward to today and see all the accomplishments we have made over the years,” she said. Merrigan, who wrote her MIT doctoral dissertation on sustainable agriculture, said she realized sustainable, organic and local agriculture had come of age when she made Time Magazine's 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“People really are starting to care about where their food comes from (and) they want to know their farmer,” she explained. The number two official at USDA gave a progress report on a “novel” effort she's spearheading to make local and regional food systems a part of every USDA program, called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2).

An internal USDA task force manages the initiative and meets every other week, she said, “to see how we can help people in communities who want to ride the wave of this renaissance of interest in American agriculture.”

KYF2 has already accomplished a lot, according to Merrigan, including EQIP funding for the construction of temporary greenhouse structures often referred to as hoop houses or high tunnels; the establishment of a joint AMS-FNS “Farm-to-School” team that travels the country recording the effectiveness of garden-based learning activities; and the inclusion of an additional question about market outlets for locally-grown food in the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have been openly critical of the initiative, questioning its value and generally characterizing it as a needless diversion from USDA's traditional mission of advocating on behalf of commercial-scale farming and ranching. The GOP-controlled House attempted to kill the program in the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill. A House-Senate conference committee ultimately decided to require USDA to submit a report to Congress about KYF2. The report, due in late February, will be delivered on time, Merrigan indicated.

“It will be detailed, it will be geospatially available, it will be case study-rich,” she promised, declaring that the document will serve as “a very public coming out party for what's been going on at USDA in the local and regional food scene.”

Will Allen, CEO of Milwaukee-based Growing Power, a trailblazer in urban agriculture, spoke of his nearly 20 year campaign to set up community food systems in the U.S. and abroad. 

“Everybody should have access to safe, affordable, good local food,” he said.  “I believe that we can create thousands of jobs by creating local food systems in communities that lack food or in communities where people are getting bad food.” Growing Power operates small farms around Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago and 15 small farm training centers scattered throughout the country. 

“There are so many problems in terms of the industrial food system and the kinds of food that are being brought into especially low-income areas, in terms of salt and sugar content, said Allen, a former NBA player, who helped First Lady Michelle Obama kick off her “Let's Move!” program to fight childhood obesity.

SSAWG convention-goers lined the walls and sat on the floor to pick up marketing tips from Ellen McGeeney. The Kentucky native left a consulting job in the corporate world 18 months ago to return to Louisville and become owner/operator of Grasshoppers Distribution, an online subscription grocery service.

“The typical customer is a mom who cares an awful lot about health and the food that she's buying for children. They often have a concern about the environment and then also care about what's happening to farmers in our area,” McGeeney said.

Grasshopper sells a variety of natural and organic-certified meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables grown locally in Kentucky and southern Indiana to approximately 1000 subscribers who pay by delivery. Its 60 farmer-suppliers are paid a premium price for chemical-free products. The online food distributor had annual sales of $908,000 in 2011, up from $550,000 the previous year, according to McGeeney. Her marketing philosophy is to pay farmers 65% of the retail price, which she said is set “slightly below Whole Foods.”



Original story printed in January 25, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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