Sen. Roberts: USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food) isn't ‘steeped in reality'

By Sara Wyant

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 - USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan released USDA's “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Compass and report today, highlighting what Vilsack described as “how diverse and innovative American agriculture can be."

They received rave reviews from sustainable farming advocates, but harsh reaction from Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS. who said the effort isn't “steeped in reality” since most food Americans consume isn't grown locally. He also questioned the overlap of federal investments.

“This report highlights one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture, and I commend farmers and ranchers around the country for taking advantage of opportunities to add value to their products by selling locally and regionally,” said Roberts, who serves as the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “While I appreciate the intent of USDA's initiatives, the fact of the matter is the vast majority of food consumed in this country is not grown locally. Kansans enjoy bananas and coconuts, but they can't walk into church every Sunday and shake the banana and coconut producer's hand.

“According to this report, at least 30 programs across nine agencies are working on the same goal. This is the definition of redundancy. The federal government must be more responsible with hard earned taxpayer dollars.

“We must answer the question ‘where do we get the most bang for the taxpayer buck?' Roberts said. “Consumer demand is driving this growth and should be applauded. But policy makers must ask with such dramatic private sector growth would taxpayer dollars be better invested elsewhere, like research, pest and disease management that help the entire industry, rather than one particular farmers ' market.” Roberts said the initiative would be the subject of discussion at the Senate Ag Committee hearing next week.

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Local and regional food advocates issued statements in support of the “Know Your Farmer” initiative.

“This is a very timely report,” notes Helen Dombalis, Policy Associate with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  “The ongoing revitalization of regional farm and food systems depends on the continuation of key 2008 Farm Bill programs whose funding expires later this year if Congress does not act.”

The expiring farm bill programs range from Value-Added Producer Grants, which help farmers develop new products and markets while increasing their share of the consumer food dollar, to the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which helps create and expand venues for direct farmer-to-consumer sales of local foods.

The Union of Concerned Scientists commended Vilsack and Merrigan for their commitment to supporting healthy farms and local food systems.

“Many of these local food programs will be on chopping block when the farm bill expires this year. Party lines aside, rural communities need our support. During the farm bill proceedings, Congress must act to support local foods legislation,” explained Jeffrey O'Hara, an agricultural economist at UCS's Food & Environment Program.

The Know Your Farmer initiative includes several components, including:

The KYF Compass is a digital guide to USDA resources related to local and regional food systems. The Compass consists of an interactive U.S. map showing local and regional food projects and an accompanying narrative documenting the results of this work through case studies, photos and video content. The KYF Compass organizes USDA's work on local and regional food systems into seven thematic areas. Among the themes covered on the map and in the narrative portion of the Compass are:

Local Food Infrastructure: maps USDA support for food hubs, cold storage facilities, local food processors and other infrastructure and examines how this infrastructure keeps wealth in rural communities.

Farm to Institution: examines programs to connect local food producers and institutions and the results of these initiatives for healthy food access, farm incomes, and students' understanding of agriculture.

Careers in Agriculture: discusses USDA support for young and beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as opportunities to get involved in agriculture through food business development and public service, and the importance of this work to creating vibrant rural communities.

Stewardship and Local Foods: explains how local food producers are implementing environmentally sustainable practices on their farms and ranches to preserve farmland, forests and natural landscapes across the country.

Local Meat and Poultry: showcases resources for local meat and poultry producers and small processors to succeed in local markets.

Healthy Food Access: highlights tools to connect farmers and ranchers underserved communities to increase access to healthy food for consumers and economic opportunities for producers.

Local Food Knowledge: tracks existing research and identifies opportunities for further understanding of local and regional food systems and their impacts.

"By encouraging all Americans to know their farmer, USDA is helping consumers learn more about agriculture and the people producing your food," said Deputy Secretary Merrigan. "The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative helps farmers and ranchers tap into a vibrant, growing market opportunity. And it's also stimulating a broader national conversation about where our food comes from and how important agriculture is to our country."

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