Republican Senators Take Aim At Small Farmers, Urban Consumers, and Locavores

In late April, a trio of Republican senators––John McCain (AZ), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Pat Roberts (KS)––wrote an angry letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, debunking a recent USDA program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” This initiative distributes grant money and loans with the goal of strengthening local food chains and linking consumers with farmers.

The Senators accuse USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan of diverting urgently needed funds from rural communities in favor of: 1) “specialty crops” (the government’s term for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, of which the USDA recommends each of us eat at least five servings a day); and 2) small growers and organic farmers (who the Senators stereotype as hobby producers “whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”)

They conclude that:

“American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs. Given our nation’s crippling budgetary crisis, we also believe the federal government cannot afford to spend precious rural development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture.”

The not so subtle subtext of this letter is that to be a “real” farmer, you must be engaged in “production agriculture.” One can only assume this means corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybean production—the five primary commodity crops grown across hundreds of millions of acres in factory fields, propped up by the lion’s share of $15-plus billion in yearly USDA farm bill payments. In their view, the small producers benefitting from the Know Your Farmer program are not just do-gooders raising organic heirlooms for elite urbanites. They’re sucking away subsidies that should be going to the nation’s real farmers. Never mind that there are now more than 5,000 farmers markets across the country; or that an average of 10 million Americans shop at one on any given Saturday during the harvest season; or that farming organically is extremely hard and valuable work.

Here’s the bottom line. The Know Your Farmer program has spent a reported $65 million total so far with plans to invest another up to another $1 billion in loans from the stimulus program. This is peanuts compared with the $60-plus billion in USDA commodity subsidies that production growers presently receive over a five-year period.

Since Senator Chambliss is the ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, he and his fellow scribes must be aware that the U.S. is now considering paying Brazilian cotton growers $147.3 million this year because of former production agriculture subsidies that were in violation of World Trade Organization rules. You read that right––Brazilian farmers. The Wall Street Journal recently decried this as madness.

Such divisive political framing sets clear distinctions for how we talk about farmers, food, and our agriculture and nutrition policy. It might also backfire by fueling the fires of public opinion that have been rallying around healthy food production and raging against USDA subsidy programs. It is obvious to an increasing number of citizens and legislators that these programs:

1) divert billions of dollars to commodity agribusinesses whether they have actually suffered losses or not, whether they grow crops or not, with few funding caps, and few social or environmental mandates that would provide a public benefit to taxpayers in return;

2) support industrial crops that are more suited for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels rather than a healthy, diverse diet;

3) flood the market with cheap, processed ingredients that contribute to a growing crisis of obesity and other diet-related epidemics.

Are these the feel-good measures McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts want us to get excited about?

Instead, they single out a long-overdue and modest attempt to repair links in broken local food chains and educate the public about the importance of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from. Revitalizing local food production can impact the every day lives of citizens––Food Stamp recipients, for example, who can use their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to buy organic produce at farmers markets; or public school kids that enjoy fruits and vegetables grown by productive farmers in their areas; or small livestock producers that can now process their pasture raised meats with the aid of mobile slaughtering units.

Why don’t the Senators want us to know our farmers or care about where our food comes from? Maybe it’s because they are clinging to the decades-old “Get Big or Get Out” story line that defines how the majority of the country’s food is presently produced. This is the tragic story of 50 years of USDA policies that swept millions of family farmers from the American landscape and gave agribusiness the unimaginable powers they wield today over our entire food system.

Knowing your farmer and knowing your food will become the primary story of the next fifty years of food production. It is the story of saving local agriculture and local farmers before they disappear altogether. In saving regional food production, we become healthier, more engaged, more secure citizens. With quite a bit of leadership, and a comparatively miniscule budget, Vilsack and Merrigan are actually trying to restore relationships and rewrite the stories of decentralized modern farming.

If Senators McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts cared about the health and vitality of rural communities they might be better served to embrace the inevitable rediversification of the food supply. It certainly deserves its fair share—and then some.

Originally published on the Huffington Post

9 thoughts on “Republican Senators Take Aim At Small Farmers, Urban Consumers, and Locavores

  1. I think this report missed a very salient point. Although the three Senators definitely do not understand or appreciate the scope and direction of the local foods movement, that is not really the point they are contesting. The main point the Senators contest in the letter is the use of grant and loan programs for locavore projects in urban areas “apparently at the expense of rural communities with documented rural development needs”.

    This seems like a legitimate question to me. If the money was allocated for rural development and is instead being used to develop urban projects, then Deputy Secretary Merrigan is clearly in the wrong. If she wants to fund urban locavore projects, then she must get separate funding passed specifically for those projects.

    As it is, these Senators are all from farming states with significant rural populations: Georgia, Kansas and Arizona. Isn’t it their job to find out why their constituencies are not receiving every penny they were promised? How would you feel if you were a rural farmers living in these states?

    Here is the link to the actual letter (which is disappointingly not included):
    http://www.agri-pulse.com/uploaded/KnowYourFarmers.pdf

  2. Pingback: Missing the point, journalistic bias « Green Basket

  3. I agree with you 100% Andi, although if this is truly an issue of an allocation of funds, what is the point of the vitriol and “niche market” talk. I shop at farmers’ markets on the regular and I am FAR from affluent. The actual point you are right in citing is almost lost in the anti-locavorian (such a word?) message of the letter.

  4. Excellent point, Andi, though I disagree that Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is siphoning funds from rural areas for two primary reasons:

    1. USDA is still subject to the statutory authority (or lack thereof) granted to them by Congress. Even if Vilsack suddenly wanted to start funding urban projects he wouldn’t have the authority to do so. The exception of course is the three or four programs that are able to go urban, and those have been doing so already and generally have an emphasis on consumption, such as farmers markets.

    2. Farmers markets, believe it or not, benefit rural areas even if they’re located in an urban community. If you were to look at where the money goes with a farmers market, it actually goes FROM [foodie, environmental, organic] urban consumers TO the exurban and rural areas where the food was actually grown. I can’t think of a more direct way to transfer wealth from urban to rural.

  5. This is why I think members of Congress need term limits, just like the president.

    And I thought the “Know Your Farmer” program wasn’t actually spending any additional money than was already available for small producers? So what’s to complain about?

    Maybe those three are just trying to divert attention from the fact that they are seriously considering paying millions of American taxpayer dollars to another nation, not for needed aid, but because they broke the rules cozying up to multi-national agribusiness corporations who don’t want to pay for it themselves.

    Just fyi, I am also far from affluent – I make less than $30,000/year working for a non-profit. And I still buy local, whole, fruits & veggies.

    Congressmen like McCain? They are the truly affluent ones. So what the hell do they know about what rural communities really want and need?

  6. Andi, perhaps it is even more complex than that report suggests. Rural communities were devastated by the introduction of industrial “production” farming a few decades ago. The movement towards small farmers and organic seeks to regain small community and individual empowerment, and is often connected to CSA’s (community supported agriculture). Small farmers (and organic farmers) don’t get the same massive tax breaks and subsidies that these “production” farming corporations do, so until the local food movement, it was almost impossible to compete (hence higher costs for their produce). These senators are from rural states, yes, but they are on the side of agro-corporations that benefit the wealthy, not rural communities. They are threatened by the growth of small, community farming because it the increased consumption is finally bringing down cost.

  7. rural development is mandatory, but not in the way that the 3 foolish senators imply. the urban/rural boundary and food supply is what know your farmer is about – and it employs people, keeps rural areas strong, and increases food security. it is not some chi-chi pasttime as the letter implies. rural development cannot be framed in terms of more corn production or in some manner where the urban/rural boundary is ignored. in case y’all have not noticed, urban expansion and sprawl has turned rural areas into empty housing areas and trash. the idea that this ass-hats know what rural development is a bloody joke. allocation of funds is the issue – and they want to allocate it to a style of bigger-bigger-bigger development that is antithetical to rural existence.

    so, while some commentators say that the senators have a point, i say “fagh!” the problem is that urban people – and poorer urban people like me – are mostly disconnected from food and are eating crap that promotes obesity, coronary heart disease and overconsumption. if you want the rural areas to thrive, you have to create a market. to create a market you have to strengthen connectivity in the urban rural intersection.

    as the research shows – there is no lack of food, but the lack of infrastructure for delivery and the lack of understanding creates deserts. It cracks me up that small farmers are considered “hobbyist” and arguments about the urban local divide continuously ignore the premise that urban development – urban sprawl. this crap has to stop.

  8. Dan Imhoff responds:

    For years, production agriculture has been raiding the budgets of conservation, organic farming research, small farm marketing, renewable energy projects, and more. Whenever there is a severe drought, severe flooding, (once every two years in fact in heavily subsidized production agriculture regions) a downswing in world commodity prices (also regular and cyclical), or simply some other scheme to garner a bigger share of the Farm Bill subsidy pie, you have seen production agriculture grabbing as much as they possibly can. Normally this comes at the expense of long-term sustainable agriculture and rural development programs — something most citizens (urban and rural) would probably heartily endorse.

    But this is even beside the point. The “Know Your Farmer” program in fact is rural development in action. And it is up to the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture (a former governor of Iowa and friend to agribusiness) and his team to assess how that money is spent. As has been well articulated above, dollars spent on creating markets for rural producers (whether they are urban or rural) in the end enhances rural development. (Tens of millions are spent every year on building export markets for commodity producers. Here we are talking about FOOD produced and consumed right here at home.) Studies on local meat processing combined with the purchase and construction of mobile slaughter units to serve rural communities is, in fact, rural development in aciton. Programs that put the produce of rural farmers into school cafeterias and snack programs also qualify. The list goes on.

    Unfortunately for the three Senators who wrote the letter, the Farm Bill has become something that more and more average citizens are tuning into as in important economic agent of the food system. As such, there will be a clamoring for more and more programs that support and promote the inevitable diversification of food production — programs that repair broken links in local and regional food production, processing and distribution, that rebuild markets in under-served areas, that ensure that healthy foods are more widely distributed, that encourage young people to choose a future in food production.

    I live in a rural area and receive no subsidy payments, but only wish that more and more funds were available to enhance the agricultural possibilities of my area, rather than mainly going for huge rice and cotton interests in the Central Valley. I say the Know Your Farmer program dollars are money well spent and I am sure the Secretary and Undersecretary have the data to back it up.

  9. I kind of get where these gusy are coming from — money is getting scattered instead of focused. Right intention, expensive implementation. What if we could kill two birds with one stone? To get local distribution grant moneys, a portion of the distro had to go to a school? Hey, Jamie Oliver, check this out!!!!!