Merrigan defends ‘Know Your Farmer’
WASHINGTON (DTN) – Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan credited Congress with providing the initial impetus for the Obama administration’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative and said the program will ultimately benefit all farmers much more than critics think.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launched the initiative in mid September, urging consumers to “know where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate.” He also said the initiative would use USDA’s existing programs to help produce food and wealth that stays in local communities.
Merrigan, who was an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT., when he chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and who wrote the organic standards act, runs the program day to day. She was scheduled to speak Tuesday evening on Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food at Iowa State University.
Last Thursday when she announced $49 million in grants to fruit, vegetable, nut and consumer groups in all U.S. states and territories to market specialty crops, Merrigan was joined by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-CA. Stabenow and Cardoza said they were pleased to have led the effort during the 2008 farm bill debate to help smaller growers process and promote their products. Many of the grants will help local fruit and vegetable farm groups figure out how to sell their production to local schools, hospitals and other institutions.
Merrigan noted that the farm bill also set aside 5 percent of USDA’s business and industry loan guarantee program for local food production.
“The 2008 farm bill provided the initial building blocks on which the Know Your Farmer initiative has been built,” Merrigan said an interview.
Merrigan also said small meat producers will be helped by a farm bill provision to allow the interstate shipment of meat inspected by the state inspectors that many small producers use instead of federal government inspectors. Merrigan said she intends to use USDA programs to help small scale farmers get their animals slaughtered for meat sales.
Merrigan announced Tuesday that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will hold public teleconferences on Oct. 27 and Nov. 5 on the proposed regulations to implement a new program under which state-inspected establishments with 25 or fewer employees will be eligible to ship meat and poultry products in interstate commerce.
Some big farm lobbyists have privately dismissed Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food as a somewhat silly administration appeal to rich, liberal consumers known as “foodies” and to the nation’s smallest farmers, who were more likely to have voted for Obama.
Merrigan said the administration wants to help small farmers get started and hopes that local consumption will help them grow into medium-sized producers. But she added, “We do not expect people to be 100 percent ‘locavores.'”
Merrigan says the enthusiasm for Know Your Farmer has spread to larger producers, who have come to her with proposals for “Know Your Fiber,” “Know Your Fuel” and “Know Your Forest.” Know Your Farmer, she said, “resonates across the agriculture landscape. It’s not just the craze of a few.”
When the next farm bill comes up, consumers’ relationships with farmers and even gardening will make Americans sympathetic to all farmers, she said. People appreciate a fine tomato, but anyone who buys tomatoes locally or raises them in a garden and sees them with mildew will say, “I couldn’t imagine my livelihood depending on this,” she said.
The link for the Know Your Farmers, Know Your Food website is http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/knowyourfarmer?navid=KNOWYOURFARMER.
The link for the teleconference on meat inspection can be found under the “Meetings & Events” link at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News/.