Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Saving rural economies one farmers market at a time?

NPR ran this interesting story earlier this month (the broadcast is available here). The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a pilot program that enables participating farmers markets to accept food stamps as part of its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program. Not only that, but the food stamps are worth twice as much at the farmers markets than elsewhere.

While President Obama has been an outspoken supporter of the slow food movement and changing America’s eating habits, many questioned his appointment of Tom Vilsack as the Secretary of Agriculture due to his supposed agribusiness leanings as the governor of Iowa (think corn subsidies). Today, however, Vilsack is calling for a “diversification of agriculture” — and this pilot program is a small step toward changing how food is produced and distributed in the United States.

And Obama, Vilsack and the USDA are certainly bringing a visible change to Washington.

One participating farmers market, the White House Farmers Market, which, as the name implies, is just steps away from the White House, is the first market of its kind since Thomas Jefferson was in office. And, so far, vendors are reporting positive results:
"I have seen women walk by with extremely expensive St. Johns suits, and then all of these great professionals pour out of these federal office buildings," says Mary Ellen Taylor, who sells vegetables from her farm in Purcellville, Va., at the market. "But along with that woman who has that suit, I also have redeemed more WIC coupons here at this market than any other market that I am in."
For Vilsack, this program is about more than helping Americans eat better. It’s about “rural economic development,” “creating wealth in rural communities” and “repopulating rural communities”:
“Ninety percent of farmer family income comes from off the farm. They are required to work off the farm in order to keep the farm. It is important for us to have additional markets that make it easy for them to improve their bottom line and at the same time creating jobs. So ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ is focused on creating wealth in rural communities.”
I think it is wonderful to hear members of the Obama administration supporting sustainable farming and distribution, not to mention the talk of reshaping struggling rural economies. But perhaps Vilsack is being overly optimistic and a little disingenuous in his assessment of the extent to which the slow food movement can help rural places.

The potential beneficiaries of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program appear to be “rural” persons who live in micropolitan areas and rural communities adjacent to metropolitan areas. Otherwise, one of the central tenets of the slow food movement — minimizing the environmental degradation created by current production systems — will be undermined by the high transportation costs associated with linking rural and urban places. The farther a farm is located from a metropolitan center, the less likely the food will be considered "local."

While touting the benefits of sustainable farming and its transformative potential for rural America, Vilsack notes that he does not want to challenge the hegemony of large corporate farms that produce the vast majority of the food Americans consume, choosing to refer to agribusinesses as "family" operations. Yet the rise of large corporate farms has dramatically decreased the number of rural persons who work on farms. Today, the figure is roughly seven percent of the rural workforce. The growing market for slow food that Vilsack identifies can hardly compete with the low prices offered at supermarkets absent some sort of fundamental restructuring of our food system — making it unlikely that slow food will drive a rural economic recovery.

The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program certainly has laudable intentions, but I’m concerned that the revitalization of rural America Vilsack discusses is not a realistic expectation.


Yooli said...

I agree that the "Know Your Farmer" program alone can't be expected to revitalize rural economies, but I think its interesting in the context of the local food/rural developement memo released by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, during the summer. The memo was sent to all of her staff as well as other interested parties regarding three rural development programs that she thinks can be better utilized in the development of local and regional food systems.

Merrigan talked about wanting "to play the role of match-maker during this Administration" by helping USDA program administrators better understand how programs can serve their efforts. Merrigan focused on three programs in particular and asked her staff to "imagine" the possibilities:

Community Facilities Program (CF) - Imagine USDA funds being used to build a community kitchen, to build an open-sided structure for a farmers market, or to construct a cold storage facility to help schools retrofit the cafeteria to buy produce directly from farmers. CF supports the success of rural communities by providing loans and grants for the construction, acquisition, or renovation of community facilities or for the purchase of equipment for community projects.

Businesss and Industry (B&I) Guarentee Loan Program- Imagine USDA funds being used to aggregate local farm products to better serve institutions, to fund a mobile slaughterhouse to support local free-range poultry growers, or to help food processors add equipment and storage to handle organic certification. The B&I program helps new and existing businesses in rural areas to gain access to affordable capital with favorable interests rates and terms.

Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) - Imagine USDA funds being used to conduct a feasibility study of providing local food in schools, to help farmers with direct marketing of pasture-raised meat in restaurants, or to help farmers with marketing sustainably grown or raised food. The VAPG grants provide funding to agricultural producers who add value to their raw products through processing or marketing, thereby increasing farm income.

To me, this is a clear missive to the department to get creative, think outside box and to capitalize on the local foods movement to support rural economies.

I agree that there was a lot of concern about picking Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, but that very much calmed down once Merrigan was appointed his deputy. I think the Obama administration's approach is pretty balanced. There's no doubt how the President's family feels about farmers markets and healthy diets and sustainable eating, but as you aptly point out, not all Americans are ready to switch to the locavore way of eating. So we still need agribusiness to maintain the balance.

But there is definitely a shift and a growing trend towards gradually changing things. For instance, there are a lot of sustainable agriculture advocates in undersecretary positions at USDA, such as Ann Wright, who is in charge of marketing programs. I think its clear that SOMETHING is going to change around the department, and I'm at least heartened that there is a purposeful, intentional effort towards steering the locavore movement to boost rural economies.

tcruse said...

It was interesting to read that food stamps are now being accepted at farmers markets. What a great thing. Just the other day, I read an article from last week’s New York Times, which talked about food stamps being accepted at co-ops too. This is a step in the right direction in terms of changing people’s eating habits and their attitudes toward food. If the point of food stamps is to give people and their children access to food, why not have it be access to the healthiest, most sustainable types of food. What better way to foster the change the government wants to see? Agreed, the “know your farmer, know your food” program may only benefit rural communities that are close to urban centers with farmers markets – but at least starting a program like this and giving all people the option to shop at a farmers market or a food co-op and start thinking about where their food comes from, is a good thing I think.