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Big Plans for Small Farmers

By Kim Severson | The New York Times

Warriors in the battle for more local, sustainable food have long been suspicious of the Department of Agriculture and its relationship to large agricultural interests. But even the most dedicated political agrarian has to admit that the U.S.D.A is getting local food fever.

This week, the top people at the U.S.D.A. announced they would be handing out almost $65 million to help connect small farmers — especially those using sustainable practices — with people who want to eat local food.

The money is part of their new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign which includes a series of programs to help farmers better market their food and the people who run large institutions buy it.

“Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than at any other time since most families left the farm,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in a statement announcing the initiative.

One aspect of the initiative sounds particularly fierce: The Farm-To-School Tactical Teams. These agricultural versions of SWAT teams will tour America’s school cafeterias looking for ways to help administrators buy more locally grown food.

That’s much harder than it sounds. Supply chains, purchasing requirements, contract regulations and even a lack of the right processing equipment often stand in the way of getting a carrot grown in Upstate New York, for example, onto the lunch trays of New York City school children.

The school initiative, which aims to make some of those procurement hurdles easier, also provides $50 million to states with the strong suggestion that it be used to buy local food for schools.

In addition, 23 organizations in 19 states will share in $4.4 million in additional grants to help develop agricultural cooperatives, which in turn will encourage farmers markets, value-added agricultural products and other forms of marketing. And the U.S.D.A. will give away another $3.4 million in funding to help what the agency termed “socially disadvantaged and underserved farmers.”

That money will help farmers figure out ways to get their food into markets they might not have the skill to break in to. For example, the University of Minnesota will get money to help farmers figure out the food safety regulations required to sell local food to institutions like schools, colleges and hospitals.

The rest of us are supposed to join in a national conversation and share ideas about what the government should do to help promote local food. You can learn how by watching Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack rock local food on his YouTube video.

Producers and consumers can comment on the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ YouTube playlist, as well as submit videos or provide comments on this initiative by e-mailing [email protected].


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