FOOD & FUEL
As the county and state fair season spreads across America, farmers, ranchers and producer groups from Maryland and Montana will cook rib-eyes, whip up omelets, grill chicken, barbecue pork steaks, butter sweet corn and pour thick milkshakes for their non-farming customers from Baltimore to Billings and nearly everywhere in between.
This fresh, wholesome goodness will come with side dishes like firm handshakes, warm smiles and pleasant banter that will connect producers with consumers, makers with customers, farmers with non-farmers
In fact, this tasty, aromatic face-to-face meeting is the whole point of each farmer’s and rancher’s existence, the key link upon which farm and ranch groups spend big bucks and big time-think of the $1.25 billion-a-year checkoff industry-to build every day.
It’s honest and open and not forced or phony.
And it’s priceless; it’s retail meat-and-greet, chat-and-chew, cook-and-look, earn-and-learn for both sides.
If this interface is the top of the producer-customer pyramid-and it is-why then did three U.S. senators late this spring write a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assaulting USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program?
After all, KYF puts all 26 USDA agencies to work in unison to “better connect consumers with local producers.”
Two explanations leap to mind.
First, the senators, Pat Roberts of Kansas, John McCain of Arizona, and Saxby Chambliss, the Georgian who also serves as ranking minority member on the Senate Ag Committee, are partisan mules who oppose most Obama Administration ideas.
A second, more likely explanation (despite voting records that clearly support the first) is that the senators are genuinely concerned the $65-million Know Your Farmer effort will help, as they wrote Vilsack in April, “small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets” rather than “conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply.”
Yeah, that’s what they wrote. No, I didn’t make it up.
These three seem to favor Farm Bills that showered American farmers with an average $16.9 billion per year in program payments from 1999 to 2009, 62.4 percent of which went to the 12.4 percent of farmers with the largest annual gross sales.
Simultaneously, these fearless foes of government spending also worry that, by comparison, a few pennies spent to hook farmers and consumers up county- and state fair-style is some Big Brother plot to overthrow “conventional” farmers.
Besides, they groused to Vilsack, American families and farmers are hurting “and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.”
There’s little doubt that if you define the Know Your Farmer program as “propping up locavore markets” it would be very unclear on how the effort would relieve the low-price pain felt by all livestock producers in the past two years or the relentless rise in production costs for “conventional” producers.
But Know Your Farmer doesn’t deal with just “locavore” agriculture. It’s far broader, as USDA explains, and looks to strengthen “local and regional food systems” because they “mean fresh food, vibrant communities, a strong connection between cities and the countryside, and support for this and the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”
But the three aggie amigos ain’t buying any explanation from USDA because, after all, “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.”
Feel-good measures? Golly, an estimated $12.5 billion in direct, 2010 farm payments is more attached to reality than building direct producer-to-consumer connections?
Little wonder Washington, D.C. doesn’t have a fair. It can’t compete with the circus.
Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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