Thursday, April 29, 2010

Senators Challenge "Know Your Farmer" Program

As was reported today by Keith Good in his online Farm Policy report, Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia, Ranking Minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee), John McCain (R-Arizona) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) recently sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack challenging the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program. While the letter requests information, its assault on the program is clear. The letter notes that "[w]hile the concept of educating consumers about production agriculture is a worthwhile endeavor, we have serious misgivings about the direction of the Know Your Farmers program.” The Senators complain that the program does not direct funding to "conventional farmers" but instead is "aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”

The letter further states that
American families and rural farmers are hurting in today's economy, and its 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 letter challenges USDA's efforts to match "a small segment of specialty crop producers" to urban consumers as a "questionable use of Rural Development programs authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill." The Senators request citation to Congressional authority for the program and an itemized breakdown of all expenditures.

Clearly, there is serious rural poverty, and rural development funds should be available to assist. However, there are three serious problems with the approach taken in the Senators' letter and specifically with its urban vs. rural and farmer vs. farmer tone. Regardless of the emphasis of the Know Your Farmer program, conventional agriculture is not in a good position to complain. First, conventional agriculture continues to receive very generous support from the government, as it has for decades. Second, since 1996, farm households have consistently had higher median incomes and wealth as compared to overall households. And, third, support to conventional agriculture often does not translate into help for the overall rural economy.

Sustained Federal Support for Conventional Agriculture

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, Farm and Commodity Policy: Government Payments and the Farm Sector Briefing Room, government program payments averaged $16.9 billion per year over 1999-2009. Direct government payments are forecast to shrink slightly to about $12.4 billion in calendar year 2010. This is direct support provided to conventional production agriculture. Admittedly the farm programs have been criticized for sometimes directing money to affluent urbanites, but perhaps that is an issue that the Senators could explore as an alternative approach in their quest for additional support for rural development.
Farm Household Income and Support Exceeds Overall Averages
"In every year since 1996, average income for farm households has exceeded the average U.S. household income by 5 to 17 percent." Economic Well Being of Farm Households, USDA, ERS, Economic Brief No. 7 (Mar. 2006).

And, this from the USDA ERS Briefing Room, Farm Income and Costs: 2010 Farm Sector Income Forecast:
Net Farm Income Forecast Up Nearly 12 Percent in 2010

Net farm income is forecast to be $63 billion in 2010, up $6.7 billion (11.8 percent) from 2009. The 2010 forecast is $1.4 billion below the average of $64.5 billion in net farm income earned in the previous 10 years. Still, the $63 billion forecast for 2010 remains the fifth largest amount of income earned in U.S. farming. The top five earnings years have occurred since 2003, attesting to the profitability of farming this decade. Farm income exceeded $80 billion in 2004 and 2008 and topped $70 billion in 2005 and 2007.
ERS indicates that in 2009, average family farm household income is forecast to be $76,258; in 2010 it is expected to be up by 5.9 percent to $80,766.

Support to Conventional Agriculture May Not Translate into Help for Rural Economies

To the extent that federal farm programs support the structural changes that have occurred in agriculture, there is a persuasive argument that they have contributed to greater consolidation. Indeed, as the production of program commodities by conventional agriculture has shifted to larger farms, commodity payments have shifted as well, supporting the trend. In 2003, farms with $500,000 or more in production received 32% of all payments. Growing Farm Size and the Distribution of Farm Payments, USDA, ERS, Economic Brief No. 6 (Mar. 2006). "The largest 12.4 percent of farms in terms of gross receipts received 62.4 percent of all government payments in 2008." USDA Economic Research Service, Farm and Commodity Policy: Government Payments and the Farm Sector Briefing Room.

Farm consolidation has hurt many rural communities as the number of farmers declines and as regional urban centers better serve the needs of the large operations.

Given the political divide in Washington, and in particular in the Senate the letter from Senators Chambliss, McCain, and Roberts could be seen as a partisan attack. Given the financial realities of USDA spending, it does not make much sense as objective analysis. And, perhaps more damaging, it serves to raise the barriers that exist in our society - the divide between different types of farmers, between farmers and consumers, and between rural and urban. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food seeks to break down these barriers "by better connecting consumers with local producers." According to the program website,
It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate. Today, there is too much distance between the average American and their farmer and we are marshaling resources from across USDA to help create the link between local production and local consumption.
I, for one, support that goal. I look forward to the USDA's report on its activities under the program.

P.S. Thanks to a comment posted, here's Secretary Vilsack's description of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.


Anonymous Robin @ Seasons Eatings Farm said...

Interesting video of an "excited" Vilshack introducing Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.

4/29/2010 2:24 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

I resent the senators' characterization of urban locavores as "affluent patrons" of urban farmer's markets. I try very hard to buy local food from farmers for health and environmental reasons, as well as to support local farmers. However, I am not affluent and it is quite difficult to afford to shop this way. Since the typical supermarket food from conventional farmers is propped up by agricultural subsidies, it is much cheaper than buying local food from small farmers. However, due to my chronic health issues, I do not tolerate well and am not healthy on cheap conventional meat, eggs, dairy and produce. And that food is not healthy for anyone. So, I go to great effort and expense to obtain pastured meat/dairy/eggs and organic produce from small local farmers. The food is very expensive and the farmers are often struggling to survive, so anything that the government can do to help them stay in business and offer their food more affordably, should be done in my opinion. Did these senators consider that if everyone ate the healthy type of food I am buying, that health care costs in our country would go way down?

4/29/2010 2:53 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think the Republicans are right, the public should visit the factory farms that their meat comes from. I would support that.

4/29/2010 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that massive subsidies for the big guys are a problem, but are we sure that handouts for the local guys are any better? It almost becomes a pot-kettle-black thing and I worry about government dependency at a local level. There's got to be a way to do this without using USDA Rural Development too. Guess we'll have to see what USDA says.

4/29/2010 6:05 PM  
Blogger Cybil Discourse said...

I'd like to know more about the income statistics. I expect they are being inflated by the hobby farmers at one end who have outside incomes, and the ag industrialists at the other end who are reaping big bucks in subsidies.
Small and hobby farms, if profitable, could be a real boon to rural economies.

4/29/2010 8:53 PM  
Anonymous renee said...

Finally Vilsak is getting it?! I hope that his words ring true and small and family farms will get the help they need. increasing and or stabilizing our local food networks should be of utmost importance, not dependent on food monopolies from a few big corporations. i am lucky i have a local farmer who can supply me with organic local milk, meat and veggies. i am VERY concerned about GMO contamination and want to know what foods are being put into my children's bodies. i only wish other americans can have the same access to fresh and safe food.

4/29/2010 9:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As a citizen who receives 90% of her produce from locally produced agriculture, I can say 1) I am not an "affluent urbanist" 2) the people I support are not hobbyists - they are full-time farmers who live solely from the money they make off of CSAs and Farmers Markets. This is not some elitist program - it is a pragmatic, efficient way for me to purchase food and to support my neighbors.

4/29/2010 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Donn said...

Of all the dumb, wasteful and misguided expenditures of energy, this might take the cake. Conventional agribusiness just can't get enough at the slop trough, and I assume it must resent or fear new competition. What a misuse of representative powers. Personally, as a Georgia, I'm ashamed that Chambliss hails from the same state and would stoop to this kind of pig-headed bullying.

Honestly, how many small farmers do you know--sustainable or not--receiving financial support? It's taken almost until 2009 for the USDA even to recognize that there's another viable agricultural sector out there.

4/29/2010 11:10 PM  
Anonymous Kathy said...

If its any consolation we have just the same attacks going on here in Ireland - the big guys want the small amounts spent on supporting local farmers markets for themselves and use that "hobbyist" label - I'd like to see most of them working as hard as the little guys who don't have enough acreage to make an income any other way do. Here at Sonairte we run a farmers market every two weeks with no subsidies and for some of our vendors they just wouldn't get by without it

4/30/2010 2:31 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Once again, I'm reminded why I can't stand my "representative" Chambliss.

I am not affluent and can barely pay my bills, but I prefer to know where my food comes from.

4/30/2010 8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Small farmers are fighting upstream against industrial producers who are heavily subsidized. I don't believe that adding additional subsidies for small farmers is the way to go - rather, the first step is elimitating industrial subsidies.

4/30/2010 9:46 AM  
Blogger Christine Heinrichs said...

Thanks for bringing this attack on what I imagined would be a universally popular program to my attention. Our country will be stronger if we develop a robust network of local and regional food suppliers. Farmers who approach agriculture with values other than being dominated by the bottom line -- raising nutritious, safe food -- should be applauded.

4/30/2010 10:45 AM  
Anonymous MrsBurns said...

The government should get out of the way (ie, eliminate federal subsidies for so-called production ag) and let the consumer dictate the direction farms take going forward. Small farms should be encouraged IF for no other reason than to diversify against a natural disaster (see Haiti) or a terrorist attack on a transportation system or an electric grid. This constant trend towards consolidation and scaling up is counter-intuitive on so many levels.

4/30/2010 2:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Hoad said...

Big Ag, conventional or not, has been able to amass quite a fortune from Government subsidies, if not in monies, then in assets. Those who decry subsidies or assistance for small farmers don't understand this, they expect that we could compete if subsidies ended. They've got the lawyers, (big ag that is) we, the small farmers got the debt. And urban affluents my foot! we live in Maine serving a small town and rural population who apreciates our endeavor because its honest, quality, conservation minded, and humane. We farm because its a way of life, as far as above average income? Not here --- Emma's Family Farm, Windsor Maine

4/30/2010 4:49 PM  
Blogger The Farmer's Wife Pasture-raised Poultry said...

I fit into every category mentioned except affluent urbanite. I am a farmer and have been for 30 years. I am concerned about what I eat and feed my family. That has translated into me producing several varieties of pasture-raised meats and poultry fed non-gmo grains or no grain depending on the animal. Word of mouth has me unable to keep up the demand of other like minded folks, none of whom have impressed me as "affluent"!

I have an off the farm job to support the transition from a conventional dairy to sustainable agriculture practices. By definition that makes me a hobby farmer?!? Every night, in the dark, I am roaming my pasture paddocks insuring water supply and plenty of good clean grass for grazing.

One doesn't even have to wonder what food in America (and the health of Americans) would be like if we had subsidized the production of fruits, vegetables, and local meats rather than corn and soybeans. America is the only country on earth that has a "food pyramid" to tell people how to do something they have been doing for the ages.

It boggles my mind!

John McCain is clueless as are the other idiots mentioned.

5/01/2010 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Thanks for the well thought out defense of the Know your Farmer program. As a rural community development professional, I especially appreciate point #3 -- support to conventional agriculture often does not translate into help for the overall rural economy. For the foreseeable future, we need traditional agriculture, but the development of the local foods industry is a real economic opportunity that more communities need to consider.

It also troubles me to see lobbyists try to link local foods to elitism. I understand concerns over the higher costs sometimes associated with local foods. But let’s not forget that cheap food is connected to the health care debate. In many ways, we have a decision to make: pay-it-now or pay-it-later. I hope that we invest in innovations that will drive down the cost of local foods production; but I also hope we will invest in eating healthier foods. And that includes foods from both local and traditional producers.

5/01/2010 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well we better dissuade them from that idea... I am as poor as church mouse and I Buy Fresh, Buy Local as much as possible... as well as the entire concept and all that it incompasses including the envirnomental concerns of transportation, the torturing of sentinent life - disallowing them their natual biological needs, hence the quality of the end product... etc.
McCain is too old... hate to say that... but he wants to keep the times were they were... it is TIME TO MOVE ON. Things are changing and he can't go with with it or understand it.

5/01/2010 6:45 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Stark Hughes said...

I either raise my food or buy it from local farmers. I have 6 children and we are not even close to affluent. We make about 40,000 a year and spend about $400 a month on food for 8 people. During those months that money is really tight we eat only what we can grow ourselves. I would like to see our senators repeat that. On what scale do I qualify as affluent? But I believe in healthy food for my family and I believe in eating locally grown food. I support Vilsack's proposal and hope that they win the fight against large agribusiness since it doesn't need the government's help anyway.

5/04/2010 12:40 AM  
Blogger Kyla said...

As a college student on loans and scholarships I am certainly not "affluent" however I strongly feel that supporting the sustainable agriculture movement is the one of the best ways to prevent the detrimental effect that conventional agriculture has on the environment. I have worked on smaller organic farms and seen the incredible effect they have for their communities. For these people, farming is not a "hobby" it is a full time job. It is my sincere hope that at some point, the leaders and congressmen of this country place the conservation of the environment as well as the health of the citizens of this country, over large agribusiness greed.

5/04/2010 10:43 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Astonishing ignorance by these moron senators. Even IF "Know your farmer" is targeting affluent urbanites, by doing so it is encouraging them to put more of their money into rural areas by buying more food directly from farmers. My CSA in Winters, CA brings in money directly from the SF Bay Area. Big farmers sell to distributors and brokers who sell to chain stores. Guess who keeps most of the retail dollar spent by the consumers.

On a per acre basis, my farm brings in 3X the gross income of my neighbors who grow (unsubsidized) commodities like walnuts. My net income isn't much different from theirs. Guess where the extra income gets spent...yep, right here in the rural area.

5/05/2010 2:05 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

On the other hand, I'm wondering if any discussion of farmers' income trends need to include long-term trends in net worth -- i.e, the debt load that farmers are carrying as a result of the disastrous farm economy of the 1990s? Even a farmer with several profitable years in a row can still be completely upside down on their loans with no hope of ever paying them off.

5/05/2010 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my town (Lexington, MA) one of our last family-owned farms has gone out of business. Lucky for us, they sold the farm to the town. Now, the selectmen are debating whether the land will be turned into a community farm, more soccer fields, or affordable housing. Needless to say, I advocate keeping the land as a farm. It breaks my heart just to think it could all go away.... and I'm a soccer mom. Great, informative post .. though really disappointing to know how some senators spend their time.

5/05/2010 8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, conventionally raised vegetable growers do not receive commodity payments. Still, the Senators sniping about Know your Food, Know your Farmer is pretty unproductive. Small farms near metro areas can get the premiums needed to survive and preserve farmland in areas threatened by suburban sprawl. Plus the small farms can produce artisan varities not suitable for mass production and transportation. Getting people into eating fresh food (which is mostly fruits and vegetables) is good public health policy too.

5/07/2010 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Wyatt said...

I am a student studying Agribusiness(production agriculture)and have grown up raising beef cattle. I also have been to one of the "know your Farmer" conferences. I must say that I learned a great deal about Organic and Hobby farming. I can see it as a very viable subset of agriculture and by subset I mean marketing to those urban Farmer's Markets. That's great, good for those producers. They have found a way to supplement their income or provide their total income from that type of farming. I was also appalled at this conference. It was like a rally against anything not organic or grass fed. That is ridiculous. Conventional agriculture has not tried to squeeze out Organic farming. The Agriculture industry sees that it has its own niche. BUT to have a government program that leads rally's against conventional agriculture is ridiculous.

7/27/2010 1:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As was reported today by Keith Good in his online Farm Policy report, Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia, Ranking Minority member of the Senate.

Tyrone Hayes

10/06/2010 3:59 AM  

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