A recently launched U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative subsidizes hobbyists and urban “locavore” markets at the expense of the rural communities the program was designed to support, three Republican Senators said.

Senators question aim of USDA's Know Your Farmer effort

Funds from the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program don’t appear to be “geared toward conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply,” Sens. Saxby Chambliss, John McCain and Pat Roberts said in an April 27 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Instead, program funds are “aimed at small hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets,” the senators wrote.

The senators, citing an Aug. 26 memo from USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, said ag officials were encouraged to “re-imagine” rural health care and public safety efforts as grant money for community cooking classes or refrigeration units in urban areas.

“Rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs,” the senators said in the letter.

The senators requested an itemized breakdown of all Know Your Farmer award announcements, including a description of the award amount and the recipient.

Senators question aim of USDA's Know Your Farmer effort


Vilsack, in an April 30 letter to Sen. McCain, said Know Your Farmer “does not have any budgetary or programmatic authority.”

“Rather, it is a communications mechanism to further enable our existing programs to better meet their goals and serve constituents,” Vilsack said, according to a copy of the letter.

Regional and direct-to-consumer markets have grown rapidly in recent years and offer opportunities to boost farm income, Vilsack said.

“Cultivating these new markets – not replacing old ones – is critical to revitalizing rural America,” he said.

Know Your Farmer, started in September, is a “USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers,” according to the program’s Web site.

In September, the USDA awarded 86 Know Your Farmer grants totaling more than $4.5 million to “expand and promote farmers markets and other direct producer-to-consumer marketing opportunities,” according to a USDA statement.