Know your farmer will fade but Wal-Mart holds key to local food

03/08/2012 10:11:00 AM
Tom Karst

National Editor Tom KarstDoes the local food movement have staying power? Probably so, if Wal-Mart wants it to.

Will the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture be around in a couple of years if President Obama is defeated in November? Not likely.

I put the same question to the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, and their responses generally mirrored mine, with about 80% predicting the program’s demise if President Obama is defeated in November. 

One member of the group concluded he doesn’t see how the Know Your Farmer fits into the mix of federal programs. Calling it a faddish government program, he said “the issue of KYF is an inherently local one and it seems state programs are much more appropriate to handle the sort of work that KYF is trying to cover.”

Another member defended the initiative and observed the Know Your Farmer initiative coordinates efforts between agencies but costs little money on its own.

Yet another commenter aptly said the real question should be whether “Know your Farmer” program would survive if Kathleen Merrigan leaves USDA.

Indeed, the USDA’s enthusiasm for local food issues appears to be driven by USDA deputy secretary Merrigan, the one-time organic and alternative agriculture activist.

If Merrigan leaves the Administration or if the GOP wins the White House, the Know Your Farmer initiative and internal agency efforts will lose steam.

In about three years or so, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative will be looked back on as a short-lived exercise in food system engineering by progressive-minded political appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

An example of Republican thinking on the issue is found in Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Robert questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a March 7 committee hearing whether 27 programs involved with the “Know your Farmer” initiative are necessary for one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture.

Roberts pointed out that every U.S. agricultural product sold, whether it winds up in China or Chicago, has a local impact.

“Sometimes purchasing a tomato grown in Southeast Kansas at a local farmers market on a hot summer day makes the most sense and sometimes purchasing a tomato grown in Florida at the local grocery store during the cold winter months makes the most sense,” Roberts said in an opening statement. “Regardless of the season, consumers continue to demand more local products, and many business and markets are meeting producer demand without the need for taxpayer support.”

Noting that local food is about 2% of the agricultural economy, Roberts asked Vilsack, “Shouldn’t we streamline and focus on programs that give the most bang for the taxpayer buck?”

And pointing to the troublesome issue of defining what exactly “local” means, Roberts asked Vilsack if the USDA would like to define “local” for the purposes of government programs.

Um, no thanks, Vilsack said. He said the agency is struggling to define “rural” as it is, with 11 different definitions offered so far.

Given shifting political winds that come with a change in administrations, the “Know Your Farmer” initiative at USDA may be transitory. Still, the program will have a lasting legacy.

The initiative has opened the door to greater use of local food in school foodservice. There is expanding acceptance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at farmers markets; the agency reports a 50% increase just last year in the number of farmer markets accepting SNAP benefits.

In his prepared remarks, Vilsack said direct consumer sales of agriculture products doubled in the past decade to reach close to $5 billion in 2008.

“More than ever, consumers are interested in where their food comes from and are seeking out a connection to the men and women who put food on our tables,” he said.

Vilsack said traditional wholesale markets may be recast as facilities that provide that space and infrastructure to help local food producers meet surging demand.

As if to back up Vilsack’s remarks, Ron McCormick, senior director of sustainable agriculture for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the company’s own insights research shows better than 40% of the chain’s customers say that buying locally sourced produce matters to them.

With the chain sourcing local produce from 41 states, McCormick said that nearly 11% of all of Wal-Mart's produce is now locally sourced. Local produce helps save customers money by reducing transportation costs, he said.

Looking ahead, McCormick said Wal-Mart wants to expand sourcing from controlled environments to insulate the company for volatile prices caused by big swings in weather. McCormick also said Wal-Mart is keen to source from growers who use micro-climate expansion to allow for a longer locally grown season. The chain is also looking for growers close to urban centers such as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is window dressing to the local food movement. The most influential players are not farmers markets or school foodservice directors, either. The real movers and shakers are folks like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Wegmans. And they don’t need government help to make it work.



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Rick VanVranken    
Mays Landing, NJ  |  March, 08, 2012 at 02:33 PM

"...expanding acceptance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at farmers markets; the agency reports a 50% increase just last year in the number of farmer markets accepting SNAP benefits." Easy to explain... the USDA Value Added and/or Farmers Market Promotion Programs priority funding including installation of remote card readers to be able to accept SNAP payments at Farmers' Markets.

LocallyGrownNews.com    
Greensboro, NC  |  March, 08, 2012 at 06:36 PM

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program may be a politically volatile program, but its effects as an education and awareness tool cannot be underestimated. Thousands of school children are aware of the campaign and are demanding better food choices from their parents. In addition, the developmental programs for food hubs have made local food an economic engine for regions and a way to eek out better efficiencies out of area food systems. Whether the program survives Merrigan or Vilsack is not the issue. The seed planted by Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a stronger local food system that is NOT dependent on the Wal-Marts, Krogers and Wegmans of the world. Michelle Ferrier, Ph.D. Founder and Publisher, LocallyGrownNews.com

Sharon Yeago    
High Springs, Florida  |  March, 08, 2012 at 08:41 PM

KYF2 is a web-based initiative that helps citizens access, in an easy to navigate way, the myriad of programs for and about farming that the USDA provides. It's marketing simple and plainly to help folks navigate programs of the USDA that can help them. It is a marketing tool used by the USDA to communicate with the general population. To insinuate that it is anything more is simply not the truth. The trend of consumers wanting to know their farmer is good. It's healthy; it's good for everyone in our food system; it's good for our health care system. We're returning to our grandparents way of life... growing and eating our food and living long healthy lives.

Mike Krajovic    
Uniontown, PA  |  March, 09, 2012 at 11:46 AM

While no one can accurately predict the future, Mr. Karst ignores the obvious fact that the buy fresh, buy local movement is being lead by disgruntely consumers. While I am sure that Mr. Karst and the large packagers and distributors that he represents would wish this consumer trend will go away, I believe it will not. That is why he is attacking USDA'a and Ms Kerrigan to try to kill the program as soon as possible. Local producers have been under attack by large corporate farm interersts for decades, squeezing their margins as much as possible to channel more profits to middle men, processors and retailers like Walmart. But the local market is one of the few places where a true free market exists, where Mr. Karst and his supporters cannot monopolize. If they really want to go at reducing government costs, eliminate direct farm payments and other commodity subsidies so that the local farmer can compete in a true open and free market. When it comes to freshness, nutrition, taste, safety and an equal playing field for pricing, Mr. Karst and his large corporate backers would have a lot to worry about. Each year, more and more consumers know the difference. No wonder he is trying to dismiss it as a fad, and kill any government support to encourage its continued growth..

Tom K    
Lenexa  |  March, 09, 2012 at 01:13 PM

As the largest retailer in the country, what Wal-Mart aims to accomplish with local sourcing of produce will have a huge impact on the local food movement, perhaps even more than the beloved farmers markets. An open question; will Wal-Mart's embrace kill the movement? Tom K

Adam Sheridan    
Bowersville, GA  |  March, 10, 2012 at 10:36 AM

Tom, As local/regional grows beyond its staunch supporters (Whole Foods, et al), I think the support of players such as Walmart is helpful to a point, but only because it brings visibility to the effort. I am seeing much more support from regional players such as (in my area) Ingles and The Fresh Market. This is the type of support which I believe will actually do more to move local/regional produce into the mainstream market..

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