John McCain Takes on Locavores and the Know Your Farmer Program

Video: Secretary of Agriculture introducing Know You Farmer program.

The Agricultural Law blog has a post up about some political wrangling around the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program.

Agricultural Law Blog reports;

...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.

Go over to the site and read a much more educated and detailed analysis of the situation than I could ever offer. The part that sticks out to me is the use of the phrase, "urban locavore markets." The word "locavore" has gone from foodie trend to political football. I think this is a good thing. While they are trying to downplay the local and organic food market, the fact that it's worth putting in a letter means it is a large enough cultural and economic force to threaten some entrenched political interests.

I'm sure the farmers who make a living at farmers' markets like the one I manage in Millwood would be surprised to hear that they are merely hobbyists, and that organic producers would get lumped in with them. (Yes, there are some hobbyists at the markets, but there are also hobbyist wheat farmers with 500 acres who are supported by federal programs.) And I'm sure all of the WIC and EBT customers at the farmers' markets would be surprised to find themselves called "affluent patrons."

The bigger picture here is that the 2010 Farm Bill is in the works. There should be a lot of interesting debate in the coming months, and while this letter is from Republicans, the debates in Congress about food tend to disrupt the normal polarities of the political divide. I just signed up to follow FarmPolicy.com on Twitter to help keep tabs.