Thursday, August 27, 2009

Merrigan memo on programs that support regional food systems

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan sent out a memo to all of her staff as well as other interested parties regarding three rural development programs that she thinks can be better utilized in the development of local and regional food systems. She states that she would "like to play the role of match-maker during this Administration" by helping USDA program administrators better understand how programs can serve their efforts.

The memo focused on three particular programs, each beginning with an inspirational theme that encourages groups to "imagine" the possibilities:

Community Facilities Program
(CF) - Imagine USDA funds being used to build a community kitchen, to build an open-sided structure for a farmers market, or to construct a cold storage facility to help schools retrofit the cafeteria to buy produce directly from farmers. CF supports the success of rural communities by providing loans and grants for the construction, acquisition, or renovation of community facilities or for the purchase of equipment for community projects.

Businesss and Industry (B&I) Guarentee Loan Program- Imagine USDA funds being used to aggregate local farm products to better serve institutions, to fund a mobile slaughterhouse to support local free-range poultry growers, or to help food processors add equipment and storage to handle organic certification. The B&I program helps new and existing businesses in rural areas to gain access to affordable capital with favorable interests rates and terms.

Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) - Imagine USDA funds being used to conduct a feasibility study of providing local food in schools, to help farmers with direct marketing of pasture-raised meat in restaurants, or to help farmers with marketing sustainably grown or raised food. The VAPG grants provide funding to agricultural producers who add value to their raw products through processing or marketing, thereby increasing farm income.

The memo runs through eligibility guidelines, grant amounts and terms, program priorities and information on how to apply, all which can be found on the USDA website.

1 comment:

The Almond Doctor said...

I haven't had the chance to review comments made by Merrigan regarding this program. In thought, it all seems like a potentially good idea. Once it becomes policy, however, it will become complicated.

From my perspective, more money will be spent on administration than in monies that will benefit the farm. Have you ever tried to fill out the paperwork to be eligible for USDA monies? Its something that most growers do not have the patience to do. Secondly, knowing how these programs work they will benefit the people that change to the system during the period that the monies are offered. So the early innovators are left with their bill and then lose their competitive edge.

If the USDA wants to help growers, they need to fund research and extension. Put more monies into the Smith and Lever act. Valuable, practical research is the primary objective of the extension service and it is what has kept America as the number one food producer in the world. Research will be the only thing that will maintain that status.

California has only 250 extension agents left that covers areas of youth development, agriculture, nutrition, forestry, land use, and urban horticulture. This is a mere skeleton of what use to be the greatest state extension program. Texas, Florida, Arizona, and the rest of the state's programs are all facing the same fate. Some states even attempted to zero out their extension service this past year!

You may ask what does extension do that can provide the biggest bang for the buck? Variety trials, research in the proper use (and usually reduction) of pesticides, determining which rootstocks work on a regional level, how much fertilizer to use to properly and safely grow a crop, how much water is needed to irrigate...then they take this information and educate the growers. What other program does this?

You may ask: how does this save growers money? Here is an example from my personal program: information I sat down and discussed with a grower saved him $85,000 dollars this past year on his fertilizer bill - and that is not including the reduction of environmental contamination from product overuse. That is more than twice my annual salary!

The current USDA climate enjoys giving farmers a "fish" to help them out, but really growers need to learn how to "fish" in order to sustain, conserve the environment, and survive through the ups and downs of the agricultural economy. Farmers will admit it, why doesn't the USDA?