The Obama administration’s campaign to foster a sense of connection with the public to all things agriculture continues.
The most high-profile example is the first lady as a grower, with the “People’s Garden” on the White House lawn, followed by the White House Farmers Market.
U.S. Department of Agriculture releases are peppered with references to locally grown, community-supported agriculture projects designed to deliver fresh, healthy foods to families.
Before the USDA started its emphasis in May with the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, retailers across the nation saw a need to market their companies as a friend of the grower, telling the story of who grew the produce on display and promoting local/regional produce in the summer.
Some commodity groups joined in, notably the California Avocado Commission’s “Hand Grown in California” program.
But the USDA is reaching for a connection that’s really not there.
Take for example the recent announcement from the department about $49 million in grants awarded through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program.
These grants go to universities, state agriculture departments and trade associations and pay for countless marketing and research programs.
Examples from this year’s go-around include $500,000 to the Western Pistachio Association for marketing in the wake of plummeting sales hurt by salmonella-related recalls, and $382,000 for the Indiana State Department of Agriculture to increase the production of specialty crops.
When The Packer reported on the grants, we followed USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s lead when she tied the grants to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.
That’s not the whole story, however, but Presto! That’s the message conveyed.
While some of the grants specifically boost local food production and marketing, the original program’s intent was more about giving domestic producers a better footing against imports — and not, for instance, give Ohio small-scale growers an edge over California or Florida product.
The grant program, included in the 2008 farm bill, came after more than 100 members of the industry formed the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and worked with legislators for several years.
Local-grown programs were not an issue.
Another example, a colleague at a Vance Publishing sister publication tells me, was in USDA’s announcement on proposed regulations allowing small poultry and meat producers to ship product in interstate commerce.
Although those changes had been debated by the industry for years — Alakazam! — they are now a component of the Know Your Farmer program, according to a USDA release.
The Know Your Farmer program “emphasizes the need for a fundamental and critical reconnection between producers and consumers,” according to the USDA.
Whether you agree with that need, co-opting initiatives by magically slapping the Know Your Farmer label on doesn’t serve the needs of the entire industry.
Chris Koger is News Editor for The Packer, a Drovers sister publication.