It’s great that federal funding is supporting rural economic development, because small producers and growers could sure use the help. But can’t there be a level playing field?

Talk about misplaced priorities.

The two New York senators, Democrats Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand announced earlier this week the allotment of $255,723 in federal funding for ag-related projects in their state.

“Ensuring that agriculture is able to flourish — and the unique needs of New York agriculture are considered in federal programs — has always been a top priority of mine,” Schumer stated in a joint news release.

“We need our farmers to thrive if we’re going to have a strong and growing economy in New York,” said Gillibrand.

Let’s clarify that statement for the record. Although their gushing news release made it seem as if the two senators were graciously handing out a big pile of dough to a couple local businesses, neither senator had anything to do with awarding the funding. That decision — including the amount of the award — was made by outside reviewers who evaluated the hundreds of submissions to USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which is housed in the department’s Rural Development division.

Yet convention allows for Members of Congress to issue splashy announcements written in a way that allows the legislator to take credit for the award. A small matter, perhaps, but it’s another unseemly side of politics: Trying to convince constituents that their congressional representatives are fighting for the small businesses in their state.

Perhaps I shouldn’t quibble, but that’s just not the way it works.

More to the point, these grants are designed to help agricultural producers develop value-added activities, such as further processing, new product R&D and expansion of marketing opportunities. According to USDA, producers receive priority if they are beginning farmers or ranchers, operate a small- or medium-sized, family-owned farm or ranch or are planning to enter what’s described as a “mid-tier value chain.”

And if that describes your operation, the competition for these grants opens in May, with submission due in July and awards announced in the fall. The program awards up to $75K for planning and up to $250K for working capital, including equipment purchases needed to launch a value-added product or product line. Check it out here.

The need for a new plant

I don’t blame Schumer and Gillibrand for piggybacking on the announcement of federal funding provided to their state. This USDA program is an important and highly effective investment in agricultural sustainability, one that should be allotted far more than its current funding of some $30 million a year, in my opinion.

But here’s where I have a beef with this particular set of awards.

Two companies are splitting the $255,723 award. Thousand Island Meats received $50,000 for a feasibility study for building a new USDA-inspected beef plant in Jefferson County, which is in the northern part of the state bordering the St. Lawrence River. The area is known locally as the Thousand Islands — hence the company name — and it’s an area that is lightly populated but highly scenic, a locally renowned tourist and vacation destination.

It’s also one of the more productive agricultural counties in New York, with some 90 farms generating more than $150 million in annual sales, 90% of which is livestock. According to USDA’s Agricultural Census, there are an estimated 65,000 head of cattle in the county, which underscores the viability of a processing plant adjacent to all those producers and dairy operators.

Meanwhile, Deluke Lawnscapes, Inc., was awarded $175,723 in working capital to help launch a startup winery to be called Northern Flow Vineyards.

I’m guessing that Northern Flow might not be the brand that eventually appears on the company’s bottles, but why should a winery get triple the funding allotted to a potential meat processing operation likely to generate significantly more in regional economic activity?

I get it that wine-making is far more glamorous than meatpacking, but these grants are supposed to be about driving rural development and economic viability, not funding companies that operate a more cosmetically appealing business.

Thousand Island Meats CEO Stephen Winkler did announce that his company would be acquiring a matching $50,000 in private investment to support its feasibility study.

That is important, because a previous attempt to locate a plant in an industrial park in Watertown, Jefferson County’s largest city, triggered a complaint about potential odor problems by a nearby company, which — and you can’t make this up — manufactures those pine-tree car air fresheners.

Shouldn’t they be the best possible neighbor for a meat plant?

Seriously, though, it’s a sad commentary on our national agricultural priorities when a company marketing an alcoholic beverage that is targeted to an affluent slice of the population gets triple the support of a company helping hundreds of small farmers stay in business providing a dietary staple.

I can’t drink to that inequity.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.