To Market! To Market! USDA Offers $5 Million in Grants to the Smallest of the Small Farmers

No pork here

No pork here

The 2008 farm bill contains $35 billion in pork earmarked as subsidies to the huge agribusinesses that produce the bulk of our corn, wheat, and soybeans. In comparison, the $5 million (million, not billion) in grants the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made available this week for the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program seems like chicken feed.

Nonetheless, advocates for small producers are cheering. “Even though it’s not a lot of money, it can be important,” said Kate Fitzgerald, a senior policy associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is based in Washington, D. C.

Fitzgerald said that there are some important changes to the four-year-old program in 2010 specifically aimed at the most vulnerable and most needy of small farmers—those just starting out. The funding will emphasize helping them get their food to customers. “There’s not only a need for new farmers, but that there’s active interest out there so this is a smart investment,” she said.

The money will also be directed to lower income, underserved rural areas. “That reflects a growing understanding and concern that access to food is equally difficult and perhaps even more difficult in rural  food deserts than it is in urban areas,” she said.

Fitzgerald sees the influence of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity in the new directions at the USDA. “They’ve tweaked the program to do things that support the administration’s emphasis on building food systems by supporting farmers markets in all kinds of communities,” she said. “What’s sold at a farmers’ market is going to be nutritious. It’s going to be fresh. It’s much less processed. If a community has access to a farmer’s market, what people are buying is likely to be healthful and nutritious.”

When asked about the program’s paltry budget, Fitzgerald said, “In the communities that they are targeting, it doesn’t take a ton of money to make a significant difference. Something as simple as getting a farmers’ market the machinery needed to accept what used to be called food stamps and is now called SNAP (Sustainable Nutrition Assistance Program) costs a few thousand dollars but can open up hundreds of thousands of dollars in those communities for farmers.

“It’s an excellent program and it’s very, very, well run,” she said.

When was the last time you heard an NGO activist (or anyone) say something like that about a government effort?

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  1. Debra Tropp says:

    Re: your last paragraph, I don’t know–in the circles I travel in at USDA, we hear nice things from NGOs pretty darn often! Those that are in the know, like Kate Fitzgerald at NSAC, are well aware of the important work carried out by many of us USDA career employees (often in partnership with these NGOs) to support the development of viable local food systems. And the cross-cutting initiatives and bridging of organizational silos that have been encouraged under the current leadership at USDA have already wrought significant positive changes in a very short amount of time under severe resource constraints.

  2. Holly says:

    There’s a pathetic difference between $5 million and $35 billion, and I almost hate to say it, but it’s better than nothing, especially considering the strength of government lobbying and the interests that lie in promoting animal products rather than vegetables and fruits. I can only hope that $5 million will grow in the future.

    It’s clear that education, promotion, and marketing of farmers markets and CSA projects need to be expanded and unfortunately it’s something they’ll have to take on without much government assistance.

    It would be interesting to put together a simple marketing plan (including online and offline initiatives) that could be adapted to each farmer’s market or CSA program, including the tools they need (website, etc.) and what kind of participation they need to solicit (on a volunteer basis, of course) from their community. If a handful of people worked together in each neighborhood, this could be easily accomplished.

    And then they wouldn’t have to hold their breath waiting for government assistance. $5 million doesn’t go far.

  3. Tracee says:

    I’m not one to cheer for any type of subsidy, so this is rare for me. I live in a small, poor rural area. I also have two atuoimmune diseases and a son recovering from autism. I think the industrial food chain has done it’s part in both of these issues. I’m all for eliminating the big susidies but we need to get the local farming communities strong again. Quality food makes for stronger immune systems and economics.

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