For Farmers, Even Chicken Feed is Good News

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The 2008 farm bill contains $35 billion 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 today 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 added that there are some important changes to the four-year-old program in 2010 specifically aimed at the most vulnerable and 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," she said, "but that there's active interest out there, so this is a smart investment."

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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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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