USDA's Focus on the Farm(er)

It's fall.  Perfect for apple picking and pumpkin patches.  Time to reconnect with our local farms that open their doors for these fun weekend activities.  Perhaps this reminder of our local farms coincides intentionally with last week's USDA announcement to devote nearly $35 million to supporting local and regional food systems.

Each of the four grants established through this announcement is intended to target a distinct part of the growing market for local foods, spur the local economy and give consumers broader access to local, healthy affordable food.  Two USDA agencies - the Ag Marketing Service (AMS) and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) - are responsible for administering these grants which are made possible as a result of the 2014 farm bill.

AMS Grants (from USDA's news release):

$13.3 million in Farmers Market Promotion Program grants to 164 marketing and promotion projects involved with farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and other direct-to-consumer outlets for local food. Since 2009, this program has funded 902 projects totaling over $59.2 million to support direct marketing efforts for local food.

$11.9 million in Local Food Promotion Program grants to 160 marketing and promotion projects for intermediary local food enterprises such as food hubs, aggregation businesses, local food processors, and farm-to-institution activities. This program, begun in 2014, has funded 351 projects totaling $24.6 million to support local/regional supply chain activities including processing, aggregating, storing or distributing local and regional food.

$1 million in matching-grant funds through the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. These funds are awarded through State departments of agriculture and other agencies, as well as State colleges and universities. The matching funds will support 15 research projects to find solutions to challenges and opportunities in marketing, transporting, and distributing U.S. agricultural products domestically and internationally. Since 2009, this program has funded 142 projects totaling $8.6 million to explore new market opportunities for U.S. food and agricultural products.

FNS Grants (also from USDA's news release):

$8.1 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Farmers Market Support Grants for projects in 23 states to enhance the effectiveness of SNAP operations at farmers markets. The new funds support broad SNAP-related activities and costs, including staff training and technical assistance, creating educational materials, and raising awareness among current SNAP participants that their benefits may be used to purchase the healthy, fresh foods at these outlets. From 2009 to 2014, SNAP redemptions at farmers markets have grown by 350 percent. A description of the projects funded is available on the FNS website.

Farmers markets have grown significantly under Secretary Vilsack - now over 8,500, up from around 5,000 in 2009.  Yet these grants seem to be coming at the right time; as NPR's The Salt reported earlier this year, sales of local food at U.S. farmers' markets are actually slowing. This could be for any number of reasons, from hitting a plateau in consumer demand to slim profit margins for the farmer, among a host of other possibilities. 

As farm to table has become common lingo for more than just high-end restaurants, USDA's announcement might help keep this drumbeat going a bit longer.  Keep an eye out for what types of provisions support the rural economy and local ag in the next farm bill, up for renewal in 2019.