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Published May 17, 2010, 02:34 PM

Senators’ letter critical of ‘Know Your Farmer’ program

WASHINGTON — Reacting to a letter from three key Republican senators to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack questioning USDA’s use of rural development money for its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan May 10 said she would hold briefings on the program on Capitol Hill within the next two weeks.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Reacting to a letter from three key Republican senators to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack questioning USDA’s use of rural development money for its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan May 10 said she would hold briefings on the program on Capitol Hill within the next two weeks.

Speaking at a conference sponsored by Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based foundation that encourages good nutrition, Merrigan also urged organic and local food producers not to add fuel to the fire by mounting a campaign in USDA’s defense.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Pat Roberts of Kansas wrote Vilsack on April 27 that they were concerned that USDA is redirecting money intended for “essential community facilities” to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program, which promotes organic and local farm production.

Merrigan said that in her enthusiasm for promoting the program around the country, “perhaps I neglected spending time on briefing people on the Hill.” She also said that she thinks the senators will find many elements of the program that they like. Merrigan made the statements May 11 in reaction to a question at a conference sponsored by the Wholesome Wave, a foundation that encourages good nutrition and doubles the value of food stamps used at some farmers markets.

‘Opportunity for dialogue’

Jean Hamilton of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont told Merrigan that supporters of the program “want to make sure USDA knows our appreciation for this initiative. My primary concern personally about the letter is the suggestion that there are real farmers and fake farmers, that the letter is targeting lesser producers and that there is a division between rural and urban communities. We are one nation.”

Merrigan told Hamilton, “Please stand down. This is a battle that has created an opportunity for dialogue. This is not a big battle. This is just Washington — this is the way we talk to one another.”

Vilsack also addressed the issue recently, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. After speaking at an anti-poverty conference in the Pittsburgh area, where he grew up, Vilsack said the letter was “really an unfortunate circumstance.” He added that he considered the letter “inappropriate” because “these senators have not taken the time to understand and appreciate our ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ program,” the newspaper reported.

In the letter, the GOP senators said USDA appeared to be helping “small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets” rather than “conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply.” Noting that USDA released $65 million under the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” banner in the past year, they asked for a citation of congressional authority to operate the program, a breakdown of all announcements of spending under it and a briefing, with particular attention to USDA’s Business and Industry Direct and Guaranteed Loan Program.

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