On April 2, Congressman Collin Peterson sponsored the Homegrown Economy conference in Morris, Minn. More than 300 people attended from across the region. Speakers and panelists, including several Land Stewardship Project members, gave powerful testimonials and presentations on how the growing interest in local, sustainably produced food provides economic opportunity for farms and rural communities.
Peterson, who is Chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, has set the bar high in advocating for community based food systems that can bring good food to the tables of western Minnesota, homegrown economic development to our towns and the strength of diversity to our agricultural landscape and economy. His sponsorship of this conference amplifies the message and will greatly aid the good community based food system work being done across Minnesota and the nation. The standard he’s set should serve as a clear call to all our elected representatives, especially Senators Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman, who serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee and are also involved in writing a new Farm Bill this year.
Local food sales are growing across the United States as consumer interest in connecting with farms and farmers through food increases. Community based food systems require new food supply chains. Often these chains are very short, as in the case of direct farm-to-consumer sales. Increasingly, however, as locally grown food is distributed through restaurants, grocers and institutions, the supply chains stretch to include local entrepreneurs who aggregate, process and distribute the food. But whatever the length of the chain, the relationships, all the way from farmer to consumer, are local and are based on articulated, shared values that uphold a healthy agricultural landscape and a robust rural economy. It is said that in this movement we want “food with the farmer’s face on it,” a theme that must be carried across all sectors of the community based food system.
As farmers develop new value-adding food and agricultural enterprises, supply chain issues increasingly come to the fore. Processing and distribution challenges are particularly pressing for the disappearing middle of this nation’s farm and food system. But smart new federal policy written into the 2007 Farm Bill now being debated in Congress can help rural communities and family farmers effectively meet these challenges and take part in the opportunities that are emerging. Agriculture subcommittees are holding hearings now and a completed Farm Bill is expected in the fall.
For example, the Value Added Producer Grant fund, first established by Congress in 2000, is a competitive grant program for farmers and farmer-con- trolled entities to improve profitability by developing value added businesses. It endured major funding cuts by the Bush Administration and the last Congress. Funding should be restored to at least $60 million per year, with a priority for the development of food value chains that help small and mid-sized farms thrive by marketing high value, differentiated products in partnership with local processors, distributors and suppliers. These partnerships are critical to creating community based food system economies within area institutions such as schools, especially in northern climates.
The federal Farm to School Cafeteria program enables schools to offer nutritious choices by providing fresh, locally grown food. It was authorized in the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. But it has yet to receive any funding. This program can support community based food system economies while helping children develop good, lifelong nutrition habits, and it should be funded at $5 million in 2008.
In addition, farm policy that actually assists beginning farmers and ranchers who want to produce for local and regional food systems should also be included in the new Farm Bill. Rep. Peterson supports this as well, and other members of the Ag Committee in the House, including U.S. Representatives Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Tim Walz in southern Minnesota, took leadership this spring and introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. That’s good news, and good policy.
“There’s big opportunity for us in local foods,” said Congressman Peterson on April 2. “More money will go to farmers producing for local markets because they’re further up the supply chain. It’s a huge opportunity for us to change the landscape and the way things are orga- nized in agriculture, not only in Minnesota but across the country.” There are opportunities. There are obstacles. And, there are public policy solutions.
Terry VanDerPol, Director of LSP’s Community Based Food Systems and Economic Development program, farms near the western Minnesota community of Granite Falls, Minn. She can be reached at 320-269-2105 or tlvdp@land stewardshipproject.org.