Farmers fight for a website

Virginia Foxx's move to kill 'Know Your Farmer' is raising sand

Washington correspondentJune 16, 2011 

— Longtime farmer Alex Hitt doesn't need a USDA website to help him grow tomatoes, flowers and blueberries at his Alamance County farm.

But loading up his truck with a fresh harvest Wednesday afternoon, Hitt said the site sure helps him sell them.

"What's benefited us most is the consumer side of (the website)," said Hitt, 54, who owns Peregrine Farm with his wife, Betsy. "They can find farmers markets and stores that buy local."

Wednesday afternoon, before driving to set up his booth at the Carrboro Farmers Market, Hitt planned to call two members of Congress to voice his opposition to a short piece of legislation that might kill the little-known website "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food."

One of those members is U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk, who has filed an amendment to the 2012 agriculture spending bill. In fewer than 30 words, the amendment would ban any U.S. Department of Agriculture funding from being spent on the Know Your Farmer website.

Foxx's amendment is one of many being put forward by Republican lawmakers chipping away at agriculture programs in their efforts to cut the federal budget. A vote on her proposal is expected today.

The potential cut to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food project comes just as the local food movement is gaining increased attention in North Carolina and across the country. TheUSDA expects consumer demand for locally grown food in the United States to rise from $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion by 2012.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative focuses on marketing programs approved in the 2008 Farm Bill. It has a website, a blog and a task force that meets every two months. But the initiative has no dedicated staff, budget or office. The agency couldn't tell House members how much money the initiative cost.

And that, Foxx said, is the problem.

"They cannot tell us how much money is being spent on it, and they cannot show any effect from it," Foxx said in an interview. Besides, she said, the initiative isn't a congressionally authorized program and takes money from other programs that are.

Local food advocates disagree.

"They are just misguided and misunderstand the whole point of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative," said Helen Dombalis, policy associate for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, who has been speaking with aides in Foxx's office about the amendment.

"The thing is, the money's there regardless, so it's about using the money more efficiently," said Dombalis, who is from Raleigh.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food was developed in September 2009 as a way to manage a lot of programs, strewn across many USDA agencies, that were oriented toward boosting local food, department spokesman Aaron Lavallee said.

The site includes links to farmers markets, grant opportunities and existingUSDA resources for people who are new to farming and ranching.

Nancy Creamer, who directs the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University, made a presentation to the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food task force last fall about local farm-to-table efforts.

She talked about the state's 10 percent campaign, in which advocates are trying to get governments, businesses and institutions to commit 10 percent of their food budgets to locally grown food.

Yes, but ...

"There's just so much excitement about local and regional food systems," Creamer said Wednesday.

Foxx said she supports locally grown food, but doesn't think the federal government ought to be marketing it. "That is probably something that could be done by the local people or the state people," Foxx said.

"My feeling is, every program in the federal program should be able to prove its worth at any time that any member asks a question," she said. "And if it cannot, then I think the program shouldn't exist."

In Alamance County, Hitt's other congressional call Wednesday was to the office of his own 6th District representative, Republican Howard Coble of Greensboro.

Hitt said that he has used the website to find information about various issues and that he knows other farmers use it as a clearinghouse for USDA information.

"The local food thing is a serious part of what's happening in agriculture today," Hitt said. "The stresses that agriculture has come through in the last 20 years, anything we can do to improve the plight of farmers is a good thing."

Coble's spokesman said late Wednesday that he is inclined to vote with Foxx.

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0012

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