February 23, 2016
Commodification is on the rise in many sectors of the American economy, but lately many consumers have been bucking that trend when it comes to their food. Increasingly Americans are interested in food that is not only good for them, but also in food that is grown sustainably, by local and regional farmer and ranchers. Thanks to the efforts of local and regional farmers and ranchers, good food advocates, and Secretary Tom Vilsack and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), sustainable agriculture is experiencing a nationwide surge via growth in local and regional food systems. That growth in turn is linked, in part, to the interests of young and beginning farmers.
This agricultural sea change was recently the subject of a two-day summit, hosted by the USDA and the White House Rural Council on February 17-18. The summit, aptly titled, “Tomorrow’s Table”, celebrated the nation’s renewed interest in local and regional food and discussed what the government could do to support local and regional food farmers, ranchers and businesses going forward, including new and beginning farmers and organic agriculture.
Over the course of two days the event hosted roundtables with key USDA administrators, farmers, entrepreneurs, and advocates, who discussed positive programs and policies already in place as well as ways to scale up local and regional food systems for the next generation. Particular emphasis was placed on building up innovative supply chains from farm to table. Among the many speakers were John Bobbe (Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing), Cornelius Blanding (Federation of Southern Cooperatives), Linda Mallers (Farm Logix), Beth Forster (Blue Apron), Kathleen Harris (Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company), and Karl Kupers (Shepherd’s Grain).
Secretary Vilsack, President Obama’s sole remaining original cabinet member and fifth longest-serving Agriculture Secretary in history, gave welcoming remarks on day two of the summit. Vilsack emphasized how far the development of local and regional food systems had come during his time as Secretary. Before become President Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, Vilsack had a long political career in a major agricultural state–Iowa. As the former Governor of Iowa, Secretary Vilsack started one of the nation’s first food policy councils (diverse coalitions that study a local food system and develop recommendations for policy change). Today, there are over 212 such councils in the U.S. and a majority of them are run at the municipal or local level.
Once in office, Secretary Vilsack and former Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan helped accelerate positive changes for sustainable agriculture and regional food systems through the innovative Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. Over the course of time the initiative has been in place there has been a huge spike in the number of farmers’ markets (67 percent growth since 2008) and similar growth in the number of regional food hubs, which increased by 68 percent since 2006-2007.
Many of the USDA programs that undergird the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative were originally developed and championed by NSAC as part of farm legislation over the years. Examples include the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value Added Producer Grant Program, Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loan Program, and a host of beginning farmer programs and policies, including the recently expanded Microloan program. Together these programs have helped to make the local and regional food sector become one of the fastest growing sectors of the agriculture economy– today local and regional food sales are estimated to be at least $12 billion annually.
Excitement around the growth of the local food economy was palpable at the Tomorrow’s Table conference. Many discussions at the event focused on the potential that increasing private investments represent as a strong complement to existing government and NGO funding. Some estimates predict that this partnership between private and public investment will be able to catapult the local and regional food economy to $20 billion in annual sales by 2019.
While NSAC is optimistic over the potential growth that combined public/private investments can create, continued growth is not a foregone conclusion. With a new presidential administration on the horizon, it is critical that farmers, good food advocates, and NGOs are united in their support for the advances made during Vilsack’s leadership of the USDA. There is still much more work to be done. We at NSAC will work closely with the new administration and fight for the continued advancement of sustainable agriculture; particularly for policies to advance the beginning farmer, organic agriculture, and local and regional food system issues, which were the particular focus of the “Tomorrow’s Table” conference.