With questions from some whether the booming local food movement needs federal help, advocates of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act made their case for more attention at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing.

Local food supporters make pitch for more supportRobert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, said he believes local food provisions will be a part of the farm bill. How big of an element is the question, he said.

“(Local food) is proliferating in the marketplace ... Does the government need to be coming in and giving further incentives what the market place is actively engaged in?” Guenther said.

Ron McCormick, senior director for sustainable agriculture for Wal-Mart U.S., said to the committee that 40% of the retailer’s customers say that buying local produce matters to them. Currently, McCormick said 11% of Wal-Mart’s produce is locally sourced.

“Sourcing locally allow us to deliver a fresher product to our customers,” he said during the March 7 hearing.

Guenther said he’s not sure how much more federal support is required, noting he believes the Senate Agriculture Committee may move fairly quickly on farm bill deliberations, perhaps moving legislation out of committee by mid-April.

During the hearing, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the need for multiple programs to address local food, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C.

“The Secretary did a good job of explaining that it is not that there are 27 programs for that purpose, it is that there is a wide variety of programs for farm credit, conservation or rural development that can serve the local farm and food system,” he said.

Some of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will likely be included in the Senate Agriculture Committee markup of the farm bill, he said. How soon the House will act on the farm bill and what it does with the local food provisions, Hoefner said.

Hoefner said just because the marketplace is embracing local food, that doesn’t mean the USDA shouldn’t be involved in supporting local food systems.

“Prices are very good for corn and wheat, but that doesn’t stop us from spending $15 billion a year on commodity and crop insurance programs,” he said. “Compared to that, this is an asterisk on the budget table.”

Hoefner said the question should be how strategic government investment could get past market failures.

“How do you put back the aggregation and processing points that have eroded severely for decades if you are going to meet this new consumer demand?” he said.

With a projected cost of about $600 million over five years above the current baseline spending in the farm bill, Hoefner said the Senate legislation is designed to fit into the next the 2012 farm bill.

“It is certainly less than half of 1% of the total spending for farmers.”

Hoefner said the legislation seeks to bring technology that would give farmers markets the ability to accept electronic benefits from participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (food stamp) program.

The Local Farms and Food Act would authorize the USDA’s Risk Management Association to develop a whole farm revenue insurance product for diversified operations, including specialty crops operations.

Guenther said United Fresh is looking at the issue of crop insurance and what products may need to be changed or added to the mix.

“We don’t want to have Congress writing legislation that would encourage the proliferation of products that may be market-distorting,” Guenther said. “That’s one of our biggest concerns right now.”