National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

Does the local food movement have staying power? Probably so, if Wal-Mart wants it to.

Will the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture be around in a couple of years if President Obama is defeated in November? Not likely.

I put the same question to the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, and their responses generally mirrored mine, with about 80% predicting the program’s demise if President Obama is defeated in November. 

One member of the group concluded he doesn’t see how the Know Your Farmer fits into the mix of federal programs. Calling it a faddish government program, he said “the issue of KYF is an inherently local one and it seems state programs are much more appropriate to handle the sort of work that KYF is trying to cover.”

Another member defended the initiative and observed the Know Your Farmer initiative coordinates efforts between agencies but costs little money on its own.

Yet another commenter aptly said the real question should be whether “Know your Farmer” program would survive if Kathleen Merrigan leaves USDA.

Indeed, the USDA’s enthusiasm for local food issues appears to be driven by USDA deputy secretary Merrigan, the one-time organic and alternative agriculture activist.

If Merrigan leaves the Administration or if the GOP wins the White House, the Know Your Farmer initiative and internal agency efforts will lose steam.

In about three years or so, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative will be looked back on as a short-lived exercise in food system engineering by progressive-minded political appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

An example of Republican thinking on the issue is found in Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Robert questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a March 7 committee hearing whether 27 programs involved with the “Know your Farmer” initiative are necessary for one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture.

Roberts pointed out that every U.S. agricultural product sold, whether it winds up in China or Chicago, has a local impact.

“Sometimes purchasing a tomato grown in Southeast Kansas at a local farmers market on a hot summer day makes the most sense and sometimes purchasing a tomato grown in Florida at the local grocery store during the cold winter months makes the most sense,” Roberts said in an opening statement. “Regardless of the season, consumers continue to demand more local products, and many business and markets are meeting producer demand without the need for taxpayer support.”

Noting that local food is about 2% of the agricultural economy, Roberts asked Vilsack, “Shouldn’t we streamline and focus on programs that give the most bang for the taxpayer buck?”

And pointing to the troublesome issue of defining what exactly “local” means, Roberts asked Vilsack if the USDA would like to define “local” for the purposes of government programs.

Um, no thanks, Vilsack said. He said the agency is struggling to define “rural” as it is, with 11 different definitions offered so far.

Given shifting political winds that come with a change in administrations, the “Know Your Farmer” initiative at USDA may be transitory. Still, the program will have a lasting legacy.

The initiative has opened the door to greater use of local food in school foodservice. There is expanding acceptance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at farmers markets; the agency reports a 50% increase just last year in the number of farmer markets accepting SNAP benefits.

In his prepared remarks, Vilsack said direct consumer sales of agriculture products doubled in the past decade to reach close to $5 billion in 2008.

“More than ever, consumers are interested in where their food comes from and are seeking out a connection to the men and women who put food on our tables,” he said.

Vilsack said traditional wholesale markets may be recast as facilities that provide that space and infrastructure to help local food producers meet surging demand.

As if to back up Vilsack’s remarks, Ron McCormick, senior director of sustainable agriculture for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the company’s own insights research shows better than 40% of the chain’s customers say that buying locally sourced produce matters to them.

With the chain sourcing local produce from 41 states, McCormick said that nearly 11% of all of Wal-Mart's produce is now locally sourced. Local produce helps save customers money by reducing transportation costs, he said.

Looking ahead, McCormick said Wal-Mart wants to expand sourcing from controlled environments to insulate the company for volatile prices caused by big swings in weather. McCormick also said Wal-Mart is keen to source from growers who use micro-climate expansion to allow for a longer locally grown season. The chain is also looking for growers close to urban centers such as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is window dressing to the local food movement. The most influential players are not farmers markets or school foodservice directors, either. The real movers and shakers are folks like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Wegmans. And they don’t need government help to make it work.