Thursday, April 15, 2010

A New Partnership?: The USDA and Organic Farms

The USDA is about to change the game for farming in the United States by supporting organic and local farmers. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, the federal government has recently reworking their structure to support small local and organic farms get their food to a larger population and more impoverished areas. According the article, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan wants to toughen up the USDA organic label and “penetrate ‘food deserts’ in poor neighborhoods” with networking initiatives like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.

Food and farming advocates, like Bob Scowcroft from the Santa Cruz Foundation, are happy to see that “food is finally either close to or at the center of the USDA plate.” This shift to support local and organic farming coincides with data that indicates organic food sales have grown “14% to 21% annually over the last decade” but the number of farms is less than 1% of all US agriculture. These new changes to the USDA’s structure could help dramatically increase that number. Despite the optimism there are problems and protests. Big growers are less than thrilled with the changes; it is not the way the USDA has ever worked in their minds. As one Iowa corn/soybean grower puts it “’I've farmed for 37 years and worked with the government and everything - and what I'm hearing out here is radically different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career.’” This grower, Tim Burrack, explains that conventional farmers feel that organic farms conflict with the agricultural tradition. In their minds, traditional production has always produced good food at a great price.

The USDA’s changes are not only causing a stir among big growers but small organic farmers. Many of them feel annoyed about organic license suspensions that are due to run-off from neighbors, which they cannot control. In addition, some food sellers do not think the USDA is being clear enough. Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers in Colorado wants the USDA to rework the definition of natural beef. “Natural beef” is considered any beef that is unaltered after slaughter, but does not include any regulations for standards before slaughter. Currently the USDA is looking for a middle ground but Lewis warns that may just confuse consumers. He explains that the USDA needs to rework its policies so that they are clear for growers, buyers and consumers. Regardless, regulations for food and farming are bound to change now that the USDA has taken in interest in the well-being of both organic and conventional farms.

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