Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food: Our response to Sen. McCain’s criticisms

On April 27 three senators sent a letter (PDF) to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In the letter they accuse the Department’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program as being elitist by “subsidizing the so-called locavore niche market.” Whatever that is! These wise men are concerned that the money being spent to reconnect farmers with consumers does not help the “conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply.” Then they really go after those of us who have decided that we want to support our small local farms and help the environment and preserve our health by calling the farmers “small, hobbyist and organic producers” whose customers are “affluent patrons at urban farmers’ markets.”

They seem to think that the farmers who supply markets across this country in small towns and big cities and sprawling suburbs are actually growing their produce on urban plots, in their backyards or in greenhouses on their roofs. Since the average farm in Virginia is about 40 acres, it is fair to assume that their farms are smaller than the vast corporate farms that seem to turn out E. coli-laden fruits and veggies with some regularity. But the real concern of these senators is that the grant and loan money made available under the program for the small farmers who sell at markets (most of which of course are not in urban areas — at least half of Virginia’s markets are in rural communities and small towns) is diverting money from the farmers who are hurting in today’s economy — like those farming for ConAgra, for example. And they may be hurting, but it is because their corporate masters are squeezing them as dry as a sun-dried tomato.

The irony here, of course, is that they somehow have managed to connect the small family farm to an elitist market system, when in fact the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is designed to promote and support those small family farms that continue to disappear into ConAgra’s giant reaper. I am betting that none of the signees has ever been to a farmers’ market, ever met a small farmer who sells at farmers’ markets or has ever spent time with the kinds of people who really shop at markets — those very people who, no matter their income, have decided it is worth it to spend their own hard-earned money on real food with real flavor that was grown by real farmers who plant seed by hand and harvest the same way. How elitist is that?

Sometimes those of us who love our farmers need to speak up on their behalf. They are not going to be marching on Washington themselves anytime soon; they are too busy trying to save their farms. I would very much like to hear from more of you with your own comments. We will collect them and send them to Secretary Vilsack and to our own Virginia senators.