Remarks to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Task Force - April 16, 2013 | USDA
USDA In Facebook USDA In Twitter Google+ USDA Blog USDA In Youtube USDA govdelivery USDA In Flickr USDA RSS
Stay Connected

Remarks to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Task Force - April 16, 2013

When our President was first elected, I contributed to transition papers and we sent in a section on "Buy Fresh, Buy Local." What a thrill to have then been charged with turning our aspirations into reality.

Fast-forward just a bit to May 11, 2009. On that day, I sent a memo to agency heads and mission areas introducing "A USDA initiative for sustainable local and regional food systems." It would be called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a motto coined by Secretary Vilsack. He had challenged me to think creatively about how USDA could best address President Obama's call to reinvigorate local food systems. In my memo, I asked the agencies and mission areas to appoint a representative to a new USDA task force. I asked that they select their representative based on subject matter expertise and enthusiasm, not rank. Our first meeting was May 19th, 2009 - four years ago next month.

Some of you are the original representatives who answered the call. Many of you are not - one of the strengths of KYF2 is that the Task Force is constantly changing. People cycle out, new people take their place. That helps us institutionalize our work, as people take what they learn here and move into new roles. But I know that some of the newer members may not realize just how far we have come since 2009. So I want to paint a picture of that, and then I want to challenge you to take this further.

In one of my favorite books, Thinking in Time, authors Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May encourage the reader to "try to see [your] concerns in historical context, asking what major trends are relevant and what specifics in the past bear on the question of what to do now. [This approach] can illuminate both present conditions and future prospects." So let's talk about where we came from, and where we are, and see where it takes us in our understanding of future prospects.

Intellectual framework for Local and Regional Food Systems

The first picture I'll paint for you is of the evolution of our understanding of local and regional food systems - what they are and why they matter.

Here at USDA, we are used to measuring things like the funds allocated through our programs. But as you all know, we do a lot more than that, and we don't always give ourselves credit for it. Through KYF2, we have actually helped create an intellectual framework - a way for the public to understand what a local or regional food system is and the factors that contribute to it.

Because in 2009, local/regional was just coming of age. There were a lot of ideas, but they were disjointed - there wasn't a shared understanding of the concept. In the early days, much of our time was spent sitting around a table discussing what goes into this system. We looked at the requests we were getting from people out in the countryside - what they wanted to do and where they saw opportunity. We looked at the academic literature. We listened to what was circulating in the business community and among the nonprofits. We looked at what we were already doing at USDA. This is a vantage point that not everyone is lucky enough to have. But we used it, and as we developed an understanding of these systems, and of where the barriers and opportunities are, this helped us map the work that needed to get done.

And what I now understand, with hindsight, is that the framework we developed to organize our work has gone a long way toward helping shape the public's understanding of local and regional food systems. I was struck by this when the Congressional Research Service came out with a report in early 2012 on local foods and its table of contents mirrored our subcommittee structure and the chapters of the Compass narrative, which was released a month later.

That understanding will continue to evolve. Things like waste management and food safety - these things weren't part of our focus at the beginning, but KYF is now starting to work on them. So I want you all to recognize that when we sit around this table, sharing our own insights and listening to others', and when we take our discussions back to the lab or to our grant and loan teams, we are strengthening the intellectual framework that guides the work taking place in the countryside - whether it's funded by us or someone else.

Any new person to the discussion will ask for a definition of "local." It's important that we continue to resist this. The evolution of this concept is why we've been so adamant about not wanting to define it. It is a concept that by its nature must be customized for a particular place and situation. And in those places and situations, you may need a definition - we understand that. When we negotiated the new cafeteria contract, we needed to define local in order to set a procurement goal. We set it at 200 miles from headquarters or from the states of DE, PA, VA, MD, WV, or DC. But that definition doesn't make sense everywhere.

There is a parallel here with the evolution of the organic industry. When the law was first passed, it was hard to find organic around here - I was always jealous when I travelled to California. Now, you can buy organic everything everywhere. While local seems big - and it is quickly growing - it is still an emerging sector. And what's possible today is likely much less than what will be possible tomorrow.

Why local/regional is important

Now, I mentioned that back in 2009, the concept of local/regional was not always well understood. That was perhaps nowhere more the case than in Congress. Here's the response this initiative got from one unnamed member of Congress: "American families and rural farmers are hurting in today's economy, and it's unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs."

We have come through a storm here, and we did it by illustrating how local/regional is important to USDA's broader goals.

Here's an example. We know we need to draw more young people into agriculture. For every farmer under 35, we have six over the age of 65, and the average age of a farmer is nearing 60. At the same time, we have a serious obesity epidemic and a need to expand access to healthy foods. And we're importing more and more fruits and vegetables each year.

I don't think anything can make the case better than this sad fact: Last year, imports made up 44 percent of domestic fruit and nut use and 19 percent of vegetable use. By 2022, USDA's Office of the Chief Economist projects those numbers will jump to 52 percent and 24 percent respectively. The increase in imports is coming largely from crops that could be produced domestically.

We are leaving opportunity on the table here. And while there was some initial anxiety on the part of the national fruit and vegetable firms about the push for local, they now recognize that this is an opportunity for everyone. I think about a story I heard from HEB, a supermarket chain in Texas. They started holding farmers markets in their parking lots, and people were confused, thinking the market would directly compete with the produce section of the grocery store. But in fact, they found the opposite was true - having the farmers market there was a draw and an incentive that got people to buy more fruits and vegetables in the store as well.

USDA is working on many fronts to help Americans increase consumption of fruits and vegetables - from new grocery stores, healthy corner stores and farmers markets to incentive programs for nutrition benefit recipients, to school meal changes, to educational efforts like SNAP-Ed and MyPlate.

Yet we have not always recognized the economic opportunity that these efforts present. As American dietary patterns shift toward healthier foods, we should be asking how to meet this demand with domestic production. How can healthy eating also drive economic growth in our agricultural communities?

In particular, young and beginning farmers have the potential to benefit. Starting out in high-value fruit and vegetable crops can help new farmers get established without the capital outlays necessary for large-scale commodity crop production.

We have an important window of opportunity to marry our progress toward healthier eating with an economic development agenda built around training a new generation of farmers. To be successful, they will need access to research on production systems, capital, credit and risk management tools. They also need marketing opportunities.

And local is not just about fruits and vegetables, as we know. It's grains and pulses. It's dairy. It's meat and poultry. It's value-added products.

Since 2009, we have built empirical evidence to back up what we knew anecdotally: that these opportunities create jobs, and in turn create stronger rural and urban communities. For example, a 2010 ERS study looked at five different products around the country and found that when farmers marketed these products locally, their revenues were anywhere from 50 percent greater to 650 percent greater than revenues for farmers selling the same products into mainstream markets. In all five cases, essentially all of the wage and proprietor income earned in the local marketing channels was retained in the local economy.

Buyers are finding that local foods work for them too. At USDA's recent Agricultural Outlook conference, Wal-Mart gave a luncheon speech and talked about how local is good business. People like to know that they're supporting the local economy when they shop, so local products are a draw. But in some cases, local may also be cheaper for the buyer. Transportation costs may be lower when the products are coming from close by.

We've made the case that this work is critical to USDA's mission. And we've shown that this work is happening in every state, in virtually every congressional district. But major challenges remain. This is where the hard work starts.

The Compass

Recently, I came across a guiding framework document that we developed in early 2010, laying out goals for the initiative. One of them was "leading the national conversation" - developing a communications plan, creating a website and materials, and visiting colleges and universities. I've visited 34 schools in the past four years. And we have all been busy developing the website and, most importantly, the KYF Compass.

The Compass grew out of a recognition that USDA is a huge institution and not easily navigated. It also grew out of a commitment to good governance - we want to be as transparent as possible and to serve our constituents as well as we can. We are seeing so much new interest in local/regional, and a lot of it is coming from people who have never used USDA programs before. So we asked ourselves how we could create an electronic portal into the department.

Creating the Compass was a labor of love for all of us. The subcommittees consolidated our collective knowledge into papers that would become the chapters of the Compass. Field employees provided case studies and photos. Some even made their own videos! Program leads sorted through data for the Compass map and the management team tirelessly wrangled it into spreadsheets. Volunteers from throughout the task force helped with editing and clearance. OCIO and OC turned it into one of the most exciting electronic resources in the federal government today.

We've built the Compass. But to continue to be useful, it needs to evolve. That means moving the Compass PDF to the web where it can truly be a living document. That means developing an app - the Compass map is a great start, but it can be streamlined and made more accessible, and part of that includes going mobile.

That means building relationships with federal partners to populate the map with more of their data. This tool is already helping the federal government do gap analysis and locate synergies between our many programs. It can do so much more.

And maybe in a couple years, it can pull in community voices as well. In the short term, we made all of the data downloadable so that communities could infuse it into their own efforts. In the longer term, we see it coming together in our own map. The federal voice isn't the only one in town - how can the community use this platform to map other resources and investments?

I also encourage you to use the map to track your progress, program by program. What are your goals for your agency or mission area? How do you measure them? Developing appropriate metrics and tracking them has always been a challenge, but it's critical. I hope this Task Force can work together to figure out how to measure and illustrate the great progress I know you will make in the coming years.

But remember that the map is not the sum total of USDA's work on this issue. We made a strategic decision not to include everything - so for example, we might give a REAP grant that allows a local food producer to become more energy efficient, and that might be what ends up making the business viable, but that investment is not currently on the map. Our Farm Service Agency is represented on the map through illustrative stories; we didn't try to account for every dollar that went from FSA to local and regional producers.

There were some subjective decisions here. So even as you harness this incredible tool, remember its limitations. We can't simply add up everything on the map. That misses many of the broader values and goals inherent to this work.

And it misses the idea that small amounts of money can make a big difference. Take our new FSA microloan program - loans of up to $35,000 can help buy, say, a new tractor that can transform a farm. Ellen Malcolm founded EMILY's List based on the idea that "early money is like yeast." We know this. And it's important to see our investments in that context.

The Structure of KYF2

The creation of the Task Force is another story I want to tell.

Looking back at our original guiding framework, we had the goal of breaking down barriers to support local and regional food systems. We envisioned working together on issues like healthy food access, farm to school, and what were back then called "food distribution hubs." And we envisioned doing it in a way that drew on the vast knowledge and expertise present here in this room, and that challenged us all to think big.

This idea was guided by my experience working on the Organic Food Production Act. While there was a big chunk of me in that work, I brought people together to come up with the law of the land. It was an iterative process, full of diverse and sometimes contentious voices. But a well-respected law came out of that process.

KYF2 is also a collective work, and I believe deeply in the value of collective thinking. It is not always about consensus - it's about valuing diverse voices. Ultimately, sustainability is dependent on diversity, in all contexts.

Now, the natural impulse when you're starting something new is to set up a separate office, get a budget… Instead, we recognized that local/regional should find a home in every program. It's a way of thinking and acting, not necessarily needing new law, nor does it need its own budget.

For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Service runs the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. As part of KYF2, NRCS launched a seasonal high tunnel initiative that has helped local and regional producers around the country extend their growing seasons while conserving resources. To date it has helped build over 7,800 high tunnels. But the cost has been tiny compared to the overall EQIP budget - in 2012, high tunnels were about $19 million out of a total program budget of $1.4 billion. Small investments make a big difference.

Four years later, we have subcommittees working diligently on a variety of issues. This Task Force has also served as an incubator: it has spawned offshoots, and we should hope for more of that. The Farm to School team, with representatives from AMS and FNS, is ushering through a new Farm to School grant program and helping school districts around the country source more local food.

Local food infrastructure work is taking place across the department, although we don't have a dedicated subcommittee focusing on it. There are now over 220 food hubs in operation nationwide.

And there are a whole lot of people who have done and continue to do amazing things who aren't on the Task Force or management team. Garth Clark in our Office of Communications worked long hours and got up at before sunrise to travel to a farm to film video for the Compass roll-out. Colleen Callahan, Rural Development State Director for Illinois, organized "The Many Faces of KYF2," an excellent conference at the Chicago Fed. Matt Paul, Director of our Office of Communications, put his thoughts to paper and came up with the name "Compass." It has been all hands on deck. The Hall of Heroes is a crowded place.

We've created a space for legions of USDA employees who care about this issue - many of whom have been working on it for years - to come together and get things done for rural and urban America.

We are playing a facilitation role: the interest in local/regional is bottom-up, guided by what we are hearing from the countryside, not dictated from above. The brilliance around local/regional comes from what's happening out there in our communities. But at USDA, we've given the movement structure, stature and legitimacy.

And I have the utmost confidence that your good work will continue, and in fact thrive.

When the Secretary and I both knew I was leaving this position, before it had been announced publicly, he came to the Task Force to express his support for this work and to make it clear that it is central to his agenda in the second term. He wants this work expanded. And the structure is in place to deliver on that.

The Task Force and subcommittee work will continue unabated, with Task Force meetings every two weeks. Jill Auburn will continue to run the Task Force and serve as part of the management team, which currently also includes Elanor Starmer, Mark Lipson, Wendy Wasserman, Colleen Rossier, Jim Barham, Deborah Kane, Doug O'Brien, Joani Walsh, Chris Beck, Brooke Barron and Stephen Lowe.

New people may be joining the management team. The team will work in close coordination with the Secretary's office, with Elanor, Joani and Doug serving as liaisons.

This is an extremely strong structure. You all are the foundation. And it's good that you have this strong foundation, because you have some hard work ahead of you.

Future Prospects

Over the past four years, we've developed a common understanding of what local and regional food systems can do for communities. We've built the structure to move our work forward. Now the hard work starts.

And it will be hard. Local and regional food systems, like all of agriculture, require participants to take risks. And at this relatively early point in the evolution of these systems, there will be times when people and ideas fail.

I'd like to challenge you to do something we don't often do here: to embrace failure when it happens, because it is an opportunity to learn. This is the flip side of transparency: the failures are out in the open along with the successes. We should make the most of this by incorporating the lessons of failure into the way we think about the issues we work on. That's how we'll continue to keep our research on the cutting edge, keep our technical assistance useful and evaluate our grant and loan applications effectively.

Failure will happen from time to time. But it will be worth it - because the opportunities for USDA to strengthen its work in this space are numerous, and they are incredibly exciting. I want to give you a sense of just a few of the opportunities ahead of you.

  • You can use existing authorities to make a small administrative change that makes a big difference. In our last Task Force meeting, I used the example of Farm Storage Facility Loans from FSA. This is an example of a minor change that makes a big difference.
  • Fruit and vegetable producers are eligible for these loans to build cold storage facilities, but they're not using it. We discovered why: if you're growing for a school or a CSA, you may be growing 10 or 20 or 40 different products - and the FSA form only has four lines to enter the crops to be stored, and based on these four lines FSA evaluates the viability of the loan. We just need to change the form to allow for diversified operations to make use of our program. We don't need to change the law. We don't need more money. We just need a new form! This is not rocket science, but it can change lives.
  • You can collaborate with federal partners - help them to see what's going on in their house. People in other parts of the federal government are interested and willing to explore local and regional food systems, but they are experiencing what we experienced in the early days of KYF2. We knew there was interest around the country in this issue. We needed to mine our own authorities to figure out the fit, develop and communicate a vision of how our programs can be deployed for local and regional work, and then take a leap and fund these projects.
  • Now we can help other parts of the federal government do the same thing. On Valentine's Day, we met with representatives from 11 other federal agencies to discuss our ideas and resources on local/regional. Just yesterday, I met with the Department of Transportation and discussed a joint webinar on short rail and its use for regional food systems. There are so many things we can do when we put our resources together. I see populating the Compass map with dots from other Federal agencies as a major part of the KYF2 work this year.
  • Then there's our own house - how we can strengthen what's going on here and continue to make our work more inclusive. For example, applaud and facilitate the booming interest in urban agriculture by continuing to expand high tunnels on urban farmland. Or help bridge rural and urban communities by looking to cities to identify existing infrastructure - terminal markets, rail lines, food banks - and exploring their potential to expand local and regional food offerings.
  • You can plan for, and execute, the big changes. You can get out ahead of the next Farm Bill to tackle big issues. There may be a local foods title. What I'm fairly certain of is that there will be NAP reform. The Senate and House versions were quite similar on NAP reform. Start the rulemaking process now.
  • And you can prioritize inclusiveness. Develop regulations and protocols that are scale-sensitive. In the case of local meat, this means that FSIS helps all plants achieve the same level of food safety, but recognizes that plants that slaughter five cows in a day are operating under a completely different model from those slaughtering 500.

None of this work will be easy. But for the last four years, you've tilled the soil and planted the seeds. Now it's time to grow.

Thank you for your hard work, your dedication, and your big thinking. It has been an honor to serve with you.