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- Briefings bring Capitol Hill good news about mid-scale farms
- Consensus coming to risk-based food safety approach
- USDA digs in on regional food hubs
- Local and regional food systems. What's the difference?
- Food Safety Report
- Good Food Media Digest
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The classic story about farms in economics textbooks is that they are price takers; that is, they must accept what buyers are willing to pay because farmers' products are so generic and their legions so uncoordinated that they have no power to walk away from a bad deal. Under this story line, the disappearance of mid-scale family farms, too small for global markets and too large for direct markets, is an outcome that policy makers have come to expect and accept.
But that story is changing, and not just for the smaller operations that first broke through the "price taker" barrier with unique products, and fitting prices, at farmers markets and the like. This is the good news about mid-scale farms, those at the core of America's agricultural economy, which a group of sustainable agriculture organizations brought to Capitol Hill last week with a full day of briefings for lawmakers and agency staff.
The June 9 "Agriculture of the Middle" briefings featured mid-scale farmers from across the country who explained that they are growing sales and jobs by partnering with distributors and others in the food supply chain to bring new choices to market. These new "values-based food supply chains," or food value chains, are helping producers and related businesses satisfy growing demand for food that comes with more tastes, nutrition, and economic, environmental, and social benefits.
"Yesterday’s panel gave four solid examples of new business models that are already playing a role in revitalizing mid-sized family farms, said Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), one of the sponsors of the briefing. "USDA staff and Congressional staff got to hear directly from a group of successful producers about the challenges and opportunities facing the shrinking “agriculture of the middle,” and specific ways to shape legislation and implement programs that support, rather than stifle, innovation," he said.
Diana Endicott of Kansas was one of the speakers. She founded Good Natured Family Farms (GNFF), a cooperative alliance of more than 150 family farms in Kansas and Missouri that logged $4 million in wholesale sales last year to 38 supermarket and institutional customers. These sales amounted to $8.5 million in economic activity for the rural communities where the co-op's members are located.
Endicott and others on the panel explained how programs in USDA's Know Your Farmer portfolio, such as Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants, have helped them develop their businesses. Another speaker was Karl Kupers, who co-founded Shepherd’s Grain, an alliance of 33 family farms in the Pacific Northwest producing and milling wheat for consumers in their region.
Shepherd’s Grain this year received a working capital grant from USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant Program, another program in the agency's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food portfolio. Kupers urged full funding for SARE, VAPG, and Farm to School programs because of their role in supporting the growth and development of food value chains and the more regional food systems where they often operate.
These programs, he said, “can play a large role in revitalizing our national economy and the rural fabric of our society, a fabric made up of not only economics but the equally important cultural/community aspect of our nation’s identity."
The presence of a larger scale grain producer like Kupers was a surprise to some at the briefings who might expect that Know Your Farmer benefits are limited to smaller operations, said Hoefner.
"These farms look just like their (mainstream, mid-scale) neighbors, but they are not in the commodity market like their neighbors," he said. "They are not taking prices but setting prices based on their unique products; there is a big difference between being a price taker and a price maker."
They do not agree on the details, but four agriculture and consumer group leaders interviewed by the National Good Food Network about pending food safety legislation do say that the regulatory burden, and the regulatory effort, should be lower where risk for outbreaks of food borne illnesses is lower.
A new report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences says much the same. In a June 8 news release, the IOM and NAS spelled out their thinking on how to make the best use of time and money.
"To more proactively target potential food safety problems, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should implement a risk-based approach in which data and expertise are marshaled to pinpoint where along the food production, distribution, and handling chains there is the greatest potential for contamination and other problems."
Congress asked the Institute of Medicine to examine FDA's food safety system and suggest improvements. The report concludes that the FDA should stop reacting on a case-by-case basis and start targeting its resources in a systematic way.
A sticking point among consumer, agriculture, and retail groups involved in negotiations is whether and how different types of operations or market outlets are more or less risky. Learn more about these discussions from the NGFN's Food Safety Talks series and from the NGFN Food Safety working group. This group covers the legislative process as well as industry steps toward certification systems, such as group approaches, that reduce cost and compliance burdens for small and mid-scale operations.
Kicking off the NGFN Food Safety Talks series, Brian Snyder of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, calls for new food safety regulations to recognize and reward the risk reduction inherent in his world of highly diversified farms. He compares it to the larger industry's more centralized flow of commingled commodities.
"We contend that massive aggregation of food actually creates more food safety problems than it solves. Our assumption is the more diversification -- on a single farm, in a region, or in a marketplace -- the better."
Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch says the consumer advocacy group supports the "identity preserved products" idea that Snyder and others present, for regulators to require less paperwork from operations that keep a producer's identity with products that travel direct from farm to market. But Food & Water Watch questions how simple identity verification can be and wants more facilities to be registered and inspected no matter who they are and what they do.
Currently, Corbo says, "FDA inspects food facilities under its jurisdiction maybe every five to 10 years, compared to USDA daily inspection of meat processing plants and on-site inspection at slaughter."
Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents a broad range of growers in the commodity produce industry, says regulations should be scale appropriate and focused on items that are known to pose higher risk, such as lettuce compared to whole cantaloupe. Traceability requirements should be mandatory for those higher risk items no matter where they come from, he said.
"On packaging many of our members and farmers have their family names on their fresh produce commodities. The ability to maintain a so-called “identity preserved” food is not a new concept no matter what size your production level and is well established in fresh produce."
The Association supports less oversight for the most verifiably direct and local sales but does not see the need to make further room for operations that are more diverse in production and marketing than those in commodity markets.
Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is the final interview in the series. His group has helped negotiate some pending amendments to the Senate bill that would require further analysis of risk, including how different types of production, processing, and marketing affect it.
The Coalition's concern for making sure FDA follows through on risk analysis and risk targeting includes the challenge of making the best use of limited funds and the relative costs and benefits to different parts of the produce industry.
"The FDA's budget has been going up pretty steadily the past three to four years, but it's nowhere near the $2 billion jump the agency is projected to need for this." Unless FDA targets its resources to highest risk, he says, the public could get the idea, from publicity over passage of the bill, that food safety problems are solved when, in fact, enforcement is still spotty and potentially harmful to some of the less risky operations.
USDA officials say the primary purpose of their Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is to organize the agency's resources so they best fit and support on-the-ground needs and opportunities in emerging local and regional food markets.
It's not surprising then that the initiative now has a tactical team dedicated to figuring out how to help food and farm businesses bridge huge gaps in regional distribution, smaller scale processing, and aggregation of farmers' products.
"We're constantly hearing about the lack of these types of services," said James Barham of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service who heads up the tactical team. He said the team is at the beginning of a yearlong process in which it will reach out across the country to take stock of all the different approaches already in place, or in development, and learn what works and what doesn't.
USDA is using a wide-angle lens in this research, as explained in this recent presentation. Its inventory will cover examples ranging from "virtual" online foods hubs and traditional wholesale/retail locations to different approaches that producer groups and nonprofits have taken to provide aggregation, distribution, and processing, and related services.
The team will produce a resource guide from that practical research to both support people trying to build this needed regional market infrastructure and tailor USDA funding accordingly.
"USDA has various grant and loan programs that could possibly support regional food hubs, and might already be supporting them," Barham said. "We want to see which programs fit this purpose and where the gaps are."
One example is the USDA Rural Development Community Facilities grant program, which offers key financing of physical assets, like buildings and equipment. But this program is currently limited to very rural communities, he said. Yet some of the biggest opportunities are for rural producers to supply urban consumers, which can mean those physical assets have to be located in cities.
The regional food hub tactical team will also be working on defining what it means by the term. It's starting with a working definition in which a regional food hub is "a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products."
As activity and interest in local and regional food system grows, so too does the amount of attention to what each means and how they are evolving.
Two recent publications dive into the topic and provide helpful data and observations.
One is a new report from the USDA Economic Research Service called Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Another is the recent issue of the Choices journal, from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.
Along with several articles on the local food theme, Choices features a take on the broader regional dimension of food system development, called Is Local Enough? Some Arguments in Favor of Regional Food Systems. In a recent National Good Food Network webinar available here, authors Kate Clancy and Kathy Ruhf also discussed their regional food system ideas along with recent developments in the Northeast.
Clancy and Ruhf explain that regional includes "local" but is "larger geographically and in terms of functions—volume/supply, food needs, variety, supply chains, markets, land use, and policy."
A regional food system, they write, "includes multiple “locals” within a state, and those that cross state boundaries. Regional food systems operate in relation to other regions as well as to the national and global food systems." The paper covers four framing dimensions to regional food system work: food supply, natural resource sustainability, economic development, and diversity.
The Economic Research Service report pulls together much of the known universe of information about the growth of interest in local foods and market responses to it. Much of the report focuses on direct marketing as a proxy for "local," which is difficult to define. It does broach the growing business of regional food markets in the section on “Barriers to Market Entry and Expansion.”
As noted in a review of the report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, "the report highlights farmer capacity for marketing activities and quality assurance, supply chain infrastructure like storage facilities or processing plants, recordkeeping, and regulatory uncertainties as some of the major barriers to increasing supply to match market demand."
The ERS report calls for more research on the economic and other effects of growth in local food markets, something which the Choices discussion on regional food systems by Clancy and Ruhf helps frame.
The April 15, 2010 NGFN webinar featured Kate Clancy and Kathy Ruhf discussing their Choices paper, among other topics. View the recording just below. We also have the slides from this presentation available.
Two invitations to comment on produce safety
The GAP Harmonization initiative led by the United Fresh Produce Association has reached an important milestone. We have developed a draft standard after 6 months of hard work. I have found the process to be welcoming of the interests of producers of all scales, including small- and mid-sized producers. Continuing in this spirit of inclusiveness, United Fresh has created a blog so that anyone may comment on the draft. I strongly encourage you to comment: the draft needs the practical critique of the farmers, aggregators, and anyone who would eventually use the standard to meet buyer requirements in the retail and wholesale supply chain. For more information on this opportunity, read my article “GAP Harmonization: An Invitation to the Table,” and read the memo from United Fresh.
The Food and Drug Administration has extended the comment period for its produce handling guideline to July 23. Michelle Smith, the FDA GAP project leader specifically suggested that this opportunity can give aggregators a chance to state whether they have a particular view regarding on-farm food safety and how responsibility for food safety can and should be handled by aggregators. If any network members would like help developing a position, let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org). To submit your comments directly, visit this regulations.gov page.
USDA GAP research and pilot project
USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is moving forward on some comparative training and auditing of individual farms and groups of farms during the current growing season. The Wallace Center and the National Good Food Network are working to help USDA Audit Program Coordinator Ken Petersen identify potential groups, both emergent and existing, for participation in this pilot research project. Funds are limited and the time frame is swift. The framework involves comparing the time and monetary costs of three different GAP certification protocols: a “standard” one farm/one audit approach, a group certification approach, and a combined organic and food safety audit.
Every second Tuesday of the month we host a food safety working group conference call. These calls are open to you, and we encourage you to join us. All of the past calls are recorded and archived for your reference. Sign yourself up for our food safety updates list. If you have trouble signing up, just e-mail email@example.com and we’ll take care of it for you. And feel free to use that e-mail address to ask questions about food safety. We’ll direct you to the right resources.
More Support for Child Nutrition Bill
A new bill has been introduced in the House that requests $ 8 million over 10 years to aid existing nutrition programs geared towards children. This bill is similar to the Senate version that is inclusive of a $4.5 billion over 10 years increase in funding, that is currently pending.
Fair Trade, right at home
Farmer Direct Co-operative Ltd. is the first co-op to receive the
Domestic Fair Trade Certification. “People usually associate fair trade
with coffee, sugar, bananas and other crops from the global south, but
fair wages to farm workers and fair prices to farmers are just as much a
concern in industrialized nations like Canada and the United States.”
Farmer of the Year Nominations
The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service is currently receiving nominations for 2011 Organic Farmer of the Year. This award is “given to an organic farmers practicing outstanding land stewardship, innovation and outreach.”
Traceability? There's an app for that!
Dole Food Company, Inc. has developed an iPhone application which allows consumers to "find where its organic fruit (bananas and/or pineapples) is coming from,
as well as the satellite image of the farm, right on their phone, only
by entering the 3 digits DPC shown on the fruit´s sticker or tag."
Local supermarket, warehouse club store and farmer’s market all under one roof
A new values-focused grocery store, SmartCo Foods, will open its first store on June 23. The store is offering a blend of nationally and regionally produced and made foods, bulk bins, paper products and is committed to giving back to the communities it serves.
Would you like a panini with that tank of gas?
As a way to keep up with the small profit margin on gas, service
stations in Los Angeles are diversifying their selection of foods and
expanding into prepared foods such as “croissants, paninis, salads and
breakfast burritos.” Could this concept be expanded to help alleviate
Largest chicken processor is going local
Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation has launched a line of locally grown and
processed chicken products that will bear the “Fresh from Florida”
branding from the Florida Department of Agriculture.
FOOD AND HEALTH
“Just say no!” to Endosulfan, says EPA
The Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to stop the use of
the insecticide Endosulfan within the US. This chemical that is “used
on vegetables, fruits and cotton, can pose unacceptable neurological and
reproductive risks to farmworkers and wildlife and can persist in the
Diet for manufacturers
Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), a collaboration of large
food processing and manufacturing companies, has recently pledged to
“reduce annual calories by 1.5 trillion by the end of 2015.” This
pledge has support from First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership
for a Healthier America.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/partnering-fight-childhood-obesity and http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/
Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic
A new report from the Center for American Progress examines how the
new Health Care Reform’s Law “will help prevent and reduce obesity.”
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