Fair Food, Circus Fare – for Aug. 19, 2010

As the county and state fair season spreads across America, farmers, ranchers and producer groups from Maryland and Montana will cook rib-eyes, whip up omelettes, grill chicken, barbecue pork steaks, butter sweet corn and pour thick milkshakes for their non-farming customers from Baltimore to Billings and nearly everywhere in between.

This fresh, wholesome goodness will come with side dishes like firm handshakes, warm smiles and pleasant banter that will connect producers with consumers, makers with customers, farmers with non-farmers.

In fact, this tasty, aromatic face-to-face meeting is the whole point of each farmer and rancher’s existence, the key link that farm and ranch groups spend big bucks and big time – think the $1.25-billion-a-year checkoff industry – to build every day. It’s honest and open and not forced or phony.

And it’s priceless; it’s retail meat and greet, chat and chew, cook and look, earn and learn for both sides.

If this interface is the top of the producer-customer pyramid – and it is – why then did three U. S. senators late this spring write a letter to U. S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assaulting USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program? After all, KYF puts all 26 USDA agencies to work in unison to “better connect consumers with local producers.”

Two explanations leap to mind.

First, the senators, Pat Roberts of Kansas, John McCain of Arizona, and Saxby Chambliss, the Georgian who also serves as ranking minority member on the Senate Ag Committee, are partisan mules who oppose most Obama administration ideas.

A second, more likely explanation is that the senators are genuinely concerned the $65-million Know Your Farmer effort will help, as they wrote Vilsack in April, “small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers’ markets” rather than “conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply.”

No, I didn’t make that up.

These three seem to favour Farm Bills that showered American farmers with an average $16.9 billion per year in program payments from 1999 to 2009, 62.4 per cent of which went to the 12.4 per cent of farmers with the largest annual gross sales.

Simultaneously, these fearless foes of government spending also worry that, by comparison, a few pennies spent to hook farmers and consumers up in the style of a county or state fair, is some Big Brother plot to overthrow “conventional” farmers.

American families and farmers are hurting “and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs,” they groused.

But Know Your Farmer doesn’t deal with just “locavore” agriculture. It’s far broader, and looks to strengthen “local and regional food systems” because they “mean fresh food, vibrant communities, a strong connection between cities and the countryside, and support for this and the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”

But the three aggie amigos ain’t buying any explanation from USDA because, after all, “Given our nation’s crippling budgetary crisis, we also believe the federal government cannot afford to spend precious Rural Development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture.”

Feel-good measures? Golly, an estimated $12.5 billion in direct, 2010 farm payments is more attached to reality than building direct producer-to-consumer connections?

Little wonder Washington, D. C. doesn’t have a fair. It can’t compete with the circus.

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