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A bone to pick with USDA

I have a bone to pick about USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative.

Farm groups and farmers across the nation are growing tired of this program which is draining funds from limited USDA coffers to help consumers know a local farmer, learn that food comes from the farm instead of the grocery store, and increasingly buy more locally-grown food.

I am far from the first person to speak their mind that the USDA has its agricultural priorities on this and many other issues out of whack.

At the annual Commodity Classic event in Anaheim, Calif. this past spring, I heard numerous farmers say the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative has gone too far. The USDA must have heard from peeved farmers for months. Secretary Tom Vilsack strongly defended the “Know Your Farmer" program in a speech to the group.

Let me be totally clear, Ag in the Classroom and other types of programs designed to help teach children and their parents about the real source of food are a valuable necessity and an admirable effort. I support them.

I served in agricultural public relations for 28 years and know firsthand the value of informing consumers about agriculture. During a television interview I conducted with a fourth grade teacher about 10 years ago, I asked her, in reality, what percent of her students really believed food comes from the grocery story. The teacher’s response, a whopping 90 percent, dumbfounded me.

The "Know Your Farmer" program encourages local residents to get to know local farmers and buy food directly from them which is a good cause. These local farmers usually are small acreage producers which is fine. But if every farmer, small and large, followed this path, starvation across the world could dramatically increase due to overall decreased food production worldwide. 

While selling agriculture’s story is an excellent cause, USDA’s “Know Your Farmer” program has gone too far. While buying food locally is a great concept practiced for decades, the fact is most farmers need to grow for the world market.

As U.S. agriculture, we must look at the larger picture. The world population is currently 6.8 billion people. China and India have 40 percent of the world’s population. These countries have a rapidly growing middle class which demands a higher protein diet.

Estimates suggest the world’s population will surpass 8 billion people by 2040 (just 30 years from now) and will topple the 10.5 billion mark by 2050. There will be billions of new bellies to fill.

The bottom line is the world needs farmers to grow more food; fence row to fence row and to double, triple, or even quadruple yields. Farmers need to step up to the plate to feed the world. “Know Your Farmer” programs in the long term could reduce overall food production.

Increasing yields will help feed the growing world. Seed companies have invested billions of dollars in biotechnology and other scientific endeavors to get more bushels per acre. And while the agricultural chemical industry is often considered bad boys for producing pesticides, they are performing yeoman’s work in developing safe and environmental friendly products to protect crops from quality and yield-robbing pests and diseases.

This is agriculture’s challenge today and tomorrow – to feed and clothe the world with a safe, nutritious, and sustainable agriculture. To me, this is more pro consumer and pro agriculture than spending millions of dollars to encourage consumers to buy mostly from local farmers.

USDA is steering this issue in the wrong direction. The ship should be righted back on course.  

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