San Francisco Chronicle
by Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Washington – — Obama administration officials Wednesday outlined a broad array of efforts to elevate organic and local farming to a prominence never seen before at the sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The shift is raising eyebrows among conventional growers and promising federal support to a food movement that began in Northern California and was considered heretical only a few years ago.
“Guys, this is your window – use it,” USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told organic farmers, processors and retailers at a conference Wednesday in Washington that was sponsored by Santa Cruz’s Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Trade Association.
When her microphone went dead as she discussed genetically modified foods, a member of the audience joked, “They’re already sabotaging you.”
Talking more like a Berkeley foodie than a USDA bureaucrat, Merrigan described efforts to penetrate “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods where people rely on corner markets and liquor stores for groceries, tougher enforcement of the USDA organic label and initiatives such as the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program to connect local farmers with consumers.
The efforts parallel first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, which she took Wednesday to a community farm in San Diego supported by the California Endowment, whose mission to improve the health of Californians is mirrored by the first lady’s campaign.
“Food is finally either close to or at the center of the USDA plate,” said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Santa Cruz foundation, which struggled for years to get federal support for organic farming.
Scowcroft cited Merrigan’s interest in such innovations as mobile slaughterhouses, which allow tiny livestock producers to get USDA certification of their meat.
“California is desperate for these,” Scowcroft said. “The entire U.S. system is now based on massive factory farms. You have lamb producers that want to sell into a local restaurant, but if they even can find a unit to slaughter their lambs, it’s 300 to 500 miles away. Driving 10 lambs there is cost prohibitive.”
Even a small shift in the giant machinery of the USDA – be it more research money for organics or stiffer antitrust enforcement against industrial operators Merrigan said is coming – could have big repercussions given the agency’s central role in U.S. farming. Merrigan said the administration is also linking USDA efforts with other departments such as Health and Human Services.
Not the old USDA
Big growers are not thrilled.
After Merrigan addressed a USDA conference in Washington last month, Tim Burrack, a corn and soybean grower who chairs the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, stood up and told her, “This is not the USDA that I’ve known,” according to Iowa press accounts.
“I’ve farmed for 37 years and worked with the government and everything – and what I’m hearing out here is radically different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career,” he said.
Burrack cited concern among conventional producers that focusing on organics and small local farms conflicts with traditional agriculture production that “has provided for this nation a very safe and very low-cost food supply.”
The department took its first survey of organic farmers two years ago, counting 14,540 of them, located in all 50 states. Sales have reached $24.6 billion a year, growing 14 percent to 21 percent annually over the last decade, but still remain less than 1 percent of all U.S. agriculture.
More small farms
In addition, the census showed for the first time that the number of small farms in California, many of them minority-owned, has increased.
Growers and retailers at Wednesday’s conference expressed exasperation over losing their organic certification after their fields were contaminated by neighboring farms growing genetically modified crops.
Alan Lewis, a manager at the Natural Grocers chain in Lakewood, Colo., cited a 1970s-era USDA rule that designates beef as “natural” if it is unadulterated after slaughter, even if the cow was pumped with hormones, de-wormers and corn for the months it was alive.
“Magically, it becomes ‘natural’ on the day of harvest,” he said. The agency is looking at a new rule for “naturally raised” beef as a midpoint between natural and fully organic.
But that, Lewis said, is likely to sow confusion with consumers.
“As an industry, we really need to be clear about who’s toeing the line and who isn’t,” Lewis said.