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Monday, March 8, 2010

Some are Worrying about the Push for Smaller Farm Sizes

DesMoines Register

Angela Jackson is not a typical Iowa farmer and certainly isn't the typical recipient of farm subsidies.

She grows vegetables for local supermarkets, not grain for biofuels or livestock feed.

But she's the kind of farmer the Obama administration wants more of, and that raises alarms among some colleagues in conventional agriculture. They worry they'll be harmed by the Agriculture Department's new focus on small farms and encouragement local production of fruits and vegetables.

"USDA shifted on me," said Tim Burrack, a farmer near Arlington in northeast Iowa who is chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. He said the Obama administration's local-foods initiative, dubbed "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," to promote small-scale agriculture, will drive up food costs because large farms are more efficient.

Jim McFerson, who manages the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said there isn't enough consumer demand for fresh produce to accommodate all the new farms the USDA wants.

"How does this magic wand happen ... so there's room for these small- and medium-size farmers to produce apples in Kansas and artichokes in Maine?" McFerson asked at a recent USDA conference.

Jackson, a former college professor who farms near Sioux City, welcomed the change at the USDA. She recently applied for a $4,000 grant to buy a second portable-type greenhouse, an open-ended, plastic-covered structure made by FarmTek in Dyersville and known as a "high tunnel." The structures allows her to plant tomatoes in April and harvest spinach into December.

She expects to triple her production to fill demand from six area Hy-Vee stores, including two each in Sioux City and Sioux Falls, S.D. She'll use her profits to expand even more.

"The consumer is driving this," she said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said that helping farmers like Jackson will keep people on the land, generate income for rural economies and improve Americans' health by eating more fresh produce. But he said conventional growers, known collectively in agribusiness circles as "production agriculture," stand to benefit, too, because the administration's campaign will improve the image that urban dwellers have of farmers and farm programs.

"The shrinking number of farmers and shrinking number of rural legislators mean we need to create alliances and create partnerships to make sure people understand what production agriculture does and make sure it has continuing support," Vilsack said.

Conventional grain and cotton farms such as Burrack's still dominate the USDA's farm programs.

Rules for who gets what and how much are set by Congress in the farm bills. Burrack and his family operation received more than $1.5 million in crop subsidies from 1995 through 2006, according to the Environmental Working Group. In 2007, Iowa farmers and landowners collectively received $775 million in USDA payments.

The Obama administration's campaign for locally grown foods tries to lead by example, which meant digging up part of the White House grounds for a garden; using the bully pulpit; and directing some conservation spending, loan guarantees and other assistance toward bolstering small-scale farming.

Last month, the USDA's annual agricultural outlook conference, a widely attended affair that draws agribusiness representatives and academics from around the country, was headlined, "Sustainable Agriculture: The key to health and prosperity." It featured speakers who uncharacteristically criticized conventional agriculture. One food service executive said his company is reducing its use of beef and buying meat produced without antibiotics.

The USDA deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, is a long-time advocate of organic food and small-scale farming. Under her direction, the department is using programs and legal authority provided by Congress in the 2008 farm bill to steer some grants and loans to farmers as well as new processors and distribution networks needed by small-scale farms. The department awarded $650,000 to Prairieland Foods, to process milk in the Lincoln, Neb., area.

Jackson is among 18 Iowa farmers who have applied for money earmarked in a conservation program to subsidize the high-tunnel houses. Jackson qualifies for an especially large grant because she's a woman and a beginning farmer.

The department is working on a manual on food-safety regulations for small meat processors and mobile slaughter units.

Burrack and McFerson spoke at the outlook conference. Burrack said Midwest farmers weren't ready for what the administration was doing. Afterward, at least one agribusiness lobbyist complimented Burrack's remarks, and the farmer got into an impromptu debate with attendees who were questioning conventional farming practices.

Vilsack also gets heat from critics on the other side, especially for his support of genetically engineered crops and associations with the biotech industry.

Groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition accused the administration of reneging on a campaign pledge to tighten subsidy eligibility rules for large farms. Some appointees set off alarms, including the USDA's new research chief, Roger Beachy, a leading biotech crop scientist. The White House's nominee as agricultural trade negotiator, Islam Siddiqui, is a former pesticide industry lobbyist.

"I must be doing something right," Vilsack said. "What folks on both sides of this debate want the USDA to do is pick sides, and I think that's the last thing USDA should do."

Some advocates of small-scale farming say his critics need to be more patient.