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Source: Article by Robert Hauer, Hauer & Associates Consulting

The federal commitment to local food system development will endure beyond the Obama Administration, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan contends. She was responding to my question in the Q/A following her speech to the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank's recent agriculture/rural development conference.

Merrigan had touted local food as one of five "pillars" in the USDA's rural revitalization policy. Commodity groups have been critical of USDA's interest in this niche market. Last spring, three U.S. Senators-Republicans John McCain, Saxby Chambliss and Pat Roberts-complained in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program isn't "geared toward conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation's food supply, but is instead aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets."

It is true that urban farmers markets helped spur consumer demand for products sourced from nearby farms. Yet, this demand has begun to penetrate all communities, all income levels, and even large-volume wholesale channels. Wal-Mart is responding by creating a national template for commercially-viable, regional-scale supply chains that complement the global food system.

Some commodity groups view this evolving local marketplace - and its expanding constituency - as a threat to the federal price support system. With political heat likely to intensify in the run-up to the 2012 Farm Bill, I asked Merrigan about USDA's "heat-reduction strategy" and the perception that local food is a Democratic agenda that would dissipate whenever Republicans win the presidency.

USDA "can walk and chew gum at the same time," she said, meaning it can serve all constituencies while also responding to pressures to reduce federal deficits. Describing local food as a growing "small 'd' democratic movement," Merrigan said USDA's responsibilities include "helping young farmers get started in business.
It's not advisable that their first move is with 3,000-acre, corn-and-soybean operations. Heightened interest in where food comes from is a teaching moment" that enables USDA to help American society to better understand the importance of food, farming and agriculture.

Robert Heuer is an Illinois-based public policy and marketing consultant.