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Going native?: Kathleen Merrigan of the USDA promotes local agriculture.
Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Washington gets with the program on sustainable agriculture. Kind of.

Several initiatives coming out of the White House recently have healthy, local and sustainable food activists excited. Not least of these is the $65 million Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative, which Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture, came to Hawaii to promote last week.

The campaign is about redeveloping strong regional food systems funds set aside in the 2008 Farm Bill and other USDA programs. The point is economic development and greater access to healthy food. By connecting consumers with their local food producers, money stays in the local economy. Merrigan cites a study suggesting that if Hawaii replaced 10 percent of its imported foods with locally produced food, it would amount to some $313 million in the local economy.

A $65 million program seems tiny compared to the $4 billion to $9 billion in subsidies to industrial-scale corn producers, but it’s only useless if no one knows about it. Enter Merrigan, riding in on the KYF2 marketing campaign and giving a face to the funds. At a public talk at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Kerrigan conducted a roundtable of some 20 local producers and “stakeholders,” which she defined as people involved in the local food system.

“We’re figuring out the match-up between our suite of programs and what you need here in Hawaii,” Merrigan says. Participants in the discussion included the under-30 farmers Shin and Neil Ho of Ho Farms, Polly Kauahi of Hawaii Foodbank, chef Ed Kenney of Town, Gary Maunakea-Forth of MAO Organic Farms, Sandra Lee Kunimoto of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Kyle Datta of the Ulupono Initiative.

Kunimoto says not in her recent memory has someone of Merrigan’s position visited Hawaii. “It’s so important to have people at this level come because until they see with their own eyes what our situation is like, it’s hard for them to grasp the distances and how we are unique,” Kunimoto says. “Hawaii is made up of a lot of small farmers…sometimes these federal programs are designed mainly for larger companies or large-size, large-scale farms. And sometimes those things don’t fit us.”

The KYF2 marketing campaign also includes Facebook chats and a slick Know Your Farmer Web site that helps make sense of the 40 programs “that are particularly well-suited to help advance this consumer-food-producer connection that we think is so important,” Merrigan says.

If it appears the USDA is jumping on the social media bandwagon to reach out to a younger constituency, well, it is. According to Merrigan, the average age of farmers is 57, and 50 percent of USDA employees are retirement eligible during this administration. What it means: “As I tell young people,” Merrigan says, “not only do we need you in American agriculture working the lands in farms and ranches, we need you in the halls where policy is made.”

Or, as Maunakea-Forth says bluntly, “Know your farmer before they go extinct.”

Merrigan presents small farms as the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. Of course, she works for the USDA, which supports America’s entire agriculture system, from organic to biotech, from small farms to industrial-sized farms, from food to fuels. Merrigan does not see these as mutually exclusive, which is why she was also in Hawaii to announce the USDA’s collaboration with the Navy to develop biofuels.

“Hawaii is perhaps the most challenged state in terms of energy issues due to your location,” Merrigan says. “So we’re looking at things like some of your grasses, your sugar cane, your algae…we don’t necessarily see this is going to have to be in conflict with food security. We think Hawaii has a lot of potential both in regional food systems and biofuels. So we have to come up with a strategy so that they don’t start butting heads so that they can actually work synergistically.”

Some, however, think the USDA’s focus should be on food.

“There’s a whole lot of things on [the KYF2 program] about growing food,” Maunakea-Forth says. “So it’s contentious that so much is coming up in growing biodiesel crops…And seed-growing is completely antithetical to growing food. Now we’ve got this massive industry that’s going to ‘save agriculture’, but it doesn’t grow food, to start, and it doesn’t grow people who can grow food.”

Maunakea-Forth’s comments come in response to Hawaii’s large seed crop industry and the presence of Monsanto–one of the major players in Hawaii’s seed corn industry–at the roundtable.

From Kerrigan’s perspective, it’s all part of a sustainable rural economic system for the United States.

“We have a lot work at the USDA that goes on with biotechnology,” Merrigan says. “We have a lot of work that goes on with organic agriculture and we have a lot that goes on in every type of agriculture in between–not to put those on opposing ends. Generally what I emphasize is that Know Your Farmer is not about promoting any one kind of agriculture, but about trying to improve livelihoods of rural communities and increasing the bottom line for farmers and ranchers.”

For more information on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign visit: []