Culpeper Star-Exponent: ‘An opportunity to add value’: USDA under secretary talks local food at Carver Center

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION

The 4-H room at the Carver Center provided an appropriate space for a recent roundtable on federal investment in local and regional food systems as well as enhanced accessibility for farmers to various grants, with complex application processes.

USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Jenny Lester Moffitt, joined U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, for the Feb. 27 stop at the historic school that houses a food enterprise center and commercial kitchen, Culpeper County Extension Office, the Carver 4-County Museum and various hoop houses and farm fields.

Moffitt brought news of $24.7 million in grant funding available to create more and better markets for agricultural producers and businesses through the USDA Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), part of the 2018 Farm Bill.

The roundtable included previous recipients of the grant for projects increasing availability of locally grown food and developing new markets for local and regional food system stakeholders, farmers markets and food hubs.

Since the 1980s, the number of farms in the United States has declined by more than half-million, Moffitt said, especially small family farms that have not had the opportunity to increase volumes.

“They need off-farm income to make the on-farm income pencil out,” she said.

USDA is working to make the family farm more sustainable, Moffitt said.

“The Biden-Harris Administration has been really focused on putting energy into improving access to all our programs, particularly at USDA,” she said.

Programs like LAMP have had a strong impact, creating some 4,000 regional enterprises nationwide, including in the 7th District, Moffitt said.

“It’s about bringing value, added opportunities, back to farmers,” she said.

Spanberger said she takes ownership over all things agriculture and that Congress is still working to pass an updated Farm Bill this year. USDA grants are helping to expand local farm access to local markets, making connections between producers, real markets and consumers who want to buy and engage with local produce and producers, she said. Farm-to-school is part of the effort, bringing fresh, local produce to local public school children.

“These grants are fueling farms, the backbone of Virginia’s economy, and connecting communities in a meaningful way so we know where our food comes from,” Spanberger said.

The grants help connect the dots between consumers and producers while boosting agritourism and farm markets and getting products to urban markets, Moffitt said. The USDA is even looking at how it purchases food, she added.

“The food supply chain is complex,” the USDA undersecretary said. “I know, I ran my family farm operation for 10 years and tried to enter a new market.”

Various farmers, ag educators and allied professionals on the roundtable spoke of challenges accessing USDA grant programs, related to detailed performance-based metrics and measures required, deadlines, page limits on detailing farm background information and a grant application size that is too voluminous.

Piedmont Environmental Council President Chris Miller mentioned the nonprofit’s long-standing “Buy Fresh Buy Local” publication, connecting the region’s citizens to approximately 600 listed farms.

He said he looks twice at government grant applications, that they’ve become more rigorous than he’s ever seen.

“They’re so complex — it’s almost like, go raise funds somewhere else,” he said.

Miller stated the federal government “is trying to analyze things you can’t analyze.” He asked for a balance and more flexibility.

Michelle Edwards, of Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission, develops the region’s Farm & Food Plan that includes the Carver Center, home to the Carver Food Enterprise Center.

The center currently offers kitchen space and storage and is looking to expand into co-packing of farm projects this year, according to Lenah Nguyen, a Senior Extension Agent. Edwards said the USDA grants are a nightmare to fill out, mentioning a 30-page application.

“It’s completely onerous. I couldn’t do it this year, washed my hands of it,” she said. “It takes too much time.” The applications request so many details and so much information, Edwards added. “It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole, so frustrating.”

Orange County farmer Michael Carter said the grant applications are due around planting time, also tax season. “It becomes a real challenge.”

He said he has become a grant farmer to keep his operation going. “You have to figure out how to keep the lights on. You don’t get big enough, you can’t compete.”

Tom McDougall, Founder and CEO of 4P Foods, asked how to assign a value to the collective social and environmental impact small farms and food producers have on a community. He suggested that be counted toward some of the required metrics on USDA grant applications. McDougall also asked for more pages to demonstrate an applicant’s resilient and regenerative food systems.

Moffitt, in closing remarks, offered some takeaways.

“The food system is a big puzzle with pieces,” she said. “We need to find ways to be more comprehensive, fewer programs that meet more flexible needs.”

The USDA undersecretary discussed solutions following the roundtable, including regional food business call centers that launched last May to help producers navigate the system.

Virginia to Florida is covered through the Southeast Regional Food Business Center, an initiative getting established right now, Moffitt said. She added the center would be a network of people and organizations from across the region that have longstanding relationships serving farmers and ranchers, like those assembled at the roundtable.

Moffitt also addressed concerns about USDA grant application complexity heard during the discussion.

“These are federal taxpayer dollars so there is an important layer that we do need to make sure they are being spent in the best way possible, so there is some mechanism to gather information to be able to audit financial records,” she said. “What we heard was, ways in which we can do that in a way that keeps and maintains that good government accountability, but adds more flexibility and takes away some of the barriers.”

Asked about the future of agriculture in America, she said farming is turning the tide right now.

“I see an agriculture that is not just feeding the world through incredible productivity coupled with incredible conservation practices, but how do we expand the revenue opportunities for farmers and ranchers, ecosystem services, bio energy, but also local regional food systems?” Moffitt said.

“I see an agriculture where the farmer is really benefitting from the multiple different practices they’re doing and bringing more revenue back to the farm for those practices, an opportunity to add value to their products so they can continue farming so their kids or the next generation can as well.”

Moffitt acknowledged farmers are aging in America, referencing the recent agriculture census and average age of 57.

“I did see some bright spots where there are areas in the country where more young farmers are getting into farming,” she said. “I think as we do this, as farmers see multiple revenue streams, a future for their farm where they can be the food system heroes that they really are, I think we will see more youth get into farming.”

The public needs to reconnect with farmers and vice versa, and it’s happening through USDA programs like Farm to School, Moffitt said. She recalled meeting an Arkansas farmer who lost his ability to sell cattle at market during the pandemic and faced bankruptcy before discovering Farm to School.

“He went from four years ago, not knowing if he was going to be able to keep his farm, to now he goes to the grocery store and kids come up to him and bring their parents and say, ‘This is the guy who raises the meat for my hamburger.’”

Spanberger, in a press conference after the roundtable, said she always welcome USDA folks to come to the district because they can get an opinion on just about any USDA program.

The grant application will always be cumbersome and everyone will always want it to be shorter, she said.

“But it does seem like, from the feedback today, there are gems of understanding from what each experience was and it’s probably highly representative of producers across the country,” Spanberger said.

“There are so many different grant program because so many needs, but long-range how could we streamline?”

She shared about a recent congressional delegation trip for the intelligence committee she was on, having lunch with people on a base on the coast of Kenya. A U.S. Air Force service member asked what the congresswoman did in the U.S. House and Spanberger replied she was on the intelligence and ag committees.

“He perks up and turns and says, ‘I’m a farmer,’ so we start talking and he’s very young, he wants farming to be his future, already has purchased 500 acres, and he has an old Air Force buddy working this farm that he’s growing,” Spanberger said. “There is a vibrancy when people can see and begin to connect the dots.”

Agritourism is an important component because it increases awareness, she said. “It’s how we weave the communities back together because a couple generations ago you knew your food was coming from a farm.”

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