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Chicagoist Grills - Ann Wright, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture

By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 4, 2011 4:00PM

A few weeks back, we got a chance to have a long chat with Ann Wright, Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. Wright was speaking at the Family Farmed Expo, promoting a new USDA initiative, "Know your Farmer, Know your Food," that is working to promote local and regional innovations in American agriculture. Wright was an advocate for organic and sustainable agriculture and an agriculture advisor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid before she was appointed to her current post, and has been at the USDA for almost two years. We talked with Wright about what the federal government can do to promote sustainable agriculture, the USDA's sometimes-troubled history with small farms and her belief that large-scale change in the way we farm and eat has already begun.

Chicagoist - Could you briefly describe the USDA's new "Know Your Farmer, Know your Food" initiative?

AW - Know your Farmer, Know Your Food is not a standalone program. It's an effort at USDA to coordinate and collaborate across all of our existing programs, so that those programs, whether they are in the research area, the conservation area or the marketing area, are all serving regional and local food systems. Supporting them, providing information. We have a website that tries to capture a lot of what's going on at USDA, and it gives us a reference point to talk about "local."

Chicagoist - I want to push that a little bit. USDA has a complicated history with local and regional foods, and with subsidies for large-scale corporate agriculture. How is the USDA reconciling that with this initiative to support local and regional, while your history (and a large part of the budget) is still supporting big industrial American farming?

AW - I think that USDA and Secretary Vilsack have been focused on a very ambitious agenda, which includes reviving rural economies. They strongly believe that rural economies are important to the economic health of america. We're looking at traditional programs, as well as other new innovative approaches to creating jobs, encouraging farming and ranching, and encouraging new farmers to move into agriculture.

Chicagoist - If you're a Chicago eater, what can you expect to see in your life that would actually change, based on USDA initiatives like Know your Farmer?

AW - We want to support the work that this state is doing, and that farmers and retailers are doing to source more local and regional food. We look at programs, whether they are farmer and rancher programs or farmer's market programs, or conservation programs. There are programs to support urban gardening. Our resources are targeting these existing programs, and expertise is growing. Overall, you see a greater awareness.

Chicagoist - So the USDA is acting as a support, or a background structure?

AW - Yes, but these are very ambitious goals! Changing the food supply and distribution system is very ambitious, and it's going to have to be a collaboration between the federal government, the private sector and the states; there's no other way to do it. We are seeing the private sector showing a strong interest.

Chicagoist - In the current political climate, where spending new money seems to no longer be acceptable, how is that going to work? Is the UDSA going to be able to support the local, the regional, these ideas at a high enough priority?

AW - We're all being asked to do more with less. Right now, we're operating in fiscal year 2011, at fiscal year 2010 spending levels. But, many of those levels are set by a five year farm bill, passed in 2008. So, those programs continue to receive funding, and we'll continue to administer dollars through competitive grant programs like we always have.

Chicagoist - No matter what?

AW - Unless congress decides to make deeper cuts to those programs.

Chicagoist - But those cuts would have to be retroactive, and change the farm bill?

AW - Not necessarily. Those programs that have mandatory direct spending will move forward, unless congress makes legislative changes. But those programs that receive annual discretionary appropriations could see changes.

Chicagoist - Can you give us an example of a program that has gotten some of this funding? A small organization that has gotten some of this money?

AW - The farmers market promotion program has funded numerous projects in Illinois, when it comes to growing farmers markets. Importantly, 10% of the dollars that go out the door are set aside for those farmer's markets that are trying to grow EBT technology capacity. The other thing that the state is doing is taking speciality crop block grants and using them to promote consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables through farmers markets. Every state uses those dollars differently - the state of Illinois targeted farmers markets in particular.

Chicagoist - In a way, that sounds like what you are talking about with "Know Your Farmer - the existing infrastructure and funding, the same farm bill, but it is being used more creatively.

AW - Know your Farmer is now a part of the UDSA's institutional structure. People are learning how to talk about regional and local, and they know how to recognize a program that is supporting those initiatives.

Chicagoist - As someone who has been involved in agriculture policy for a long time, is this new? Is this a recent innovation for USDA?

AW - From my perspective, it's just how this is evolving. Every farm bill, we see more dollars going towards these kinds of initiatives, and every year we have a growing awareness. It's because things are happening at the local level, and consumers are interested - there's demand! So, there's growing awareness at the federal level.

Chicagoist - How does this connect with the USDA's nutrition guidelines - changing what people buy and what people eat?

AW - This administration is very ambitious in its diet-related health initiatives. Through the task force on obesity and through the first lady's Let's Move campaign, you are seeing a multitude of strategies designed to address diet-related illnesses, and obesity specifically. Whether it's the Healthy Food Finance Initiative, which is trying to fund projects that fight food deserts - all of that ties into the regional and local efforts. The dietary guidelines that we just announced really focus on the consumption of whole foods, in combination with physical activity and health. We believe that all of these efforts, whether it's urban agriculture, local and regional, farm to school, are encouraging healthier living, and they're growing a new generation of consumers that are going to be more aware of food and where it comes from.

Chicagoist - These are the initiatives as they exist now. What do you, or USDA, want to see? What would things look like in 10 years?

AW - We would see people wanting to stay. We would stop outward migration from rural towns and communities, and see them grow, with a diversity of population and with young people staying on the farm. Less farmland moving into development, diversified agriculture succeeding in this country. Whether you are growing organic, GMO or conventional, you have an opportunity to have a thriving market and profit by it. And, a greater awareness on the part of the consumer about where their food comes from.

Chicagoist - I'm from iowa, and I grew up surrounded by farms growing corn for corn syrup. If I was to talk to farmers and say "How do you feel about these changes" and they say "I support them, but i couldn't be an organic farmer, I can't change what I do," how do you take people in that group and try to convince them to change?

AW - US agriculture and the growing of our feed grain crops... we're very good at that, and we export a huge amount of that. I think you'll see, as the generation of farmers grows older and a new generation steps up, they're are going to look at all of these growing marketplace opportunities and they are going to decide whether they want to grow an expertise around produce production, and whether they want to diversify their farms and ranches. I think it's hard for people to be patent - this isn't something that you move in and out of with rapid timing.

Chicagoist - So it's a generational shift?

AW - It's partly a generational shift, yes. You see a lot of that in the south with the lack of tobacco production. Either that generation that lost the opportunity to produce tobacco moves into grass-fed livestock or their children decide to grow for a regional market. You're seeing those changes take shape.

Chicagoist - So it's not the standard story that "Big farmers are bad and trying to stop change." They are slowly getting the idea?

AW - Yes, I believe that to be the case.

Chicagoist - Is it still true that small, local farms constitute the fastest-growing sector of US agriculture?

AW - It is. We're anticipating by 2012 it will be a 7 billion dollar market, for regional and local farms.

Chicagoist - This expo is about small business and farms - sometimes very small. As much as we are environmental idealists, the way to create large-scale change is to work with larger corporations. What role does the USDA have in trying to make it easier for large corporations to change things?

AW - They have to see that there is growing demand. They have to understand that there is a market advantage, that there is income to be made. Farmers are business people, so they are looking at the bottom line. I think that while large-scale production may not be as invested in changing how we source food, I think they are interested. Place-based marketing is on their radar screen, and they are paying attention to it.