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USDA rolls out support for small, midsized farmers

Carol Ryan Dumas
USDA on Tuesday announced a second package of support for small and midsized farmers and ranchers, including a streamlined certificationprogram for very small grass-fed beef producers.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday additional support and resources for small and midsized farmers and ranchers, stating those producers are a “vital part of America’s agricultural future, and we are dedicated to ensuring their success.”

That support includes $7 million in grants to 10 universities to develop programs to assist those farmers to grow their operations, enhance their production and become more viable and $8.8 million for technical assistance funding for small, socially disadvantaged producers and Rural Cooperative Centers.

It also includes a simplified, less-costly application process for small producers with 49 head or less of cattle to use the USDA Certified Grass-Fed claim in marketing their beef, said Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden in a phone interview.

With an increasing interest in grass-fed beef and a growing number of producers, USDA streamlined the certification application process producers must complete each time they take their cattle to slaughter, she said.

That will help small producers participate in the certification program, cutting down on the time it takes to participate, saving money and gaining easier access to a high-value market, she said.

Producers who are certified under the new program will receive certificates that allow them to market cattle to slaughter facilities as USDA grass-fed, increasing their value and creating new economic opportunities throughout the supply chain, USDA stated in a press release.

The USDA Grass Fed Program for Small and Very Small Producers was designed as a verification tool to certify that animals meet the requirements of the Animal Marketing Service’s Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim. AMS will review documentation and the detailed farm or ranch plan submitted by the producer and approve a group of animals as meeting the standard requirements if that plan is sufficient.

“We are happy that Secretary Vilsack and the USDA recognize the value of small and midsize farms to America’s rural communities and food system. The USDA’s grass-fed certification program, however, does not do service to either small producers or consumers,” said Marilyn Noble, communications director for American Grassfed Association.

The USDA grass-fed program doesn’t require an on-farm audit, as does the National Organic Program, nor does it address the issue of antibiotic and hormone use. In addition, the USDA standard allows for incidental grain supplementation and partial confinement. These are the areas consumers find important when they seek healthy meats to feed their families, she said.

“We feel that the new USDA grass-fed certification program will once again confuse consumers and do nothing to help small producers create added value for their products,” she said.

In 2009, American Grassfed Association developed its own stringent standards and certification program, which includes third-party on-site audits, to more accurately reflect what consumers are looking for when they see a certified grass-fed label, she said.

That includes animals fed nothing but grass from weaning to slaughter, given free access to pasture and never confined, never administered antibiotics or hormones, and born and raised on U.S. family farms, she said.

USDA communications officer Wendy Wasserman, however, said USDA’s gras-fed standard requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.

Animals certified under USDA’s program cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season, she said.

“This verification program is indeed important for small and very small producers, and we are delighted to add it to our menu of services, resources, technical assistance, support and policy adjustments in support of small and midsize producers,” she said.

The verification program is part of a bigger package of resources for small and midsized produces, including resources for accessing capital, land management, food safety, marketing support and many other things, she said.



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