USDA official says she'll brief Hill on 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food'

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After three senators questioned the use of rural development money for the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, a top USDA official said she would soon brief Congress on the program.

Speaking at a conference May 10 sponsored by Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based foundation that encourages good nutrition, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan also urged organic and local food producers not to add fuel to the fire by mounting a campaign in USDA's defense.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on April 27 that they were concerned USDA is redirecting money intended for "essential community facilities" to the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program. It promotes organic and local farm production.

Merrigan said that in her enthusiasm for promoting the program around the country, "perhaps I neglected spending time on briefing people on the Hill."

She also said she believes the senators will find many elements of the program that they like. Merrigan made the statements in reaction to a question at the conference.

Vilsack addressed the issue recently, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Vilsack said the letter was an "unfortunate circumstance."

He added that he considered the letter "inappropriate" because "these senators have not taken the time to understand and appreciate our 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' program," the Tribune reported.

In the letter, the GOP senators said USDA appeared to be helping "small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers' markets" rather than "conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation's food supply."

Noting that USDA released $65 million under the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" banner in the past year, they asked for a citation of congressional authority to operate the program, a breakdown of all announcements of spending under it and a briefing, with particular attention to USDA's Business and Industry Direct and Guaranteed Loan Program.

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