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Vilsack in the News Again

This time for being the force behind a program to provide the equipment for farmers markets to accept food stamps, something that everyone should agree is a good thing. People have access to cheaper*, healthier food, farmers take home more money themselves. This comes on top of the increases in the money provided for the food stamps program (which was both long overdue and, along with increasing unemployment benefits, has been shown as one of the most efficient ways to stimulate the economy) as well as experiments at some farmers markets to redeem food stamps at twice face value. Keeping in mind actual stamps were replaced by EBT cards years ago.

Up until now the problem has been that the “food stamps” program switched to an electronic swipe card system some years ago which require a swipe reader. No problem at a grocery store where a single checkout lane can easily do five-figures of sales in a single day, but purchasing the readers (which also require internet access to function) is a major finacial burden for individual farmers, who, if they’re doing well, are making one or two thousand dollars one day each week at farmers markets.

That’s where the USDA, or in the case of Iowa the state government, steps in to subsidize or completely pick up the cost of the card reader. The USDA program is still getting off the ground, but Iowa already has over 100 farmers markets which accept the food stamps program. (Which, before the recent push at the USDA represented 13% of all farmers markets accepting them in the whole country while Iowa contains only 1% of america’s population.)

The hungry are feed and have to option of doing so more healthfully, the farmers profit, and food supply chains shrink so even the environment benefits. All as a result of the leadership of the state of Iowa, and the one Iowan in particular Pres. Obama chose to head up the USDA.

There’s a reason I’m emphasizing Iowa so much here, and it’s not that it’s not just Iowan pride. When Obama first appointed Vilsack to run the USDA there was much groaning and complaining among the ranks of liberals (a group I usually identify with myself). “Not an Iowa politician! They’re all in the pocket of big agri-business. Remember that episode of West Wing where the candidates all felt like they had to pledge to support ethanol to be competitive in the Iowa caucuses.” Oh you want an ACTUAL quote? from the npr article linked above:

Those are surprising words from a man who has been criticized for being too friendly with big agribusinesses like Monsanto. He was, after all, the governor of Iowa, where some say support for corn subsidies is practically required to win elective office.

Well it irritates me, and this bit of news makes it a good time to emphasis a subtle but instinctive distinction. Iowan politicians don’t need to keep on the good side big-agribusinesses. The people any one seeking statewide election in Iowa wants to keep happy are farmers. In 2007 there were more than 92,000 farms in Iowa and just as importantly, many Iowans who don’t farm still have a family farm somewhere in their extended family.

Politics in Iowa will favor any program that keeps farmers away from bankruptcy. Those can be crop subsidies, or new sources of demand like ethanol production, but it can just as easily be government incentives to buy directly from farmers, and encourage sourcing vegetable production locally instead of shipping everything in the produce aisle in from Texas or California.

Farmers in Iowa and the rest of the midwest know there’s more profit to be had in non-commodity crops, and there’s definitely a lot of effort going into diversification. Last time I was home I had some delicious Iowa peaches. Ten years ago there were two wineries in Iowa, now there are 62. (Or 74 depending on whose numbers you trust, and the very fact they can’t even keep track says loads about how fast the industry is growing). From five vineyards in 1999 to 398 today.

The lesson is family farmers across the country have a vested interest in increasing the consumption of locally grow and fresh foods. Hence the enthusiastic response among farmers to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, also a project of Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, and Iowa.

Also Go Cyclones!

*This assuming you’re going to a farmers market where the objective really is to cut out the middlemen* and make more for the farmer while saving the consumer money. Sadly some farmers markets have become more a cultural and entertainment event, which prices higher than local supermarkets. I’m looking at you Ithaca, NY.

**Obligatory Firefly Quote: “Eliminating the middle man, never as simple as it sounds. About 50% of the human race is middlemen and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated.”

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