The Problem(s) with the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food"


In September 2009 the USDA launched its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative to much fanfare. At the time of its launch, programs tied to the initiative instantly secured "approximately $65 million in funding," with promises to strengthen "existing programs and develop new ones."

The purpose of the initiative, the centerpiece of which is this eponymous website (which boasts the catchy and easy-to-remember URL http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/knowyourfarmer?navid=KNOWYOURFARMER), is "to pursue sustainable agriculture and support for local and regional food systems."

In actuality, the website does little more than present several lists of USDA-sponsored programs. It's hard to see how a typical consumer can benefit at all from the initiative. The one substantive portion of the site where a consumer could conceivably come to know their farmer is where the site presents a link to an existing, off-site USDA search page at which visitors can locate a Farmers' Market. Yet this is hardly a revolutionary feature, as there are already private websites like LocalHarvest and Eat Wild that have been performing similar functions for years. Many people these days also have access to Google.

For these reasons and others, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is under attack. The GOP-led House Appropriations Committee recently called out (PDF) Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food as one of "a number of unfunded mandates, overly burdensome rulemakings and various initiatives" that the USDA and other federal agencies are juggling.

And if the utility of Know Your Farmer is suspect, some of the most troubling aspects of the initiative stem from questions over its funding. The problem? No one seems to have any idea how much the initiative costs. As I noted above, the USDA itself claimed programs tied to Know Your Farmer obtained $65 million in funding at the time of the initiative's launch—with at least some of that seemingly shifted over from existing programs. But, Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA's deputy secretary of agriculture, defended the initiative's cost, saying recently it has "no office, no full-time staff and no budget."

The budget claim is simply untrue, at least according to Merrigan's employer. See, for example, this USDA press release titled "Additional $4.5 million in Funding for 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' Initiative."

Meanwhile, Tom Philpott of The Nation last week twice defended the initiative's funding as involving only "modest amounts of money," though he modestly never specifies how much money that entails. (Unhelpfully to his readers, Philpott notes that Know Your Farmer is "essentially a website" and not "just a website.")

Philpott also blasts the person leading the attack on Know Your Farmer, North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx. And from the links he provides Philpott may have a point about her. But the fact Rep. Foxx makes a detestable strawman (or strawwoman), and that fans of Know Your Farmer often rightly oppose USDA subsidies for larger farms and farmers, doesn't mean Know Your Farmer represents good policy.

These conflicting reports over the efficacy and funding of Know Your Farmer—combined with a 2009 snafu in which the USDA had to admit the agency doesn't even know how many damn employees are on its payroll—provide more than enough justification to end any funding of the initiative. If deputy secretary Merrigan is right that Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food doesn't require any taxpayer funding, then why the hell is anyone crying foul over a move that would simply ensure it doesn't spend what it doesn't need?

Baylen Linnekin is a lawyer and the executive director of Keep Food Legal, a nonprofit that promotes culinary freedom, the idea that people should be free to make and consume whatever commestibles they prefer. For more information and to join or donate, go here now.