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USDA Investing in Growth of Farmers Markets

In discussions about government and agriculture, attention tends to focus on issues such as the billions spent on commodity supports. But the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) – a branch of the USDA – has a program within the farm bill that sends money to growers a little more local. The Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) offers grants to promote the efforts of local and regional food producers and farmers markets.

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“I see the Farmers Market Promotion Program as this unique success story in USDA programs,” says Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), who explains that the program’s goal is to offer communities and small food producers a helping hand.

The FMPP started receiving funding in 2006, though it was created through an amendment to the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act in 1976. The latest grant awardees, who were announced in October, collectively received $9.2 million. With about $33 million allotted by the farm bill, the program has about $10 million more to offer for the 2012 fiscal year. Carmen Humphrey, head of the FMPP, says the program was born of “a need to support under-resourced producers; it was a mutual need that Congress saw.”

Farmers markets have seen a steady increase since 1994. In 2011, the USDA counted 7,173 farmers markets, a 17 percent increase from 2010. The Farmers Market Coalition says that as recently as 2005, farmers market direct to consumer sales were already exceeding $1 billion nationwide.

Through the FMPP, projects can obtain minimum funding of $5,000 and up to $100,000 for efforts such as agri-tourism, marketing campaigns, setting up community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions or professional development training for market managers and organizers — all with the goal of establishing, expanding or promoting local food production. The need is great. In 2010, 81 out of 500 applicants were funded, and Miller notes that “our members are reliant on that program; many apply, few get funded.” 

With a grant from the Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Mississippi Cleveland Farmers Market created a market garden and worked on outreach and education, teaching community residents techniques for freezing, canning and pickling to preserve seasonal foods for “year-round healthy eating.”

This year the program will provide funds to buy a solar-powered cooler and freezer to store CSA produce in Hawaii, to support 15 new Chicago-area winter farmers markets, to open a new seafood market in Louisiana for local fishermen, to expand a market community kitchen in New Mexico, and to support livestock farmers transitioning to 100 percent grass-fed meat in Wisconsin.

As the program has evolved, Electronic Benefit Transfers, or EBT – part of the Supplemental Nutriton Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly called food stamps – have become a bigger part of it.

Humphrey notes the important role accepting SNAP benefits at farmers markets plays in both boosting the local economy and giving communities — especially lower income areas — greater access to healthy and fresh foods. ”It helps across the board, supporting the economy as a whole,” Humphrey says. FMPP has made more efforts recently to focus on food deserts and fresh produce availability in low-income areas.

The food-assistance benefits used to be paper coupons, which were easy for farmers markets to accept. But with the debit card system, markets need to have the right technology. Currently, EBT programs must account for 10 percent of FMPP funding. 

According to Soo Kim, a USDA spokesperson, this year, the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program awarded 17 new and 20 existing EBT projects, representing about 24 percent of total funding for the year.

Miller and Helen Dombalis, from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) would like to see that funding taken out of the FMPP’s responsibility and given to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). The FNS currently pays for electronic benefit transfer technology in grocery stores, and Dombalis wonders why this shouldn’t be extended to farmers markets as well.

They hope this would open up funding to help train grantees who have EBT machines, rather than just “throwing technology at them.” Miller would like to see more technical training, help in setting up accounting for the system and sharing best practices with different farmers markets.

The way Miller sees it, FMPP is doing a lot, but it still isn’t quite enough. This is not necessarily the program managers’ fault, she says, they just need greater resources. She would like to see more training programs for market managers, as well as more professional development and sharing of best practices within the farmers market industry. 

“The program has been developed in an agency with no history of grant programs,” Miller says. “The Agriculture Marketing Service has done an incredible job to grow to administer the program. But there’s a lot that they want to do, but can’t.”

FMPP is limited by it annual budget, and the funding cycle is limited by the end of the current farm bill. 

It’s unclear what will happen to FMPP funding under the new farm bill. On Nov. 1, the original co-sponsors Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, introduced the Local and Regional Farm and Food Bill, intended for inclusion in the 2012 Farm Bill.  It includes a provision to improve local and regional food system infrastructure and markets through the Local Marketing Promotion Program – the former Farmers Market Promotion Program – plus funding for larger scale, non-direct local marketing at $30 million per year.

Dombalis thinks it very important to not only maintain indefinitely the progress already made in promoting local food systems, but to expand on those efforts. She worries that the USDA might not view these smaller programs as important to include in the next farm bill. 

Miller says that the “hallmark of the FMPP program” has been its support of the transparent relationship between farmers and consumers in farmers market settings, fostering direct interaction between those who grow or make food and those who buy locally produced groceries. She says the grant programs should be rooted in transparency as well, remaining accountable to the community and stakeholders.

With hopes of compiling a database of all the programs funded by FMPP, the Farmers Market Coalition has assembled a group of volunteers to get started. Such a database would provide guidance for a local food community that still is fra
gmented, especially because there are no national conventions for farmers market managers.

As of yet, the database project has no funding, but Miller says the importance of a comprehensive program list is that even those who are not funded by FMPP can benefit from the knowledge and innovation in farmers markets across the country. 

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Lindsey Kratochwill is a magazine journalism and environmental policy student at Northwestern University.

© Food Safety News
  • http://kernvalleygrowersassociation.com David Dills

    As a member of a non-profit that operates a farmers market, I am extremely happy that the Agricultural Marketing Service saw fit to give our Market a grant. We have seen an immediate positive affect as we strive to help our neighbors in what the latest US Census calls a food desert. More people know the market exists, the market is more attractive, part time jobs were created, and a majority of the money was spend locally on American made products.