Bom dia!

It’s my final few days of vacation and I’m loving every minute of it! I have been feeling so incredibly present and grateful for all the blessings in this beautiful life since the master cleanse.  Combined with my soul-rocking yoga studio Laughing Lotus, I couldn’t be happier!  The abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables right now is magical!  I’ve been devouring fresh fruits and veggies since the cleanse, right out of my dad’s garden and from the CSA box – pounds of glowing, deep red tomatoes, asian pears, strawberries, apples, water melon, broccoli, greens, beets, carrots….I am in love!

Speaking of food, something very important caught my eye recently: the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.  On September 15, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan  announced the new initiative to begin a national conversation to help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity. To launch the initiative, Secretary Vilsack recorded a video to invite Americans to join the discussion and share their ideas for ways to support local agriculture. The video, one of many means by which USDA will engage in this conversation, can be viewed at USDA’s YouTube channel, . You can also provide comments on this initiative by e-mailing

According to Vilsack, “Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families, and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food.”  Sounds great, right?

The ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative, chaired by Deputy Secretary Merrigan, is the focus of a task force with representatives from agencies across USDA who will help better align the Department’s efforts to build stronger local and regional food systems. This week alone, USDA will announce approximately $65 million in funding for ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiatives.

But, what does this all really mean? Tom Philpot on Grist helps debunk any myths about the USDA’s real actions here. In his own words:

First, let’s be clear on what the USDA is up to here. It is not committing new money to local and regional food systems. As Wright confirmed in a brief conversation after her talk, “Know Your Farmer” is really about publicizing programs laid out in the 2008 Farm Bill—prodding local food activists and entrepreneurs to apply for already available funds.

Thus local and regional food systems, in dire need of infrastructure investment, will likely receive less than “several hundred million” dollars over the life of the current farm bill, which ends in 2013. By contrast, industrial-scale corn producers routinely grab between $4 billion and $9 billion in crop subsidies each year. Overall, payments to producers of “program crops”—corn, soy, cotton, rice, etc.—reach as high as $24 billion some years. “Know Your Farmer” won’t change that huge imbalance. (For starters, $4.8 million will go to projects in 14 states, USDA announced today.)

So it’s hardly a revolutionary program.

Even so, it’s remarkable and to my knowledge unprecedented that the USDA is making a major effort to publicize these programs and ensure that at least some federal money flows into emerging alternative food systems.

USDA leadership can’t change the structure of the Farm Bill, but the agency does decide how farm bill programs play out. And the Obama USDA seems determined to do what it can to use existing rural-developent programs in a progressive way.

Of course, USDA also remains capable of playing its time-tested role or promoter and protector of Big Ag. Consider that in the current fiscal year, the agency has spent $151 million in taxpayer cash on mass-produced meat to bolster the struggling pork industry. For perspective on such meat-industry bailouts, see this lucid and important post from Elanor Starmer on Ethicurean.

Tom Philpot knows what’s up.  This is all crazy fascinating to me given my new job, which begins Monday! I’m going to help take down Big Ag with RAN.  The Rainforest Agribusiness Campaign is targeting Cargill, the largest privately-held company in the United States, for its role in rainforest destruction for soy and palm plantations.  Cargill is the #1 importer of palm oil from Southeast Asia into the United States.  We are working to get Cargill to adopt and implement a comprehensive global forest policy to hold the company to account for its palm and soy operations in tropical rainforests.

First week on the job I’m flying to Boston for the FairTrade & Sustainable Certification Program at ExpoEast – a trade show all about alternatives to palm oil and other products being grown in a way that is harmful environmentally and socially.  The IBD EcoSocial Certification program at the Natural Products Expo East 2009 trade show: EcoSocial is an increasingly popular Fair Trade certification program, a guarantee seal that promotes Human, Social and Environmental development in developing countries. EcoSocial empowers small farmers and the food industry around the world. To learn more, please visit our website at

Accompanying us to Boston and Minneapolis is a delegate from Papa New Guinea who’s coconut farm is surrounded in palm oil plantations. She will share her personal story through lectures and panels in Boston and then to Minneapolis, where she will meet with Cargill.  We will conclude our public engagements and speaking tour there.  I’m excited!