Behind the scenes of the conference’s opening plenary, there were many nervous moments as we tried to get the technology lined up for USDA Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan’s live video feed from Washington DC. At almost the last minute, the connection was made – and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Kathleen Merrigan welcomed everyone to the conference and gave brief remarks about her appreciation, and especially that of the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, for farmers markets and public markets. She touched on the growth in grant funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), EBT/SNAP, and sustainable agriculture, and for her hopes for the future.
I think it was easy to see this as a typical government official’s speech, and in many ways it was, but the ‘behind the scenes’ reality is that this was an extremely important event for us all. This was only Merrigan’s second public appearance since taking office, and she was sending an important message: there’s been a sea change in the USDA’s focus and priorities under this new administration. The USDA now not only recognizes the important role that farmers markets and public markets can play in advancing the priorities of the Obama Administration but the political appointees are willing to put their personal reputations, and more importantly, federal dollars to support farmers market and Buy Local initiatives. USDA Secretary Vilsack has rolled out a new campaign, ‘Know Your Farmer-Know Your Food’, that demonstrates these priorities (by the way, ‘buy local, buy fresh’ was already copyrighted).
Our work over the last many years, the support of the various sustainable agricultural groups and, more recently, the Farmers Market Consortium, a public/private sector partnership dedicated to helping farmers markets by sharing information about funding and resources available to them, and headed up by the USDA’s Errol Bragg, is finally coming into its own. This work has provided a base from which a wider infrastructure can quickly absorb this new emphasis from the USDA and respond to the many opportunities now presented by the numerous political appointees (and the new President and First Lady) that do understand the importance of a locally based food system that is built on the independence of small business, whether they are farmers, market vendors or others impacted by markets.
It’s often said that it’s not what you know but who you know and the experience of snagging Kathleen Merrigan for an appearance at the conference illustrated that point perfectly. My more cynical side tells me that we will not see a lot of change ‘that we can believe in’ from Washington, but Kathleen’s very quick response to my request gives me hope that there will be some practical changes and support for our initiatives coming “down the pike.”