Sparked Cultural Interest in Gardening and Locally Grown Produce

Locally Grown Food Inspires Consumers to Learn More, Garden at Home 

By Laurie Greene, Editor

Cultural changes in eating habits are sparking an added interest in locally grown produce. Scott Steinmaus, professor in the Biological Sciences Department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO), outlined the surge in local produce purchasing and how it is igniting consumer interest in growing their own gardens.

“The food craze is a real big movement right now,” Steinmaus stated, “especially with urban folks. Some of the biggest scenes are the foodie craze—that farm-to-table idea of buying locally, organically-produced food.”

Scott Steinmaus, professor of Biological Sciences Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Scott Steinmaus, professor of Biological Sciences Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Continuing, “And the cooking shows are out of control-popular, right? Where does the food come from? It comes from here; this is what it’s all about,” he said, with pride.

The growing trends are also reinvigorating students to become more involved, according to Steinmaus. “Students are asking where their food comes from,” he commented, “and who the farmers are that produce such healthy fruits and vegetables. That is an exciting part of our discipline as well—this foodie craze, and I think our students want to become a part of that,” he reflected.

The push for local produce is also inspring more people to grow their own home gardens. “When they garden, they get it,” Steinmaus explained. “And as soon as people get their hands dirty and as soon as they produce their first tomato; there’s nothing more empowering than producing your own food,” he said, “even if it’s a little bit.”

With this renewed interest in home gardening, Steinmaus observed, many are discovering their preconceived notions of farming were not quite accurate. “We’re working with the American Horticultural Society, putting together the videos that show people farming isn’t what you might think it is; it is actually completely different.” Steinmaus said.

“Farming involves a lot more than a green thumb,” he elaborated. “It requires the understanding of growing cycles and identifying various deficiencies. It utilizes very high technology. It is producing food; there is nothing more empowering than putting food on your kitchen table that you grew in your garden, or was grown by a farmer you know just down the street, and you know his [or her] name,” said Steinmaus.

USDA, Microsoft Innovation Challenge Winners

Open Data from USDA, Microsoft Cloud Technology Strengthen Food Supply Through “Innovation Challenge” Winners

 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Microsoft officials announced the winners of the USDA, Microsoft Innovation Challenge late last month in which contestants used USDA agriculture production open data to develop online tools that can help make the American food supply more resilient in the face of climate change.

“In yet another example of how public and private resources can be leveraged together to address significant global concerns, the winners of the USDA-Microsoft Innovation Challenge have used open government data to create an impressive array of innovative tools to help food producers and our communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and ensure our nation’s ability to provide plentiful, affordable food,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “For more than 100 years, USDA has compiled data on the farm economy, production, and the health of crops around the country, and it is exciting to see such modern, useful tools spring from these information sources.”

The Challenge was created in support of the President’s Climate Data Initiative, which aims to harness climate data in ways that will increase the resilience of America’s food system. USDA provided contestants with more than 100 years of crop and climate data through Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.

“Combining the advantages of cloud computing resources with the government’s desire to provide open access to public data is likely to transform scientific research and business innovation,” said Dr. Daron G. Green, deputy managing director of Microsoft Research. “Microsoft’s partnership with the USDA evidences how public-private partnership can stimulate new applications, explore novel scenarios and, in this case, work towards a more resilient and sustainable food production.”

A total of $63,000 in cash and prizes were awarded, with winners selected from more than 346 registrants and 33 submissions from around the world.

The award recipients and their projects, are:FarmPlenty

 

  • Grand Prize, Open Source Application Award, and Best Visualization in Time or Space Award recipient: Farm Plenty, submitted by George Lee of San Francisco, Calif. This application allows farmers to analyze USDA data about crops grown within five kilometers of their farms to make informed decisions about their own crop choices.

 

  • Second Prize and Open Source Application Award recipient: Green Pastures, submitted by Khyati Majmudar of Mumbai, India. This comprehensive dashboard interface allows a farmer to visualize production, economic, livestock, and commodity data from NASS, ERS, ARMS, and other sources at scales from national to local, including information on farmers’ markets.

 

  • Third Prize recipient: What’s Local, submitted by Benjamin Wellington of Landscape Metrics LLC in Brooklyn, N.Y. This tool analyzes the resources that are required to produce agricultural outputs by using data from the Census of Agriculture in a way that allows urban population centers to connect with farmers in their area.

 

  • Honorable Mention: Open Source Application Award, and Best Student-Made Award recipient: Farm Profit Calculator, submitted by Fernando Napier and Matt Pedersen of Lincoln, Neb. Farmers can use this mobile phone application to compare their input costs (fertilizer, seed, fuel, etc.) to regional averages, and find financial efficiencies where their costs are above the norm.croptrends

 

  • Honorable Mention recipient: Croptrends, submitted by Chaiyawut Lertvichaivoravit and Ta Chiraphadhanakul of Thousand Eyes in San Francisco. This useful tool can be used for viewing spatial and temporal trends in crop production and yield by county for the entire United States by using NASS data.

 

  • Popular Choice Award recipient: VAIS, submitted by Ken Moini of Thallo Tech in Nashville, Tenn. This tool uses NASS data for the entire United States to provide a unique approach to visualizing crowd-sourced pricing data.

 

  • Large Organization Recognition Award recipient: Farmed, submitted by Bryan Tower of Applied Technical Systems in Silverdale, Wash. This tool allows farmers to view crop conditions in their area by using VegScape data from NASS combined with local weather data.

 

USDA is an active founding member of the Global Data Partnership through the memberships of both the U.S. Government Open Data and the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiatives. USDA is helping pave the way for coordinating global efforts to make agriculture and nutrition data open. USDA’s Open Data Catalog is the authoritative source of publicly available USDA data.

Since 2009, USDA has invested in and advanced innovative and transformative initiatives to solve societal challenges and ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. USDA’s integrated research, education, and extension programs, supporting the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel, have resulted user-inspired, groundbreaking discoveries that are combating childhood obesity, improving and sustaining rural economic growth, addressing water availability issues, increasing food production, finding new sources of energy, mitigating climate variability, and ensuring food safety. To learn more about USDA’s impact on agricultural science, visit www.usda.gov/results.

Farmers Markets Try to Weather the Drought

Source: Ching Lee; Ag Alert

With summer harvest in full swing and farmers markets brimming with the usual variety of produce, the effects of the drought may not be immediately apparent to shoppers–but farmers who work those markets tell a different story.

Kern County farmer Greg Tesch, who works five farmers markets in his region and runs three of them, relies entirely on surface water to farm more than 70 different fruits, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers. Tesch said he’s not selling his usual array of products this year.

He said he couldn’t plant strawberries last fall because the canal that feeds his farm went dry in August. Half his cherry trees did not survive, so he had fewer cherries to sell. And because he did not have water deliveries until mid-March, he was unable to plant certain crops on time, missing an important early-season niche.

“We’re typically able to sell things that are slightly out of season,” he said. “The water wasn’t available, so we had to plant when a lot of other people planted, and so there is less demand for our product at farmers markets, as well as wholesale.”

He said the late start also forced him to lower his prices because he now faces “a glut of produce all at one time” and “competing against stores in the wrong time of year.”

Looking ahead, Tesch said he plans to scale back his vegetable production and plant more deep-rooted crops, most likely cherries on drought-tolerant rootstocks. He said he wants to grow crops that mature in the spring, which he acknowledged will affect his farmers-market business.

Some farmers who have better access to water were not necessarily spared from impacts of the drought. In San Diego County, Eli Hofshi, who uses mainly municipal water for irrigation, said he has stopped watering his winter vegetables and will not harvest them because his water bills have become unaffordable.

He said while certain crops such as tomatoes, squash and trees can handle some water stress, vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts become too bitter if not irrigated. In hindsight, he said he should not have planted the winter vegetables.

“We just didn’t realize it was going to be this costly,” he said. “We planted them last fall and they’ve just now started to produce. So it was a bad mistake. It’s been a double loss by putting the water in, doing the labor.”

With the loss of product, Hofshi said he’s had to buy from other farmers to fill in at his farm stand, but he’s not able to do that at the farmers market, where he’s taking a loss, despite raising prices.

“People are definitely balking at the prices right now,” he said. “They don’t like to pay (more). But we absolutely had to do it, with the cost of water and not to mention we’ve had a minimum-wage increase.”

Fresno County blueberry farmer Kim Sorensen, whose season ended earlier this month, said she also had to raise prices this year—by about 8 percent—to cover some of her higher production costs from having to pump water during the winter. While her customers noticed the price increase, she said most of them understood.

“We lost a little business I think, but not a tremendous amount just because most of what we do is in more affluent areas,” she said.

Farms in other parts of the state where there’s more water also reported increased production costs, with some having to reduce their production or not grow more thirsty crops in order to save water.

San Joaquin County farmer Beatriz Jimenez said she didn’t grow as much okra, eggplant and peppers. Cesar Cuebas, who works for Perry’s Garden Highway Gardens in Sacramento County, said the farm cut at least 30 percent of its production of crops such as sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers and watermelon. And El Dorado County farmer Patrick Hoover said he restricted water on some of his crops, such as apples, and may have smaller fruit this year.

“The drought is not just about water,” said Dan Best, general counsel of the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets, noting that the warm winter did not give trees such as cherries enough chill hours to set fruit, leaving many growers with a very small crop or nothing to sell.

But for the most part, farmers-market managers reported little change in the amount and variety of products selling at their markets, and said any price increases have been minimal.

Joe Schirmer, who grows a variety of vegetables in Santa Cruz County, said warm, sunny winter weather increased patron attendance at farmers markets, which was good for business. With access to adequate groundwater supplies, he said he was able to extend his growing season during the winter.

“Things really were productive in the wintertime, so we actually did pretty well because of the drought,” he said.

And while having to irrigate through the winter definitely increased his costs, he said the extra production and sales probably resulted in a net gain for his farm.

Governor Brown Signs Bill Allowing Wine Tasting at Farmers’ Markets

By David Siders; The Sacramento Bee

Californians can start sipping wine at farmers markets. Immediately.

Gov. Jerry Brown announced he has signed an urgency measure allowing winegrowers who bottle their own wine to conduct instructional tastings at California’s numerous farmers markets. Assembly Bill 2488, by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, was approved by both houses of the Legislature without dissent.

The bill expands a provision of state law allowing the sale of estate-grown wine at farmers markets. Wine industry groups said the inability to offer samples hurt sales in an industry in which customers are accustomed to a taste.

Brown, a Democrat, signed the legislation without comment. It was one of 10 bills the governor announced signing Tuesday.

The measure requires wine tasting areas to be separated from the rest of the farmers market by a rope or other barrier, and it limits tastings to three ounces per patron per day.

Proponents of the bill said it would help small wineries build their brand. Opponents, including the California Council on Alcohol Problems, opposed the measure, according to a legislative analysis.

USDA Announces $78 Million Available for Local Food Enterprises

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA is making a historic $78 million investment in local and regional food systems, including food hubs, farmers markets, aggregation and processing facilities, distribution services, and other local food business enterprises.

“The 2014 Farm Bill has given USDA new tools, resources and authority to support the rural economy,” Vilsack said. “Consumer demand for locally-produced food is strong and growing, and farmers and ranchers are positioning their businesses to meet that demand. As this sector continues to mature, we see aggregation, processing, and distribution enterprises across the local food supply chain growing rapidly.

These historic USDA investments in support of local food give farmers and ranchers more market opportunities, provide consumers with more choices, and create jobs in both rural and urban communities.”

Vilsack said that $48 million in loan guarantees for local food projects is now available through USDA ‘s Rural Development’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, and $30 million is available through competitive grants via the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program.

The 2014 Farm Bill requires USDA to set aside at least five percent of Business and Industry (B&I) program loan guarantees for projects that focus on local food business enterprises. Details on how to apply for local food funding through the B&I program are available on the Rural Development website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

The B&I program has the authority to fund local food infrastructure in urban areas as long as the project supports farm and ranch income and expands healthy food access in underserved communities.

Rural Development’s B&I program provides financial backing for rural business development in partnership with private-sector lenders. It is one of several USDA programs that help finance local foods projects.

In 2013, Rural Development supported more than 170 local food infrastructure projects – from food hubs, to scale-appropriate processing facilities, to cold storage and distribution networks. Entities eligible for B&I loan guarantees include cooperatives, non-profit organizations, corporations, partnerships or other legal entities, Indian tribes, public bodies or individuals.

The 2014 Farm Bill tripled funding for marketing and promotion support for local food enterprises by creating the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program, administered by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). This new program makes $30 million available annually to farmers markets, other direct producer-to-consumer venues, and other businesses in the local food supply chain.

Under this program, $15 million is now available for marketing and promotional support specifically for local food businesses, including food hubs, delivery and aggregation businesses, and processing and storage facilities along the local food supply chain, while $15 million is for marketing support for farmers markets and other direct to consumer outlets.

Since 2009, AMS, which administers this program, has funded nearly 450 projects totaling $27 million to support direct marketing efforts for local food. More information about how to apply is available on the AMS website. Applications are due June 20, 2014.

These funding opportunities are cornerstones of the USDA’s commitment to support local and regional food systems. USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative coordinates the Department’s policy, resources, and outreach efforts related to local and regional food systems The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass maps nearly 3,000 local and regional food projects supported by USDA and eleven other federal agencies.

Secretary Vilsack has identified strengthening local food systems as one of the four pillars of USDA’s commitment to rural economic development, along with production agriculture (including expanding export markets and improving research), promoting conservation and outdoor recreation opportunities, and growing the biobased economy.

California Program Helps Needy Families Buy Fresh Produce at Farmers Markets

Source:  Claire Fleishman

With tight budgets and children to feed, recipients of federal nutrition assistance were rarely seen at farmers markets, where the words “affordable” and “fresh” didn’t often mix. That is changing, thanks to a state program that is in line to get a big boost in federal support.

More and more recipients are stepping up to market managers’ tables, swiping their card from CalFresh (nationally known as SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and getting a bonus good for fresh produce.Under the Market Match Program, CalFresh recipients can get $10 a week in bonus scrip for fruits and vegetables for every $10 they spend at farmers markets. Over 30,000 CalFresh participants have used the scrip at 130 markets statewide, creating more than $1 million in additional income for farmers at these markets.

Locally, the bonuses are available at a number of farmers markets, including Altadena, Long Beach and Canoga Park. Federal and state officials are trying to expand the bonuses to other farmers markets to help stem an old problem: low-income recipients using federal nutrition assistance to purchase unhealthful products, particularly high-sugar sodas and junk food.

The matching money comes from the California Market Match Consortium, which was founded five years ago by farmers market operators and community organizations. The consortium is funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and a variety of private donors. Recently the Los Angeles County agency First 5 LA, which draws on tobacco tax money to help programs benefitting young children, became a partner.

More funding is on the way. The 2014 Farm Bill allocated $100 million over the next five years for incentive programs. A new California Assembly bill proposes a Market Match Nutrition Incentive Fund of $2.75 million per year for five years, to maximize capture of federal dollars. With these funds, all 854 markets in California could participate. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, feeds one in seven people in the nation. It dispenses $8 billion in California. But beneficiaries of the program, especially children, also suffer high rates of obesity and diabetes, which have been linked to cheaper, sugary foods.

California has the most cases of diabetics in the nation, and spending in the state to treat the disease in 2012 approached $28 billion, according to American Diabetes Association data. New York City tried to ban the use of SNAP funds for buying high-sugar drinks in 2010. Beverage manufacturers and some civil libertarians objected, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, vetoed the idea.

In lieu of curbing the supply of junk food — a politically unattractive option — public health advocates are working hard to change the demand by making healthful foods cheaper and more attractive.

Carle Brinkman of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, which assists farmers markets statewide with implementation of electronic benefit transfer programs, said, “Instead of being punitive, we like to incentivize (healthful) food choices. We can give customers who wouldn’t normally shop at farmers markets a boost, and at the same time, send additional funds to small- and medium-size farmers.”

The question now is: Will the incentives change decades of entrenched habits? Initial signs are positive. In Massachusetts, a USDA Healthy Incentives pilot project followed 55,000 SNAP households for a year; some were credited with 30 cents for every dollar spent on targeted produce. Spending on fruits and vegetables was higher for those receiving incentives at a rate that was both “statistically significant and … nutritionally relevant,” the study concluded.

And a recent survey by the California Consortium found that nearly 3 of 4 Market Match shoppers came specifically for the match. They leave with bags of fresh produce and new ideas from nutrition classes frequently held in conjunction with Market Match.

At one market recently, a rapt audience of about 20 women and children absorbed a “Rethink Your Drink” lesson as a dietitian stirred a frosty pitcher of ice water laced with mint and cucumber slices. Delicious, several women agreed, and even cheaper than soda.