GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
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Unidentified Man: Hello. And how are you doing here in St. Louis?
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Unidentified Man: Farm Aid 2009.
RAZ: As thousands turn out in St. Louis today to hear Willie Nelson, Neil Young and others performing at the annual Farm Aid concert, we begin the hour with a look at the politics of food.
You're hearing the sounds of what locals here in Washington are calling the White House farmers market.
Unidentified Woman: Just give me $3.65, please. Would you like a bag?
RAZ: The market is just steps away from the Obama family home and was opened last month by the First Lady Michelle Obama. Here are some of the things people are buying this time of year.
Mr. ANDREW(ph): My name is Andrew. I'm shopping for some bison, actually, some bison patties.
Ms. KELLY SCARBOROUGH(ph): Kelly Scarborough, and I'm picking the autumn crisp apples. They're for my apple cider wassail.
Ms. ARNITA AKTON(ph): My name is Arnita Akton. And fresh homegrown food is right up my alley.
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RAZ: It's the first time since Thomas Jefferson was in the White House that fresh produce is being sold in the open air, so close to the president's house. It's both an experiment and an undisguised statement. The Obama administration wants Americans to buy more locally grown food. The problem is, the way we grow food today means that local produce from small farms is often more expensive than what you find at the grocery store, so farmers markets like this one can be too expensive for lower income families.
But this market and a handful of others around the city and the country are now part of a pilot project backed by the Agriculture Department where food assistance credits are accepted. And those food stamps and WIC coupons are worth twice as much if spent at these participating farmers markets.
Mary Ellen Taylor grows lettuce and other vegetables on her farm in Purcellville, Virginia, and she sells that produce here.
Ms. MARY ELLEN TAYLOR: I have seen women walk by with extremely expensive St. Johns suits, and then all of these great professionals pour out of these federal office buildings. But along with that woman who has that suit, I also have redeemed more WIC coupons here at this market than any other market I'm in, and I'm in four other Washington markets.
RAZ: If the local food revolution is quietly under way, it has a surprising new booster: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its new secretary, Tom Vilsack. Now, the thing you should know about Vilsack is that when he was appointed, he was criticized as a shill for big agribusiness like Monsanto. He was, after all, the governor of Iowa, where support for corn subsidies is practically required to win elective office. But as the agriculture secretary, he's starting to push for small changes in the way food might be grown and distributed in the future.
I spoke with Tom Vilsack at his office on Friday.
Secretary Vilsack, welcome to the program.
Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): It's great to be here.
RAZ: Is the way most food is grown in the United States today, is that sustainable in your view in the long run?
Sec. VILSACK: Well, I think what's interesting, in the last five years, we saw 108,000 new farming operations get started with sales of less than $10,000.
RAZ: So these are small farms.
Sec. VILSACK: These are very small farms, but they are a very important component of our agriculture. And there is a real opportunity for us to grow those smaller operations to mid-income-sized operations, and the way to do that is by creating opportunities locally for local production to be consumed locally.
RAZ: Something like, as you know, 75 percent of all food grown in the United States is produced by fewer than 4 percent of farmers. These are large industrial farms. Do you want to put an end to that dominance?
Sec. VILSACK: Well, I, first of all, would respect - I don't know I would necessarily characterize them all as large industrial farms. I think of farmers in Iowa that I know who have a significant role to play in producing the food and fiber of this country, and they are family operations, and they feel very strongly about generational passing the farm from generation to generation.
I frankly believe that we need a diversification of agriculture in our country so that all kinds of agriculture are supported. I don't think you're going to see a transition away from the larger farms that are producing so much of our food and fiber in the short-term. But I think over the long-term, as we create more local production-local consumption linkage, it will give an opportunity for farms of all size to be more profitable than they have been.
RAZ: The program that the department is launching, it's called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. The idea is to promote locally produced food. Can you talk a little bit about this program?
Sec. VILSACK: We think at the USDA that there needs to be a better connection between people and their food, that people have to understand more about where their food comes from.
RAZ: Why should they understand that?
Sec. VILSACK: Well, so that they make informed choices and that they understand and appreciate the work that farmers and ranchers do for them. I think there's a disconnect between the food that we eat and our awareness of where it comes from. We think it comes from a grocery store. It doesn't. It comes from family farmers across the country working hard every day.
So that's the first thing. The second thing is, it is about rural development, economic development. It is about repopulating rural communities in this country. Ninety percent of farm family income comes from off the farm. They're required to work off the farm in order to keep the farm. So it is important for us to have additional markets that makes it easier for them to improve their bottom line and at the same time creating jobs. So Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is focusing on creating wealth in rural communities.
RAZ: The government pours billions of dollars into subsidizing grains and soybeans, as you know, and so the result is a huge surplus, and some argue that becomes a basis for so many processed foods and additives. Do you think in a sense that our system for subsidizing certain foods has made it difficult to innovate?
Sec. VILSACK: First of all, farming is probably the most difficult calling and occupation you can have. You have no control over your input costs. You have no control over the market other than to decide when to sell your crop, and you clearly don't have any control over the weather. So if we want to continue to have a ample supply of food at a cost that is relatively inexpensive, you have got to figure out a way to minimize the risk that farmers have. So the programs that we have are designed to provide a cushion, if you will, to minimize risk.
RAZ: The 2008 farm bill, which is now set in stone, lays out almost $35 billion in subsidies for agriculture over the next five years. Only a small fraction of money is going to organic farmers and local farmers and small farmers. Do you have the power - do you think that this department has the power to change the way we eat now and we'll eat in the future?
Sec. VILSACK: I don't think is what the department will do. I think individual consumers, individual families will make those decisions. I think what we do is we provide diversification; we create a better awareness of where food comes from; we create better opportunities for local producers to be supported by local consumers. I think you will see us make healthier, better decisions in the future. And that will over time change and, I think, result in a resurgence, a repopulation of rural areas and people recognizing that there's real opportunity there.
RAZ: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of agriculture. He has just launched a new program to promote locally produced food. It's called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.
Secretary Vilsack, thanks for your time.
Sec. VILSACK: You bet. Thank you.