Growing lessons

Reconnecting farmers with consumers makes sense

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

We all know what a mess President Barack Obama inherited with the economy. But you might not have heard about the situation that needs to be sorted out in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For many years, the feds have subsidized crops, such as corn, wheat and soy to the tune of $35 billion. The surplus of these crops results in Americans consuming so much corn syrup and meat, obesity has become an epidemic. In turn, the government spends millions of dollars telling people not to eat these subsidized products because they are bad for our health.

Does that make any sense?

Obama is faced with entrenched corporate farmers who benefit from the current system. But with his appointments so far, he has put together a group of reformers who might actually be able to change these policies, including Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan.

This September, Merrigan launched an innovative new program, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. At an event last week, she explained, “Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than they have been in several generations, and by better connecting consumers of food to their producers, people across the country will have a greater understanding of the challenges in agriculture today and the effort it takes to put food on their table. … We can revitalize rural communities and spur economic opportunity by strengthening the link between local production and local consumption.”

So how does Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food work in the real world? Last week I was able to find out. I spent a couple of hours meeting with four delightful characters, who just happen to grow some of the world’s best mandarin oranges in Placer County.

Rich Ferreira from Side Hill Citrus, Tom Aguilar from Mandarin Hill Orchards, Steve Pilz from Hillcrest Orchard and Tony Aguilar from Highland Orchard are carrying on a tradition of Placer County fruit farming that goes back 100 years. Why are Placer County mandarins among the best in the world? It turns out that the soil is good, the water is great and, most importantly, the weather, hot days combined with cool nights, is perfect.

Before this conversation, when I’d go shopping, I never really considered the difference between, say, the wonderful Placer County mandarin sitting right next to the mandarin grown somewhere else. I just purchased the least expensive one. When you meet the local farmers who grow our produce, you don’t just get fresher fruits and vegetables that taste better, you gain a greater understanding of why shopping local matters.

The Obama administration should be applauded for its efforts to reconnect farmers and consumers, but there’s no reason to wait for Merrigan’s program to kick in. Just head down to the nearest farmers’ market, where you’ll find plenty of farmers to talk to.