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Letter: Value Added Producers Grant program can

Congress is in the process of crafting an economic recovery package to be delivered to the President in mid-February. Rural Minnesota has been struggling under a weak economy for some time and this package is an opportunity to invest in ways that will stimulate real, homegrown economic growth and enhance the vitality of family farms and rural communities. One rural component of a recovery package should be strengthening the Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG), a program aimed at assisting farmers and their partners in adding value to agriculture products they grow, raise, and market.

Over the past two years Minnesota farmers have submitted 46 VAPG proposals. Yet of those only 21, less than 50 percent have received funding. The demand for the program is real and the opportunity is now to create jobs and spur rural development.

In the latest Farm Bill, with support from Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN), the VAPG program was greatly improved. Language was added to support development of local and regional supply networks called mid tier value chains. This allows farmers to produce for local and regional food markets and come together to aggregate supply to access larger institutional and retail markets, or include rural entrepreneurs to develop their own processing and distribution channels. And, the program is targeted to small and medium sized farms. However, the unfortunate reality is the new Farm Bill only invested $15 million in mandatory funding for the program.

People want to know where their food comes from. Consumers want to reconnect with agriculture and know they share the values of the farm family producing the food--it is often referred to as "food with the farmers' face". This is one of the fastest growing segments of the food system and it has tremendous potential to serve as a powerful economic development engine for rural areas. Community-based food systems allow us to retain the wealth from our land and create real economic opportunity all the way up the supply chain while providing delicious, nutritious food without the 1600 mile trip most of our food takes before it hits our plate.

Farmers markets and direct farm to consumer sales will always be a foundation for community based food systems. But in order to significantly ramp up local food production and consumption, farmers need to develop ways to access larger retail and institutional markets. The VAPG program is an excellent vehicle to help make that happen.

That's why the economic recovery package should invest $24 million in the VAPG program to help spawn new business opportunities for family farmers and rural America and to support emerging community based food systems. -- Terry VanDerPol, program director, Land Stewardship Project, Montevideo