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Support increased funding for sustainable agriculture

By Emily Franciskovich
Wednesday September 05, 2001

The languishing farm economy in California has taken its toll on many family farmers. As California’s agricultural sector continues to struggle through a year plagued with energy crisis, low prices and water shortages, sustainable agriculture and organic farming offer realistic, viable solutions. 

Investing today’s federal tax dollars in programs that support organic and/or sustainable agricultural production systems will enhance marketing options and provide much needed flexibility for farmers in the future. Farmers as well as entire communities stand to benefit greatly from federal sustainable agriculture programs. 

Although severely under-funded, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, SARE, has worked to strengthen farmer income, enhance consumer trust, increase community involvement and encourage environmental stewardship. The recent successes of AMO Organics, a producer co-op located on the California’s Central Coast, illuminate how SARE funding not only strengthens and enhances agricultural operations but also revitalizes rural and urban communities. 

In 1998, a group of Mexican immigrant organic farmers recognized that relying on intermediary distributors caused a significant decrease in their profits. With the aid of a SARE grant, these farmers, now known as AMO Organics, researched and found viable ways to directly market their goods.  

By creating Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSA’s, AMO developed new, alternative channels of distribution. As a result of their SARE grant, AMO has significantly expanded their operations at both the local and regional levels. 

According to Diego Vasquez, a founding member of AMO Organics, “Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSA’s, have allowed us to cater our business to local low-income communities while staying afloat financially.” By signing up to a CSA program, customers receive weekly deliveries of locally grown AMO Organic produce. AMO has gained access to various consumer networks through their special CSA arrangements with local schools and churches. Vasquez notes, “Now we sell our produce to the friends and families of our regular CSA members in nearby school and church parking lots.” 

Due to its success in local neighborhoods, AMO now contracts with programs in neighboring urban regions. Recently, the Farm Fresh Choice program in Berkeley began selling AMO crops “produce stand” style at school-age programs in West and South Berkeley, the city’s lowest per-capita income neighborhoods.  

Consumers become “members” of Farm Fresh Choice and agree to purchase at least $7 worth of produce per week, similar to the purchase of a weekly box of produce through CSA. However, members are able to select anything they’d like from the Farm Fresh Choice “produce stand,” which has a wide variety of seasonally available produce purchased from AMO Organics and other farmers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. 

“Farm Fresh Choice was designed to accomplish two goals simultaneously,” notes Josh Miner, co-coordinator of the Berkeley Farm Fresh Choice program. “First, to make fresh, nutritious, locally grown and either organic or sustainably-grown produce more easily accessible and attractive to lower-income families living in the urban Bay Area. Second, to establish direct links between these urban families and farmers of color in Northern California. Farmers like the AMO cooperative can play a critical role in strengthening community food security here in Berkeley.” 

As AMO Organics’ success reflects, programs like SARE boost farm profit by securing distribution outlets previously only available to larger conglomerated co-ops, and corporate operations. By lending marketing heft to small, organic growers like AMO, SARE funding also works to increase rural-urban networks and strengthen food security. Although corporate farming remains critically important to this country, we must continue to explore and support methods for nourishing our citizens that include experimentation with local and regional growers, like AMO. SARE is both an effective and efficient vehicle for accomplishing goals. 

Unfortunately, last year SARE received less than 1 percent of USDA research and outreach funding. This month a congressional conference committee from both houses will determine the final level of federal agricultural program funding for the upcoming year. It is imperative that our representatives grant SARE and other sustainable agriculture programs budgetary priority. 


Emily Franciskovich works with the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group