USDA Dep. Sec. Merrigan Talks KYF2 and Hoop Houses at UC Davis
May 21, 2011 | Jeremy Ogul
There’s not a key issue that the next generation faces that doesn’t have agriculture at the center of it, according to US Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who spoke Wednesday at UC Davis.
From the obesity epidemic to climate change to joblessness, what happens in agriculture plays a critical role, Merrigan said. Her speech focused on the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative, a USDA-wide effort to carry out President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems. “It’s an initiative to look at all our existing programs and ask the question, ‘Are we doing the best that we can to support local and regional food infrastructure?'” she said.
The main objectives of the KYF2 initiative are as follows:
- Stimulate food – and agriculturally – based community economic development;
- Foster new opportunities for farmers and ranchers;
- Promote locally and regionally produced and processed foods;
- Cultivate healthy eating habits and educated, empowered consumers;
- Expand access to affordable fresh and local food; and
- Demonstrate the connection between food, agriculture, community and the environment
Merrigan also spoke about the success of the USDA’s Seasonal High Tunnel Pilot, a program launched in 2009 to finance the installation of high tunnels, also known as hoop houses.
The structures are made of lightweight plastic or metal pipe and usually covered with plastic sheeting. They act like greenhouses in that they capture energy from the sun to create more favorable growing conditions and extend the growing season. Unlike greenhouses, they do not require any electricity to operate fans or lamps and are cheaper and easier to set up. Compared with traditional field agriculture, the controlled environment of a high tunnel can result in a reduced need for irrigation and pest control.
“There’s an environmental good to these,” Merrigan said, noting how low-cost hoop houses can make fresh produce available in areas that would otherwise have to ship their produce from hundreds or thousands of miles away. “I think that when we get farmers to do things that protect the environment, there’s a public good that comes of it.”
Merrigan said the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) spent $13 million in fiscal year 2010 to fund the construction of 2,400 seasonal high tunnels in 43 states. NRCS generally provides funding for half of a producer’s cost of purchasing and installing a high tunnel, but some producers may qualify for 75 to 90 percent financial assistance. Funding for the program is available for fiscal year 2011.
Merrigan also mentioned USDA programs encouraging investment in methane digesters. Methane digesters are biogas recovery systems that use methane from animal manure to generate electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from manure management. The Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Loan Program offers access to credit for farmers who want to implement digester systems on their farms.
Overall, Merrigan said that today’s challenges can only be overcome with more conversation, more experimentation and more investment in new ideas.