The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is quite proud of the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program overseen by the Department of Agriculture because it gives money to crop and livestock producers who grow food sustainably, but generally more organically and alternatively than modern conventional agriculture.

If we want federal budget cuts, then programs that encourage small-scale production so that the elite consumers can eat their free-range chickens and organic produce isn’t a wise use of tax dollars.

The VAPG program in the funded 298 projects in 44 states and Puerto Rico totaled $40.2 million, noted the NSAC. “The VAPG program provides competitive grants to individual independent agricultural producers, groups of independent producers, producer-controlled entities, and farmer or rancher cooperatives to create or develop value-added producer-owned businesses,” the NSAC explained. 

"Value-Added Producer Grants increase farmers' income, establish jobs in rural communities, and expand food choices for American consumers," noted Helen Dombalis, policy associate with the NSAC. "This program is exactly what our country needs as we seek ways to stimulate our economy."

I think the money could be spent in wiser ways to stimulate the economy or doesn’t need to be spent at all. It is another one of those programs that one group or anther is trying to protect from budget cutting. So many organizations want cuts to everything except their “pet” project.

“VAPG grants may be used to fund business and marketing plans and feasibility studies or to acquire working capital to operate a value-added business venture or alliance. Working capital applications must be supported by an independent feasibility study as well as a business plan. This round of awardees includes 62 planning grants (21 percent of the total awards) and 236 working capital grants (79 percent of the total awards),” NSAC announced.

As though to justify all the money being spent, NSAC highlighted four grant programs it was proud to see funded, all of which I’d not spend federal money to support if I had a choice of where my USDA money was going to be spent.

Planning money of $40,000 is going to Steve McKaskle of McKaskle Farms in Pemiscot, Mo., “to evaluate the fiscal feasibility of purchasing milling equipment for rice, bread flour and cornmeal; cleaning equipment for popcorn; and packaging equipment for all of their organic products. McKaskle has already captured a relatively significant market; he sells in seven Whole Foods stores, two Fresh Markets, and several other health food and natural food stores. The issue, he clarifies, is a lack of processing equipment and, therefore, missed financial opportunities.”

Another planning project outlined by NSAC is that of Cody Hopkins of Falling Sky Farm in Marshall, Ark., who operates a small, diversified livestock farm. “There are currently no USDA poultry processing facilities in the state that will handle birds from independent growers,” claims NSAC. “Therefore, Hopkins will use his $98,500 grant to research the possibility of working with a group of farmers to develop such a facility.”

More poultry money in VAPG working capital grant funds of $300,000 went to Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., for his pastured poultry production. “He spent a million and a half dollars building one of the only pastured poultry abattoirs, or slaughterhouses, in the Deep South. Harris says the grant ‘will help get the facility going.’”

Sharon Klay with Christian W. Klay Winery in Chalk Hill, Penn., was the recipient of a VAPG for $24,888. “Klay Winery's VAPG funding will be used in the production of lavender to infuse into its wines and to use in public culinary classes. These unique products and opportunities will undoubtedly expand the winery's consumer traffic and increase its bottom line,” claimed the NSAC.

Last week’s announcement by the USDA showed the largest number of VAPG awards by state were Wisconsin (28), Oregon (23), New York (21), California (17), and Missouri (15), according to NSAC.

Of course, NSAC is calling on Congress to renew and expand funding for the VAPG program as it drafts the next farm bill. “Illustrating need and demand for the program, this year USDA could fund less than half of the 511 project applications received, which totaled more than $63.7 million in requested funding. NSAC advocates for the new farm bill to renew mandatory funding for VAPG at $30 million a year, less than the 2002 farm bill mandatory funding level for the program but more than the program receives currently. Several bills pending in Congress, including the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act as well as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, propose this funding level as well as policy improvements to the program. Both bills are aimed at inclusion in the 2012 farm bill,” contends NSAC.

I advocate that if Congress is going to cut program dollars in the next farm bill then funding should be cut to VAPG in favor of saving dollars for programs that have a major impact on conservation, safety nets to conventional farmers and/or agricultural research that will increase production to actually feed a hungry world rather than the elite consumers of free-range chickens, wine and natural foods.