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USDA Invests $7 Million to Research Small Farm Challenges

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USDA Invests $7 Million to Research Small Farm Challenges

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced more than seven million dollars in funding to support research on the profitability of small and medium-sized family farms, including their potential role in building local and regional systems. This announcement came amidst a flurry of other USDA news and program announcements in support of small farmers.

Oklahoma State University will evaluate the role of small and mid-size farms and their impact in local and regional food systems. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

These grants were awarded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—USDA’s intramural grant-making agency related to agricultural research, education and extension. The small and medium-sized family farm subprogram within AFRI was added over a decade ago following a campaign by National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) backed by a variety of members of Congress.

AFRI is USDA’s largest competitive research grants program, with an annual budget of $274 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 and $316 million for FY14. And while the awards announced this week are a small portion of AFRI’s total program funding levels, the research funded by these grants will nonetheless have significant impact on our understanding of how small and medium-sized farms can remain economically viable amidst the changes in our current agricultural landscape.

For 2013, AFRI’s Small and Medium-Sized Farm program focuses on research, education and extension projects that develop new ideas on how to increase the viability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized dairy, poultry, livestock, crop and commodity operations. This includes developing strategies to increase market access; developing efficient local and regional food systems; and assessing the impacts of changes in input costs, markets and credit on farm entry, transition and the economic viability of small farms.

In total, 10 research grants were awarded for FY13, including several grants that focus on how small and mid-scale farms can contribute to local and regional food systems and increase profitability through more environmentally sustainable production systems. Some projects funded in these areas include:

Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems (an NSAC member) will lead a project focusing on the development of profitable Michigan-based meat and livestock value chains supplying local and regional markets. This research will expand the Center’s Livestock Work Group, as will another research project funded on the production and supply side strategies for a local, Michigan grass-finished beef production system. Another MSU grant will examine business networks for food hubs in Michigan and Missouri and is tied to the Center’s Michigan Food Hub Network.

In Idaho, researchers at the University of Idaho will investigate ways to overcome constraints in serving local and regional markets in the Intermountain West, given its vast geography and often large distances between producers and consumers. Research will focus on identifying strategies for aggregation, storage, processing and distribution for small and medium-sized farmers to access local and regional vegetable and livestock markets.

Researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign will support research, education and outreach for designing and implementing more sustainable agroecosystems in the Upper Sangamon River Watershed (a typical region of the Midwest primarily dominated by corn and soybeans) by focusing on local food and biomass production for small farmers in the region.

Oklahoma State University will evaluate the role of small and mid-size farms and their impact in local and regional food systems. Specifically, this project will assess the economic development benefits that can be derived from more localized food systems.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin will work with small and mid-sized diversified vegetable farms in Wisconsin who are selling into multiple local and regional food markets in order to develop strategies to help them identify better balances between diversification and specialization in the crops grown on their farms.

In Vermont, researchers at the University of Vermont will assist decision-making by rural farm families to increase the sustainability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized farms, to strengthen the local economy with sustainable food production through the adoption of innovative and environmentally sustainable farming practices.

Kentucky State University researchers and extension agents will work with small, limited resources, socially disadvantaged, beginner and women farmers through workshops, meetings, one-on-one education and Extension Agent training in order to increase the efficiency and utilization of these farmers across the state.

Applications for the next round of funding for FY 2014 were due earlier this week, and awards are not expected to be announced until later this year.

To see a list of complete projects for 2013, click here.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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