5/24/2014 7:00 AM
By Jamie Clark Tiralla Maryland Correspondent
The USDA doesn’t have a reputation as being the most friendly organization towards small and midsize farmers. But an agencywide effort is underway to change that image.
In April the USDA announced the Grass Fed Program for Small and Very Small Producers, targeting farms that market 49 cattle or less per year. The program, administered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, or AMS, is an audit-based verification tool that will allow eligible producers to market their product as “USDA Certified Grass-Fed Beef”.
“Small producers have traditionally not used our verification services mostly because of the costs involved,” said Craig Morris, deputy administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program. “As part of USDA-wide efforts to create more opportunities for small-scale livestock producers, AMS designed a less costly application process using the USDA Certified Grass-Fed claim as its first example. Small and local producers are critical to our country’s agricultural and economic future, and this program helps them market their products and reach a larger customer base.”
Starting with grass-fed beef made the most sense because there was already a well established standard in place, said Jim Riva, director of the quality assessment division within the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program.
The marketing claim standard requires cattle be fed only grass and forage with the exception of milk, which can be consumed prior to weaning. The cattle must have continuous access to pasture during the growing sea son and be fed no grain or grain byproducts in their lifetime. Hay, silage and crop residue without grain is permitted as well as mineral and vitamin supplements.
The USDA-AMS classifies operations as “small or very small” if they market 49 cattle or less per year. These operations are in the smallest group identified in the “Farms, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations 2012 Summary” from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
According to the 2012 report, 11.5 percent of all cattle and calf operations fall into the small or very small category.
While still in its infancy, Riva said the program has been well received.
“We’re getting calls about it every day. The response has been very positive so far. A few producers have told us that they’ve been waiting for a program like this for a long time,” he said.
Three farms have been approved thus far, with at least eight more in the application process.
Ed Canane of Cascade Brook Farm in North Sutton, N.H., was the first producer to be accepted into the program. Canane applied to the program the same day it was announced by the USDA.
He said the application was simple and easy, something that’s important to most small farmers. The document registers the farm as an entity and asks fundamental questions about the operation to verify that it meets the marketing standards.
One requirement is that producers must be listed on the program website with the location of the ranch or farm and the approval date.
“For years I’ve been searching for programs that could illustrate to our customers that we were grass-fed. I looked at several organizations, but I didn’t find what I was looking for,” said Canane, who is also a director for the Vermont Beef Producers Association and Granite State Graziers.
Most were too expensive, he said. But at $108, the USDA program was just right. If he has one concern, though, it’s that the program’s low cost combined with the fact that the USDA isn’t conducting on-site inspections could allow some producers to receive the marketing verification without actually complying to the standard.
Riva addressed the concern stating that while the USDA always reserves the ability to do on-site audits, they’re not required at this stage of the program. Right now the main focus and intent, he said, is to help small and very small producers add value to their product.
Mike Heller, project coordinator of the Maryland Grazers Network, sees the benefit of a marketing label, but stressed that it isn’t a certificate of quality.
Heller said the grazers network focuses on helping farmers produce better quality beef through improved soils and forage.
“Consumers are getting more and more sophisticated,” said Heller, who also runs a grass- fed beef operation at Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. “Emphasis needs to be on quality, not marketing. Quality is the marketing. Sell good meat and people will come back for it.”
Riva said the USDA-AMS doesn’t intend for the grass-fed verification to be a mark of quality; rather a verification of how the meat was raised.
“When you say it’s USDA Grass-Fed Certified, it instills confidence in the consumer. It does help the small producers when they go into the marketplace,” Riva said.