Something interesting is happening in Texas. Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller’s office has made a hard push on a marketing campaign for a renewed push for the Farm Fresh Network. Including a new website design.
To catch you all up, the Farm Fresh Network was an initiative created by the Ag Commissioners office in 2015 that created an online network of local farms; a database of where, who, and what is being grown there, for the farmers as well as for consumers to see where they can buy local produce and proteins. At the time, this embrace didn’t garner the media attention it deserved and for the past seven years has been what would be an otherwise failed policy push.
A few years ago, however, school districts were given the ability to employ open purchase policies for school meals. The ability to source from the local community opened the doors for school buyers to look local, and support local farmers. This also allowed for engagement from state and local municipalities, food assistance purchasers at food banks, etc. This was huge at the time and the engagement from Common Ground, which was supplying logistics services to Texas farmers and working with Houston ISD purchasers to help smooth out the process for Texas largest school districts seemed like a major shift forward in public/private sources for school lunches and farm engagement.
As time had come and gone, traction was never really had. Common Ground in 2020 talked of food storage lockers and rural community drop points for me to drop my crates of produce in their cold storage warehouse, none of which came to fruition. School districts didn’t have the farmers to source from, the 100 farms that signed up either didn’t have capacity, or were one or two item outfits. The schools needed a plethora of choices and dependable farmers to build menus and keep a steady supply of product. The lack of marketing on both sides made the entire exercise irrelevant.
Small plot farming, local organic producers, and farmers market participants are progressive leaning, generally speaking, and have a high rate of being women owned. It would make sense that the Ag commission, once seeing the demographics, would quietly let the program slip away. Most large agricultural producers, rural red block voters, have nothing to do with the local agriculture surrounding farmers markets and the local food movement.
Over the summer, the Ag Commissioner’s office released information targeting schools, to include an ambassador program for high schools to have the students engage with the school food service department and also research local farms using the tools on the website. This was done quietly with little public engagement.
Fast forward to a month ago, green billboards began to adorn Texas highways outside of cities, now some in cities, signaling a change and new traction in an otherwise would be mothballed program. More billboards now hung. Emails sent to the Commissioners office returned with a generic response to have farmers sign up, but with little information of how this all works and what the needs are; what’s the plan?. Are we about to see an awakening in the food purveyor public/private partnership? If so, this could be a game changer for local producers who are otherwise relegated to farmers markets that have been hit hard by inflation and drought.