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The American dream is about community, not consumption

November 10, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Have you heard of the USDA's campaign, "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food"?

It is a USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers. It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where food comes from and how it gets to our plates.

"Today, there is too much distance between the average American and their farmers, and we are marshaling resources from across USDA to help create the link between local production and local consumption," according to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Every day, the USDA aims to strengthen rural communities through its programs and services.

"Through a greater focus on food and food systems, we provide the foundation and opportunities for farmers and ranchers to succeed and rural America to thrive, while ensuring everyone can eat fresh, healthy and delicious local food," Merrigan says.

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Building a foundation for success and prosperity for the 21st-century economy will take a collective and collaborative effort, with all of us talking, debating and solving.

That is the exact reason Extension was started in 1914. Extension, or Cooperative Extension, as it was first known, was a cooperative effort among the USDA, the state and the county. At the turn of the last century, the rural economy needed a boost and Extension was charged with extending the collective knowledge of universities and the USDA to local communities.

Today is no different, no matter how sophisticated we think we are.

The backbone of rural communities is agriculture - it cannot be urbanization, as our most recent overextended housing boom can attest. Agriculture adds more than just food to the community; it adds culture.

The culture is more than the scenery. While most people associate a barn and a silo with a farm, all farms do not have such buildings, but they do harken back to a simpler time. And it is these memories that we need to bring into the present time.

Family farms have been a vital part of American consciousness for centuries. One can think of a Norman Rockwell painting or a movie from the Hallmark Channel that shows rural America, where a barn raising conjures up a picture of community spirit.

Unfortunately, today much of that community spirit is lacking as we commute hours from home to work. By the time many folks get home, they are too worn out to contribute to their communities.

We see this reflected not only in our suburban sector, but in our farm sector. Not only are folks commuting out of the county and unable to volunteer at the local fire company; likewise, farmers that used to drive the fire engine or the school bus are forced to spread themselves over so many more acres that their time demands are much greater, too.

Many say we cannot go back and, to a certain extent, that is true. However, we can go back in many of the positive ways. But we have to do it together and we have to abandon our consumptive lifestyles. We have been told that the American dream is to have more stuff, when the American dream was actually about hard work, community and raising a family.

You do not have to give up your computer or your cell phone to revitalize your community, but you do have to change your way of thinking. Start small. Instead of taking an afternoon off to go golfing, volunteer at your child's school or at the neighbor kid's school if you have no children.

You can also enrich your community by spending your money where you live. Buy your groceries, your lumber or your produce locally.

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, I trust you will focus on what you can do for your community.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu.

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