It’s tempting to hear the news (and watch the video!) telling us that the USDA will study winter gardening and wonder why the USDA needs to study something that Eliot Coleman, a farmer in Maine, has been doing successfully — and writing about — for decades and something that Will Allen’s urban farming company Growing Power is doing commercially right now. But to do so misses a crucial point.

While what follows is a bit of an oversimplification — hey, this is agricultural regulatory structure we’re talking about so give me a break! — it’s important to remember one crucial aspect of the “deal” among stakeholders that defines the broad outlines of how the USDA operates: California, through powerful lobbying groups like the Western Growers Association and along with its large Congressional delegation, gets to dominate vegetable and fruit growing. Yes, fruit and veggies are grown in many states, but fully 50 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetable, and nut harvest comes from California. As a result, when it comes to vegetable and fruit growers, reform pretty much means whatever the WGA and California reps in Congress decide it should mean (which, on another subject, is why we may get the controversional and deeply problematic National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement whether we want it or not).

Back to the main point, California obviously has nothing against the idea of hoop houses. But the USDA looks at agriculture through the lens of regional specialization. Produce from California, grain, meat, and dairy from the Midwest. And again, we’re really talking about regulatory influence, i.e. who calls the shots, not about absolute agricultural output. What interest do California agricultural lobbyists have in supporting efforts to extend growing seasons elsewhere in the country — they already have a ten month growing season. And they just move to Arizona and grow there for the other two months. There simply hasn’t been an infrastructure in place at the USDA (other than the bully pulpit, which Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack gets on now and then) to encourage or invest in re-establishing regional diversity.

The USDA has been taking baby steps in that direction with the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. And while there isn’t “new” money in it, the fact is that small farmers and food co-ops and the like will get funding through it that they may not have otherwise received.

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But another step for a massive bureaucracy like the USDA is making particular techniques “official” and publishing guidelines and factsheets and growing maps that farmers and, more importantly, USDA extension agents can use. So what the USDA means when it announces something like this:

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today announced a new pilot project under the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative for farmers to establish high tunnels — also known as hoop houses — to increase the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way…

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“There is great potential for high tunnels to expand the availability of healthy, locally-grown crops — a win for producers and consumers,” said Merrigan. “This pilot project is going to give us real-world information that farmers all over the country can use to decide if they want to add high tunnels to their operations. We know that these fixtures can help producers extend their growing season and hopefully add to their bottom line.”

The 3-year, 38-state study will verify if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, increasing yields, and providing other benefits to growers

…is that it intends to bring winter gardening into the USDA mainstream. Once it’s been analyzed, categorized, and defined by USDA researchers, it can then be embraced by USDA extension agents and ultimately (hopefully) Congressional appropriators. Atul Gawande in the New Yorker has a fascinating piece on the history of agricultural extension agents and their ability over time to propogate powerful change through complex, decentralized systems. He uses them in the context of an analysis of the health care system to illustrate the power of pilot projects and government intervention — and there’s no question that USDA extension agents, along with billions and billions and billions in federal subsidies, have remade agriculture over the last hundred years, for good and ill.

But if in the end the hoop house inititative takes off, won’t California lobbyists just kill this threat to their current winter veggie monopoly before it gets too big? Well, it’s looking more and more like California’s going to struggle to keep up their own production levels thanks to pervasive long-term drought — and that means the potential for price spikes. There’s nothing that spurs the USDA (not to mention Congress) to action like the fear of spiking food prices — I have a feeling farmers are going to be very thankful for hoop house research in the coming years. Climate change, I’m afraid, will succeed where we have to this point failed in re-remaking agriculture in this country. Let’s hope we’re ready.