Earlier this year, the Farm Journal Foundation (FJF) announced that it has entered into a two-year cooperative agreement with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to share the story of how food travels from seed to table through a new Modern Ag Garden on the National Mall. We talked to Jay Vroom, chair of the Farm Journal’s Trust in Food initiative and strategic advisor to the Farm Journal Foundation, about this exciting new initiative about how it can help people connect with their food.
GMO Answers: How did this come about?
Jay Vroom (JV), Strategic Advisor, Farm Journal Foundation: USDA leadership was looking at ways to reposition the garden at USDA headquarters to be a more complete representation of how U.S. farmers feed America. Previously, the garden had principally focused on limited fruit and vegetable crops without dynamic education.
Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach of USDA approached me in December 2018 for ideas on partnerships between the private sector and USDA to develop a broader mission for the garden. The government shutdown slowed the project down but everyone rallied to that added challenge and we got started.
In March 2019, I started coordinating with the Farm Journal Foundation (FJF) college campus outreach program—dubbed “Hunger U.” It was a perfect model to add to the expanded USDA garden.
“Hunger U” has been to 250 college campus locations over the last eight years and has touched more than 3 million students with modern ag information and experiences. That model was perfectly equipped to provide an on-the-ground consumer outreach component for the new USDA garden.
GMO Answers: Who all is involved? Is there staff? Or mostly volunteers?
JV: We’re developing a cadre of volunteers, which started with me, my wife, Jamie, and her sister, Patty. We’re growing the volunteers—including some farm and commodity group staffers like colleagues from the National Corn Growers Association and National Wheat Growers Association—and we have a fantastic staff at Farm Journal Foundation.
USDA staff are incredibly helpful and knowledgeable as well. We’re looking to add others to our engaged allies, volunteers and supporters. Because Mother Nature doesn’t stop, we had to get the plants in the ground and develop the educational outreach in a limited amount of time and are still adding engagement constantly. We would love to hear from others who can help!
GMO Answers: How has it been received? What feedback have you been getting?
JV: We are super excited about the positive feedback we’re getting! Every day, tourists come by and are excited to find this green area in all the hardscape of this big city. So many visitors are delighted to discover there is something to learn—about plants, food and what farmers do!
The FJF information is presented in “The Voice of the Farmer,” where real farmers narrate twelve different information stations around the garden. Each location relates to crops and what that crop, and its careful stewardship, means to their farm. You can get this tour aided by FJF ambassadors who are in the garden every Friday morning and through the lunch hour—when the USDA Farmers’ Market is in operation. That’s half of the Fridays of the entire year—beginning with the first Friday in May through October.
GMO Answers: How does a visit to the garden work? Is it guided? Is there an app?
JV: There are two options for visiting the garden. On Friday mornings during the USDA Farmers’ Market (May-October), you can interact with our FJF ambassadors and the informational interactive kiosks. The other option is available at any time and it’s a self-guided tour—just bring your smartphone and click on the QR code you find on the garden signs to get the mobile tour access.
GMO Answers: What is in the garden?
JV: Pollinator-friendly plants and pollinators! USDA has beehives on its roof so many of the honeybees you see are “residents” of the USDA hives—the honey is fantastic! We also have lots of other pollinators—I just saw some Monarch butterfly caterpillars on our basil plants a few weeks ago.
Of course, we have lots of fruits and veggies—bush beans, squash, strawberries, tomatoes. As well as agronomic crops like wheat, corn, soybeans. Sunflowers, too. Some of our crops are GMO improved. The garden explains to visitors about all forms and methods of farming and the importance of innovation—from organic to conventional.
GMO Answers: What type of things are people learning about?
JV: Natural systems, challenges of farming, how farmers care about the environment, for instance. We want consumers to know what it takes to grow enough food—in the wide varieties of food types we need and like—and to accomplish all that against the adversities of weather, market fluctuations and changing consumer demand! And, the role science plays in the entire farming complex.
GMO Answers: Specifically talking about modern agriculture, what type of modern agricultural technologies and practices are shown?
JV: We want to represent the broad picture of modern farming and embrace all forms of production. With 20+ million visitors to the National Mall every year, we see this garden as one of the most awesome outreach and teaching tools U.S. agriculture has at its disposal!
GMO Answers: What’s the future of the garden? How long will it be on the Mall?
JV: There is an initial 2-year agreement with USDA and FJF to support this project. That covers 2019 and 2020. There’s a fantastic array of sponsoring organizations and companies who have joined this initiative—listed below. The entire Farm Journal Foundation effort is branded “America’s Conservation Agriculture Movement” or ACAM for short. It is coordinated by Farm Journal Foundation with key involvement of Farm Journal Media and its Trust In Food initiative. All the supporters—and that of volunteers and USDA—will be essential going forward. We welcome more sponsors so we can do more—we’re talking to lots of prospective interested parties and are delighted with this help from “GMO Answers.” Thank you!!
ACAM Foundational Sponsors as of October 1, 2019
- National Corn Growers Association
- Ducks Unlimited
- The Nature Conservancy
- National Pork Board
- American Farmland Trust
- Farm Journal Foundation and Farm Journal Media
GMO Answers: Would you be willing to talk with us again to update us on the latest progress and development?
JV: YES—most certainly. We think there’s an unlimited array of opportunities we all can pursue—Come help us imagine! In the meantime, if people would like to get involved, they can email me at email@example.com.