August Schumacher Jr.
Judith Weinraub / June 2008
Food Arts presents the June 2008 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to August "Gus" Schumacher Jr., the agricultural savant, farmer, farmers' market enthusiast, farmer-chef connector, and former government official who has brought more élan, intelligence, and political savvy to the American food system than just about anybody else. Both in and out of government, Schumacher has been guided by two passions: his conviction that all Americans deserve affordable healthy food and his unwavering support for local foods, the farmers who grow them, and the farmers' markets that sell them.
Schumacher grew up on a farm in Lexington, Massachusetts, and proudly notes earlier generations of his family who farmed on about five acres at 72nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, and later on in Queens. As a public school student, he also worked on his father's farm—and so effectively that the gourds he grew as a teenager captured a first prize at a Massachusetts horticulture show even in competition with adults.
That achievement, and his ability to amass a $4,000 bank account by selling gourds, got him into Harvard—the only farmer in his class. What interested him there was the economics of farming, which, when he graduated, took him first to the London School of Economics, then to two stints at the World Bank. His career since then has included both local government service (as Commissioner of Food and Agriculture of Massachusetts) and federal (as Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services during the Clinton administration).
In each of his jobs, and as the consultant he is today, he has found ways to jump-start innovative programs. One with lasting impact provided added value to the existing Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Food Package in the mid-1980s by including vouchers (paid for with private funding he dug up) to be used for fruits and vegetables at four Massachusetts farmers' markets. That pilot, which was soon imitated in other states, has now morphed into a $452 million national program that will be fully operational in 2009.
That kind of out-of-the-box thinking might have had less impact if he hadn't also had a knack for friendships with politicians, scientists, farmers, and—these days—chefs and foundations, as well as the ease with which he's introduced them to one another. One high-impact project he's particularly passionate about is connecting some of America's newest farmers—immigrants from Southeast Asia and Africa—and their native produce to the dining rooms of fine restaurants nationwide.
Schumacher was quick to see that one of the best ways to reach the public and bring about changes in the food system was to educate journalists—and not only agriculture and business writers but also the often overlooked reporters on the food pages of American newspapers and magazines. His knowledge of the culture of farm life also made him recognize the power of the farm radio network, where he regularly could be heard.