Where does your food come from and how does it get to your plate? For many Americans this is a question that is becoming more and more difficult to answer as they become further removed from the farm and less connected to agriculture. The hard work that goes into producing our nation’s food supply is being taken for granted.
We cannot let our children grow up thinking that food comes from a grocery store. That’s why I started the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative last year. As outlined in USDA’s new strategic plan, the initiative offers an innovative environment for us all to learn, share, and problem solve together. Washington doesn’t have all the answers, so I want to invite you to join us in a national conversation.
Know Your Farmer not only focuses on connecting consumers to producers, it also focuses on local and regional food systems, as they represent a new and rapidly growing market for many producers. While only 4% of farmers sell through direct-marketing channels, that number is growing and direct to consumer sales have more than doubled in recent years, from $551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007.
Additionally, these local and regional systems create an important opportunity to cultivate rural economies. For example, when schools offer local food, not only do children have nutritious meals and a better understanding of what’s grown in the area, but local growers have an income source as well. If there is enough activity, it might lead to a new processing facility, slaughter facility, or warehouse that will not only keep the wealth in the community but also create jobs. USDA’s Economic Research Service’s findings support this, noting that empirical research has found that expanding local food systems in a community can increase employment and income in that community.
Finally, local and regional food systems are an important vehicle for many consumers to actually get to know a farmer. Everyone depends on a national network of farmers and ranchers, but I want to make sure we all get to actually know one. I believe it is important that those of us living off the farm better understand the struggles and sacrifices farmers, ranchers, and their families make to feed our nation. It’s not about one particular type of agriculture, it’s about all of agriculture and making sure that folks appreciate and understand that connection.
So I ask you, “Do you know your farmer?” Summer is a great time to connect with local agriculture since folks in every region of the country are busy working to grow and harvest food and fiber. As you eat dinner tonight, take a minute to think about where the food on your plate really came from. And, if you are looking for a fun weekend activity, consider paying a visit to your local farmers’ market and taking some time to talk with a farmer. Or plan a family trip to your state or county fair in the next few months to learn more about agriculture in your state.