In September of 2009, the Department of Agriculture launched the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative. The initiative has been applauded by farmers and ranchers across the country as a key resource in helping to break down barriers to agriculture and economic development. Every day we get questions from farmers, ranchers, consumers and communities wanting to know how ‘Know Your Farmer’ applies to them. So we sat down with Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to help answer some of those questions:
Deputy Secretary, what is the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative?
‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ or KYF2 as we like to call it in our world of acronyms, is an initiative that seeks to create new economic opportunities by promoting local and regional food systems that help keep wealth in rural communities. It also encourages a national conversation about what we eat, where it was produced and by whom. Now more than ever, people all across the country are excited about food – they want to know the story behind their food and the hard-working families that produce it.
So this was a program that was created in the 2008 Farm Bill?
That’s a great question and one that needs to be clarified to avoid misinformation and misguided conversations. ‘Know Your Farmer’ is not a program. It is a USDA initiative that promotes collaboration, coordination, and innovation among existing USDA programs through a Department-wide Task Force. Support for local and regional food systems is explicitly directed by Congress under several sections of the 2008 Farm Bill. Many other USDA programs encompass local and regional food efforts as one of many strategies to revitalize rural economies. Bottom line: ‘Know Your Farmer’ is working within existing statutory authority and appropriated funds. And it is part of a larger effort that President Obama has promoted to streamline our government and to enhance efficiencies. I see this effort as an innovative management approach to provide greater efficiency and efficacy in delivering authorized programs and services.
So if it is not a new program, why even have ‘Know Your Farmer’?
When I was in third grade, my parents bought their first and only home which sat next door to a farm. Over the years, our neighbor Mr. Rogers let me and my brothers roam his mixed fruit and vegetable operation and we put a serious dent in his blueberry profits. But in my high school years, when Mr. Rogers died, the farm was sold and the gardens were replaced by a gas station and beauty supply store. I bet many people my age have similar stories since we have lost a staggering amount of farmland in this country. The reality is that today, most children do not have a ‘Mr. Rogers’ in their lives and are totally disconnected to American agriculture. That is not a good thing. So, the ‘Know Your Farmer’ Initiative helps reconnect people to agriculture by facilitating local and regional food systems through infrastructure investments, streamlined policies and by having this national conversation.
Let’s face it. Many farmers face a complex regulatory environment and many financial and training barriers when it comes to starting a farm or ranch operation. So we have challenged the USDA team to use KYF2 as a forum for programs with complementary and overlapping missions to come together and ensure that they are working in a coordinated manner. For example, our Farm to School team brings together staff from AMS that oversees procurement of food with FNS, who manages the school lunch program, to work with local communities to identify and remove bureaucratic barriers that have been preventing schools from buying the food items they demand rather than just what we offer. Again, the key here is cooperation and communication to deliver a better service for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.
In following the conversation online, people want to know why ‘Know Your Farmer’ is important to farming and ranching families.
First and foremost, we are concerned about the status of our family farms. We know that we are losing too many of them and if we are going to have a safe, stable food supply we know that we need to reverse that trend. We see this ‘disappearing middle’ in a decline of more than 150,000 farming operations with sales of more than $10,000 but less than $500,000 between 1997 and 2007. Some have migrated to larger categories but many just went out of business. But we also recognize that there is an amazing opportunity out there. For example, studies show that regional demand in the Midwest for fruits and vegetables could generate close to $900 million and create as many as 9,000 jobs. And the last decade we’ve seen 100 percent growth in direct-to-consumer food marketing sales. This is where ‘Know Your Farmer’ comes in as we are focused on cultivating new opportunities for these farms to help keep those families on the land, and make sure that the next generation of producers can find a career in agriculture.
How does someone find out what ‘Know Your Farmer’ is working on and see results?
Every day our ‘Know Your Farmer’ initiative is helping create economic opportunity up and down the production chain by building a stronger foundation to help local food systems thrive. We ensure that farmers who want to supply local markets have equal access to existing USDA programs which are authorized to develop the infrastructure that supports agriculture. For local and regional food supply chains this can include processing, storage, shipping facilities, and “food hubs”. We are excited to highlight our results as Americans all across the country are building new markets and food systems and getting to ‘know their farmer.’ Here are a few of my favorites but there are many more examples on our website:
- In Kansas, local farms are selling their products under a unified label, allowing those families to stay on the farm and continue doing what they love;
- In Oklahoma, churches, neighborhoods and nearly 2000 individuals have come together to support their local farmers and ranchers and purchase only food produced in-state;
- In southwest Virginia, former tobacco growers have invested in a central packinghouse and are selling fresh fruits and vegetables in local supermarkets;
- In the Pacific Northwest, a cooperative of wheat farmers have invested in sustainable planting practices and are selling their flour – and their story – via regional markets;
- In Florida, a large chicken processor has hired 250 employees to meet expected demand for locally-raised and sold chicken products.
Keep watching our KYF2 blog for inspiring stories of how local and regional agriculture is making a difference in the lives of people across the country.