The USDA unveiled an updated version of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass on Tuesday with a Google+ hangout designed to connect consumers with producers and facilitate participation in and discussion about local food systems.
The tool offers new case studies, updated map data, and improved search features that make it easy for consumers to learn more about local food production. New maps include farmers market databases, food hubs, and meat processing facility information. Maps are searchable using zip code radiuses and keywords, and they provide contact information for special project managers.
"Local food is a rapidly growing trend in American agriculture. It offers additional market opportunities for farmers, ranchers and food business entrepreneurs while enabling consumers to develop a deeper understanding of where their food comes from and how it is produced," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.
Merrigan, along with Jon Carson, White House Director of Public Engagement, hosted the Google+ hangout with assistance from female leaders in the local food movement including a fourth-generation farmer in Oregon, a Farm-to-School food coordinator in Oklahoma and current Baltimore, Md., mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Other guests include Susan Noble, a Wisconsin economic development leader, New Mexico Farm to Table Executive Director Pamela Roy, and Valerie Segrest, a community nutritionist for the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe near Seattle, Wash.
Merrigan highlighted the changes in the new local foods map during the hangout. She said the updates included geospatial mapping that allowed consumers to examine case studies.
'I consider [the compass] 100% better in terms of its navigational capacity," Merrigan said. She added that the enhanced features allow users to find out how much USDA funding has been obtained by growers on the map, and map users can also network across the country with producers.
One beneficiary of USDA resources was Cory Carman of Carman Ranch in Oregon. Her family raises grassfed beef that is purchased by local universities and restaurants.
"There are some huge challenges in raising and marketing local food," Carman said, "and we have received a ton of help from the USDA."
Carman said the tools that USDA has provided will increase her participation in the local foods movement by allowing her to connect with other producers that are trying to promote similar operations.
Local Food Challenges
Though there was general consensus among hangout participants that the USDA tools were helpful, they also examined a diverse set of challenges that come with marketing and promoting local food systems, and a variety of options for overcoming those challenges.
Rawlings-Blake said her community is changing vacant land within city limits into community gardens and food desert neighborhoods are benefitting from mobile grocery trucks. She said many citizens receive SNAP benefits and this initiative fits in with those programs.
"Urban farming intersects with food access through our farmers markets and there are eight Baltimore farmer's markets that accept SNAP benefits and provide double incentive coupons for SNAP recipients," Rawlings-Blake said.
Susan Noble, executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association in western Wisconsin developed a multi-tenant facility in a vacant warehouse for local food distribution and production companies to start up or expand.
In Oklahoma, Chris Kirby is fostering a connection between the farming community and school children by facilitating distribution of produce to local schools.
Kirby said farmer participation with the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Services program which provides cost-sharing for hoop houses allows farmers to grow outside of normal seasons and provide more food to schools.
One of the benefits of the farm to school programs, Merrigan said, is the ability of farmers to come into the school and have lunch with the students.
In Washington state, Valerie Segrest of the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe is focusing her local food program on integrating traditional, nutritious foods into the food supply.
"We try to increase access to local and healthy traditional foods through nutrition education programs," Segrest said. "We have installed and maintained several community gardens that serve as education centers as well as food production areas within the community."
Segrest is a member of one of many programs that have benefitted from USDA support.
Making Local Food Available, and Still Sustainable
Though many of the programs studied are continuing to grow, local agriculture has much more room to expand, without competing against box stores.
"One of the biggest challenges that we have as local food producers is scaling to a point where we can stay true to the values that our customers care about but take advantage of some of the efficiencies to make our product more affordable," Carman said.
She explained that her family is still figuring out how to scale, and hopes the new map will help her find distributors that can take their products to market.
"It's an ongoing struggle that we will continue to tackle together," Carman said.
Pamela Roy, executive director of Farm to Table in Albuquerque, NM, said her program is focusing on food retail in mostly rural communities, but isn’t forgetting larger retailers.
Roy explained big box stores in New Mexico aren't considered competition if farmers have the means to get all of their requirements in order, such as liability insurance and food safety measures.
"We do have larger producers selling into Wal-Mart and rural producers who are now selling into Whole Foods," Roy said.
But, she agrees that distribution can be a hurdle.
"We have been doing what we can to develop the infrastructure, refrigeration, and local distribution systems to hook up with our local farmers and get their product to market—that's the biggest gap for us here in a very a rural and very big state," Roy said. "
Merrigan agreed that an economical distribution system has yet to be obtained. She explained that the USDA recently put out a Food Hub Resource Guide that she hopes will help producers examine economical solutions to distribution.
Additional Support from the USDA
Aside from support through the updated mapping tool and resource guides, Merrigan explained that the USDA is also working to help beginning farmers get started in the agriculture industry through the department's new Start2Farm partnership with the American Farm Bureau. The program helps new and beginning farmers find information and resources needed to become a successful farmer.
Part of the program is an annual conference designed to bring beginning farmers together to share ideas and support. Launched in February, 2012, Merrigan said it joins many USDA programs in focusing benefits on beginning and new farmers.
Future Updates Expected
Merrigan said local food makes sense and can create jobs in this economy. She hopes that the next updates will include contributions from other government agencies that are trying to make a difference in the movement, and not just the USDA.
"USDA isn't the only player in the game," Merrigan said.
New updates to the compass are estimated for the end of September or early October, 2012.USDA plans to also host a #AskUSDA twitter conversation next week to follow up with the tool's users and consumers.
The new tool can be found online at www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer