The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week launched an interactive map showing USDA-supported projects helping local and regional food systems, including the recent focus on supporting small meat processors.

Know-Your-Farmer.jpgIn the launch, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who takes the leading role on Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF), highlighted such projects as helping almost 4,500 farmers extend their growing season by deploying seasonal high tunnels, which look a lot like giant green houses.

“It’s a jumping off point, so you can join the national conversation about where our food comes from,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Interestingly, KYF is not a program in the traditional sense. It does not have a budget, but it’s an initiative within the department to get existing programs to work on projects that benefit local and regional food.

“In launching, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, I encouraged employees across our department to break down barriers and collaborate, to find ways to work more efficiently and to provide transparent data and information to the public,” said Vilsack in a launch video, posted on

Part of the initiative focuses on rebuilding local and regional infrastructure for meat and poultry, much of which has been lost to centralization in the industry. According to USDA, the number of federally inspected processing plants dropped from 1,200 to 800 between 1990 and 2010.

“Large plants now slaughter the vast majority of our meat and are highly mechanized –requiring animals to be a uniform size and shape — or take animals only from producers with whom they have signed contracts,” reads the Compass report. “Smaller independent producers may not be able to access these facilities, while small processors struggle to compete with them.”

The Compass highlights a number of local meat and poultry projects to help restaurants, grocery stores, cafeterias, and farmers markets connect with farmers and ranchers in their region — a big part of making that connection is helping small and medium-sized slaughterhouses thrive.

The USDA’s map profiles the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Lowell, Massachusetts, which helps new farmers learn how to raise chickens. The only problem is that there is no USDA-inspected processing facility in the state, which makes it difficult to slaughter the birds and get them to consumers. The organization ended up launching a mobile slaughter unit, which can travel from farm to farm, with USDA funding provided under a National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant. The group also got a second grant from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to develop training for food safety and business model development.

“We’ve seen a growing number of consumers wanting to connect directly with their food,” said Jennifer Hashley, a poultry producer and the director of New Entry. “With this project, farmers retain quality control of their birds from chick to plate and many recruit their customers to help with poultry processing. You can’t get more transparent or connected to your food than that!”

Shortly after the mobile slaughter unit got rolling in Massachusetts, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service released guidance documents on mobile meat processing to help other states with an interest in launching similar projects.

Federal food safety officials have given local meat production more attention in the past couple years.  In 2010, FSIS launched the Small Plant Help Desk to help these smaller plants with food safety issues. According to the Compass, in the past two years the help desk has responded to more than 4,500 inquiries. Since the middle of 2011, USDA has also allowed state-inspected slaughter plants to apply to ship meat across state lines to sell in nearby markets.


  • Madeline

    One of the few times John McCain has ever been right, when he and 2 colleagues objected to this sort of frivolous funding, succinctly describing it as subsidies for elitist hobby farmers. Terribly, terribly wasteful squandering of scarce public resources.

  • Thom Katt

    On the one hand, this is a case of the federal government trying to pick losers and winners in the market place.
    On the other hand, there is a lot of value in anything that can be done to get consumers to understand where their food comes from.
    This isn’t the worst idea to ever come out of Washington or even the liberal elitists in the Obama administration. But there is definitley a need for very intense scrutiny of all expenditures.

  • Mikke

    Oh puh-LEEZE. Can we at least try not to be plumb-dumb ignint when criticizing these programs?
    The entire “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative costs the taxpayer less than one martini-n-strippers lunch of your Congressmen at a Big Pharma do in Hawaii.
    The ENTIRE USDA SARE program budget for all 50 states plus the US territories is under $20 million a year. That comes out to ten cents per American per year.
    Corporate welfare to big ag, Big Pharma, big insurance and big oil amount to hundreds of BILLIONS per year.
    Also KYF2 is a program to match innovative regional food entrepreneurs with programs that already exist to develop viable businesses that create both jobs and food security for Americans. IT GETS NO ADDITIONAL FUNDING! Read the bloody piece!
    I personally find a lot to criticize in these programs, which so frequently DO draw lifestyle/hobby farmers…or anyway people with day jobs in the city. Who else can afford to farm? But until the bigger boys detach their eager mouths from the teat of taxpayer bling–i.e., corporate welfare–who else is going to be left to do this entrepreneurial development?
    These expenditures are worth way more, dollar for dollar, than the latest ethanol or Big Pig boondoggle. The only people who honk about them in terms like “liberal elitists in the Obama administration” are clearly undercover for Osborn & Karr/Ketchum.

  • A. N. Grover

    $20 million per year for SARE grants is an excellent example of precisely the sort of wasteful tax drain we should be concerning ourselves with. SARE is only one of many unnecessary “teats” kept sucked dry by parasitic hobby farmer leeches. We cannot afford these wasteful programs and we especially cannot afford the insidious systemic destruction plotted by grasping SARE program recipients. Nothing new is being invented by this farcical excuse for “research”. It is nothing more than an aggrandized rehashing of obsolete subsistence farming folkways. Silly myths mostly. A new farm bill should be purged of pork like SARE. Call and email your congressmen and insist they cut SARE from the USDA budget!

  • C. R. Richard

    Personally, I prefer any program that encourages entrepeneurs (i.e. small farmers) to develop and sell their products a lot more preferrable than paying for programs that encourage ignorance and dependence (i.e. welfare programs). The long term effect is to help small producers to gain ground lost to corporations because they couldn’t overcome the “economy of scale” factors (bigger entities can withstand market swings better than small ones). The program also develops local markets that can help build communities through business relationships, which in our highly polarized nation would be a definite positive. So for the cost involved I say keep it going. If you want to save money cut Medicaid funding for cosmetic surgery or eliminate travel funding for politicians going to vacation hot spots on “fact finding” missions.