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.
In 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 usda.gov.
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.