U.S. agriculture officials have launched a program to reconnect Americans with knowledge about the source of their food supply and boost business for local farmers.

Urban dwellers disconnected from sources of food

As farmland has given way to cities and suburbs, most Americans today have very little contact with farms and farming. As a result, Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, says farmers find that consumers no longer know where their food comes from.

"They think it comes out of the grocery store," he says. And, he adds, "They think milk comes out of a carton. They don't know that there's a cow behind it."

Media raises interest in agriculture

But a series of food-borne disease outbreaks and a string of books and movies blasting big U.S. agriculture have put food and food safety on the national agenda.

Meanwhile, celebrity chefs and even some big grocery store chains are embracing locally grown food, and small neighborhood farmers' markets are becoming increasingly popular.

USDA campaign aims to help consumers and farmers

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has launched a program called, "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," that seeks to strengthen the ties between consumers and local farmers and help those farmers stay in business.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the program's launch in a YouTube video.

"By reconnecting consumers with local producers," he says in the video, "we will create new income opportunities for farmers, we can promote sustainable agricultural practices and we can help generate wealth that will stay in rural communities. We can also provide families' children with a healthier food supply and we can decrease the amount of energy we use to ship food all over world."

Meat processors are a focus of the program

One part of the program will promote local farmers' markets. Another is expected to benefit small meat processors. Many of them are inspected by state health boards. Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, says that has meant locally produced meat was at a disadvantage compared to imported meat, which receives a federal inspection for sale nationally.

"That imported meat, once it hits our border, can go anywhere inside the United States," he says. He adds, "But if you have a state inspected meat processing facility, many of these small operations, they're not allowed to sell their product outside the state lines. What a foolish restriction that has been."

USDA announced new regulations to loosen that restriction as part of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program. Also, the department is helping schools connect with nearby farmers who can provide fresh produce for their cafeterias.  

A growing appetite for fresh produce helps everyone
Johnson says demand for fresh produce from a school, hospital, business or any operation with substantial and regular needs is not just good for farmers. "I think it's just good for everyone," he says. "It's good for business, it's good for community relations, it's good economically in the local area and it's good for the consumers to have more direct knowledge about where their food comes from."

USDA and small farmers nationwide are hoping that when Americans know who grows their food, they will help keep local farms in business for the long term.