Tuesday, February 28, 2012

USDA Unveils New Digital Project On Wednesday: "Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass"

Agriculture Secretaries will host live webinar to discuss huge interactive digital document...
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan will take to the internet on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the debut of USDA's new Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass. They'll be chatting with the public during a live webinar about USDA's huge digital project, an interactive web-based tool/document that includes maps, studies, data sets, and stories from farmers, ranchers, food producers and communities that highlight USDA's support for local and regional food projects. (Above: Vilsack rings a cowbell to open USDA's farmers market)

The Compass is the "10,000-foot view" of USDA's many programs, components, and business opportunities across the 17 agencies and additional offices that make up the Department, according to Merrigan (l), who described the still-embargoed project as "dense, rich, visually appealing, with lots of embedded videos."  It's also doing double duty as a report to Congress about the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food initiative, launched in September, 2009.

"I don't think anyone has seen the full extent of USDA investments, the 10,000-foot view of local and regional foods and what USDA has been doing to help that trend out," Merrigan said.

Users will be able to access stories and data that illustrate local and regional food efforts in communities across the US.  All of the information in the new Compass has previously been available from USDA, Merrigan said, but never in one digital location that allows for cross-referencing of things such as grant programs and services. 

Led by Merrigan, the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food initiative was designed as a way to better focus already-existing USDA resources on local and regional food systems, and to boost public awareness about the importance of supporting local farmers and producers. A recent study found that 85% of consumers want their grocery stores to carry local foods, Merrigan said, and she hopes the Compass will help inspire more efforts to make this a reality.

"This will generate a lot of excitement, a lot of interest around local food and community," she said.

Jobs and Congress...
The Compass also serves as a mandatory report to Congress, required under a conference agreement from the negotiations during the FY2012 appropriations bill, which charges USDA with delineating the parameters of the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food initiative. The message for Congress about USDA's local/regional efforts through KYF is one word, Merrigan said: "Jobs."

"A study that we put out last year found that for every $1 million in revenue from local food systems, 13 jobs are created, compared to 3 in a non-focused operation," Merrigan said.

"This Compass will show all Members of Congress in every state that they have a piece of the rock, that they have local farmers, contributing to the economy."

She added that the local operations featured in the Compass are "very diversified, growing a lot of crops, livestock, and doing other value-added activities."

Printed hard copies of the Compass will be sent to Capitol Hill, but otherwise USDA has no plans to release the project other than online. Users will be able to print out whatever they'd like from the documents, however.

The public is invited to join Merrigan and Vilsack for the free, live webinar on Wednesday at 2:00 PM ET, which will be streamed at www.usda.gov/live. Questions can be submitted via Twitter, to @USDA using the hashtag #KYF2. In 2009, to launch KYF,  Merrigan visited Tree and Leaf Farm in Virginia, run by husband and wife team Georgia O'Neal and Zachariah Lester.  They will join the Secretaries during the webinar.  The couple was previously farming on leased land, and now own their own farm, thanks to USDA help.

The Compass will be updated with new stories and information later in the Spring, such as slaughter capacity, Merrigan said, but the next few months will be spent helping users understand and use the tool. USDA will host another event next week spotlighting the Compass, with a "National Virtual Conversation" from the White House on Monday, March 5th.

Access to the Compass and interactive map as well as additional information will be available on February 29 at www.usda.gov.

*Top photo courtesy of USDA, second by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama