Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food: Significant Fresh Visions from the USDA

A visionary, inspiring image:  “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

No, this isn’t some crunchy, organic non-profit’s local food campaign or a new Slow Food slogan.  This message comes to us fresh from our United States Department of Agriculture.  “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” is a national effort collectively launching this week, designed to build vibrant local and regional food systems that provide healthful food and build the economic base of rural communities.  It showcases the importance of the connection between us and our food sources and includes $65 million in new funding initiatives.

The fact that this message comes from the USDA represents the fresh crop of vision under the Obama Administration.  Thanks to the efforts of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, there’s a new ingredient at the USDA that has the potential to cook up something big:  leadership.  Harvesting inspiration from back in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln established the USDA as the “People’s Department,” this week’s collective efforts takes a transforming perspective on the relationship between our food and us:  personal responsibility.

The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, chaired by Deputy Secretary Merrigan, stems from a task force made up of representatives from agencies across the USDA to help better align the Department’s efforts to build stronger local and regional food systems.  Various related efforts were announced this week, from refined food procurement rules to allow for a wide range of fresh, minimally processed foods to be purchased by schools as well as an additional $50 million funding to $3.4 million in funding for collaborative outreach and assistance programs to socially disadvantaged and underserved farmers.

“Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than at any other time since most families left the farm,” comments Deputy Secretary Merrigan.  “’Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ seeks to focus that conversation on supporting local and regional food systems to strengthen American agriculture by promoting sustainable agriculture practices and spurring economic opportunity in rural communities.”  In upcoming months, the USDA will continue these cross-cutting barriers by also utilizing existing USDA programs to break down structural barriers that have inhibited local food systems from thriving.

“’Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ represents an inspiring boost for both farmers and citizens across the country,” explains Aimee Witteman, Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  “By encouraging us to seek connections with where our food comes from, the USDA is leading the nation to eat fresh, local and seasonal foods.  It also supports an authentic, transparent relationship between us and our food sources.”

Such vision coming from the USDA this week plants seeds beyond simply a connection with farmers.  “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” . . . then what?  Such a message prompts other larger, deeper opportunities for transformative change.  As my family and I learned over a decade ago when we left the Chicago urban cubicle scene to become Wisconsin farmers, connecting with one’s food source can be a first step to opening up doors to a diversity of other opportunities for transformation, such as:

1.  Improved Health

“Increased access to fresh, seasonal produce significantly boosts public health,” adds Angie Tagtow, an environmental nutritionist based in Iowa and a leading advocate championing public access to fresh, affordable, sustainably raised food.   “By buying direct from farmers and knowing where your food comes from, more nutrition and healthy lifestyles will be accessible to us all.”

2.  Increase in Home Gardening

There’s a potential related corollary that can stem from “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food”:  “Know How to Grow Something Yourself.”  Connecting with our food sources and experiencing what fresh flavor truly means prompts the question:  “Maybe I can grow something myself?”

“As evidenced during the WWII Victory Garden era when we raised 40% of our domestic produce in home gardens, our nation can significantly feed ourselves through home gardening,” comments Rose Hayden-Smith, a leading victory-garden historian and scholar based at the University of California.  “Add gardening to our national agenda along with knowing our farmers and food sources, and we have the potential to once again achieve self-reliance as a nation.”

3.  Ditch Cookie-Cutter Career Tracks, Install Wind Turbines and More!

Perhaps the USDA needs to add a warning label to the “Know Your Farmer,
Know Your Food” effort:  “Beware:  Connecting with what’s on your plate has the potential to cause one to quit their job, change their lifestyle and go green on all fronts.”

Speaking from experience, that’s exactly what happened to us.  When my husband, John Ivanko, and I moved to our Wisconsin farm, we had a vision of raising our own food with the Rodale Organic Gardening guide in hand.  But we had no growing experience whatsoever.  An interesting thing happened on the way to zucchini abundance:  Our whole life became transformed.  As we grew better at the growing side (we now raise over 70% of our own food needs), we became increasingly committed to eating – and living – green .

The more seeds we planted in our garden, the more ideas sparked in other arenas of our lives.  We remained committed to not going back to the corporate cubicle career path, instead focusing our energies on how we could be creatively self-employed on the farm through a diversity of businesses, such as running our B&B, Inn Serendipity.  As the winds blew off our hats in the garden, we started thinking our farm could be a strong site for wind production.  Today we run the farm completely on renewable energy, including a 10Kw wind turbine.

“The USDA set a new stage with a fresh agenda of priorities this week,” sums up Witteman.   “The next steps, the next set of seeds, is now up to each of us to sow.  Thanks to the collaborative, collective efforts of the sustainable agriculture community over recent years, we all stand in a prime position to partner with the USDA to place agriculture back on the national agenda.”

Photo credit: Lisa Kivirist

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1 thought on “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food: Significant Fresh Visions from the USDA”

  1. Thanks Lisa for that article. I’m amazed really and feel sort of warm and happy about it. It is certainly progress.

    I just got off the phone with Scott from Food Alliance ( I think their work on certifying two things (ecology and the social criteria of sustainability) will help us get much further ahead in the food industry.

    I love Michael Pollan and also enjoyed Food, Inc. None of it was a surprise to me but I feel differently about how to solve the problem. I read Joel Salatin’s article today entitled Taking Down the Corporate Food System is Simple (

    and I most disagree with him, though I’m very happy he does what he does. I wish I lived close enough to support his agriculture (though my wife and I don’t eat meat). But the fact is that those other 40,000 things at the local grocer are mostly made by big food companies and the products or the companies aren’t going away, nor should they, as a huge employer and also the ones who have figured out the massive challenge of getting food all over the place, getting it all cooked and stirred together and then available at the retailer.

    But if our grandparents could figure out how to preserve food for the winter without one harmful process or without one harmful ingredient, I’m quite certain our manufacturers can learn (or relearn) how to do it using the same simple culinary principles and farming practices we’ve practiced for eons. But it will take effort and commitment and will be done one product at a time.

    The Ecological Food Manufacturers Association has been formed to do just that. And even though we’ll be a business to business trade association, we will mostly be responding to the groundswell which is a consumer movement. We all have to do this together.

    When manufacturers get it right (many are working on it and some are only about that–ecological, healthy foods)then I like to say three things will happen.

    The planet will thank them, the people will thank them and their stockholders will thank them.

    For more info, please see and

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