USDA Compass Strengthens Local Food Systems

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants you to know your farmer—and be able to find him on a map.

May 14, 2012

It's getting easier to Know Your Farmer and Know Your Food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) two-year-old program took a technological leap last week with a new interactive map called the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" Compass that highlights the thousands of rural and small-scale farming projects funded by USDA grants.

The hope, Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a webinar announcing the new map, is that local ranchers and food producers will discover programs in their areas that they can use to get their products to market more easily, more quickly, and more cheaply. "The projects on the map are responsible for creating economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers, and many of those in rural communities," he said. "That's what Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is all about: spurring job growth, keeping farmers on the land and more wealth in rural communities."


The agency also hopes the tool will educate people not just about farmer's markets and local meat producers in their areas, but also about the importance of preserving farmland. Forty percent of U.S. farms now exist in metropolitan counties, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said at a second press conference about the new map, and that fact alone should spur more interest in protecting farms from encroaching urban and suburban development.

In addition to mapping out USDA-supported farmer's markets, the map also plots local meat producers, who were of particular interest to the agency. Farmers and ranchers are having a hard time meeting the public's increasing demand for local, pasture-raised, and organic meats because they're having a hard time accessing the market, according to USDA. Because of consolidation of the meatpacking industry, there are fewer small slaughterhouses, butchers, meatpackers, and distributors who can supply restaurants and grocery stores with locally raised meats. The map can connect farmers to local businesses and shoppers, and give farmers the heads-up about nonprofits or other small meat processors who have funding from the USDA for things like Mobile Slaughter Units, self-contained facilities that can travel from farm to farm and serve multiple small producers in areas where large plants might be unaffordable.

Aside from helping consumers locate local farmer's markets and meat producers, the map also features information about local food infrastructure, providing small farmers and food processors details about "food hubs" (cooperative arrangements that can provide with food storage, transportation, and other processing aids). Parents in a school's PTA or on school boards can find out about farm-to-school programs, and students and wannabe farmers can learn about careers in agriculture. Also available is information on farmer's markets in your area that take EBT and SNAP benefits.

To take a tour, visit the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" Compass online.