From the cover of Time Magazine to the commentary pages of The New York Times, food safety has taken center stage in America. And predictably, as is many times the case with the national media, the stories and opinions tend to slant against modern agriculture.

And this is not to downgrade the seriousness of the issue — it’s deadly serious, and there’s much the agriculture industry can do to further insure a safe food supply for Americans. But too often, all we hear from the “popular” press is one side of the story, the most negative and damaging side to U.S. agriculture.

That’s why the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” comes at such an opportune time. The initiative is currently touring the nation’s colleges and universities and recently made a stop at the University of Georgia in Athens. The goal of the program, as explained by Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, is to educate the next generation of farmers, ranchers and consumers, and letting them participate in a “national conversation” about how to develop local and regional food systems to support small and mid-sized farms and reinvigorate rural communities.

“Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than they have been in several generations and by better connecting consumers of food to their producers, people across the country will have a greater understanding of the challenges in agriculture today and the effort it takes to put food on their table,” Merrigan says. “We can revitalize rural communities and spur economic opportunity by strengthening the link between local production and local consumption.”

This program is more important than ever because agriculture is getting a black eye on the food safety issue. For every one book about the technological wonder of modern agriculture, there are at least 10 others on how this same system of food production is poisoning us, and people tend to believe what they read or see on television, especially when they’re bombarded by it on a daily basis.

The primary reason there’s a disconnect between most Americans and agriculture is because the majority of people don’t know any farmers, and you can’t truly empathize with someone if you’ve never met them, and you have no idea how they live their lives. In my own home county in east Alabama, I’ve talked with numerous people who have no idea that cotton, peanuts, corn and a host of other crops are produced within a few miles of their own front doors.

Empathy is a vastly underrated but very essential quality. It involves, among other things, the identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings and motives, and it’s impossible to empathize at a distance, with someone whom you’re unaware of.

The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative emphasizes the need for a fundamental and critical reconnection between producers and consumers. The effort builds on the 2008 farm bill, which provides for increases and flexibility for USDA programs in an effort to promote local foods. Consumer demand for locally grown food in the United States is expected to rise from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to approximately $7 billion by 2012.

Since May, an inter-agency USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” task force has been working to align existing USDA programs with the needs of local and regional food systems; conducting outreach activities so that the linkages are understood; helping communities build local food systems by providing new initiatives; and engaging the American public in conversation about local and regional agriculture.

Earlier this year, USDA launched a new Web site, www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer, which features social media tools to help focus the public conversation about farming and food, while engaging American agriculture and linking producers to customers. The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” website directs consumers and producers to new media resources, such as information on the USDA blog, Facebook discussions, Twitter and YouTube videos. The public can also send their stories, ideas or videos to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” team at mailto:knowyourfarmer@usda.gov.

The “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative includes such major agricultural topics as supporting local farmers and community food groups; strengthening rural communities; enhancing direct marketing and farmers’ promotion programs; promoting healthy eating; protecting natural resources; and helping schools connect with locally grown foods.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com