Kathleen Merrigan believes all families should know where their food comes from. To do that, they must first know where it all begins — with farmers.

The deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited the University of Georgia campus in Athens Oct. 26 to promote the department’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative (www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer).

“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 tables,” Merrigan said.

The initiative is especially important considering the average age of a U.S. farmer is 59 and climbing and many national and state agriculture experts are nearing retirement age, she said. Getting the next generation involved now is important.

“There seems to be more opportunities to talk about agriculture now than at any other time in my adult life,” she said.

As part of the initiative, she wants farmers to have the chance to talk to her and other USDA officials in person and through Web sites like YouTube. “We want to recognize a lot of expertise comes from the countryside,” she said. “We want to know what’s going on in Georgia, what’s working.”

While on campus, she spoke with UGA researchers, administrators, farmers and students and found out what the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is doing to support locally grown food.

CAES promotes local food through work by the Center for Urban Agriculture, Farm to School programs, service-learning courses and community and school gardens.

The college recently graduated its first students in the organic agriculture certificate program, put together an organic production team that works with producers statewide and developed a new sustainable agriculture Web site (www.sustainagga.org) and newsletter.

“We have a unique opportunity to develop and supply local food systems right now,” said CAES sustainable agriculture coordinator Julia Gaskin.

To promote locally grown food, CAES also partners with the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Fort Valley State University, Georgia Organics, the Atlanta Local Food Initiative and Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experiences, or PLACE.

Local food producers need places to process products like meat. CAES conducts feasibility studies to determine if meat-processing plants are feasible in certain parts of the state.

“There are no small processing facilities in the state,” said Georgia Organics director Alice Rolls. “For small poultry processing, they’re taking it to Mississippi.”

Merrigan mentioned there is interest in mobile poultry processing units, but said at best it’s a gray area when it comes to governing these facilities.

South Georgia farmer Bill Brim asked Merrigan how her department plans to tie food safety back to locally produced efforts.

“There is no size exemption on food safety,” she said. “We’re working on this.”

CAES dean Scott Angle reminded her that some critical research is not getting the funding it needs, for example, phosphorous use in watermelons and other environmental and sustainable issues.

“For farmers, it’s critically important, but government and industry doesn’t see it as important enough,” Angle said.

Farmers need financial help during disasters, like last year’s salmonella-related tomato scare that cost them $1.2 million in sales, said Terry Coleman, the Georgia deputy commission of agriculture.

“They’re vulnerable to natural disasters and also to misspeak,” Coleman said.

To get the next generation involved, young people need access to land and skills to grow food, said Craig Page with Athens-based PLACE.

“We need to be making it affordable so young people who want to farm closer to urban areas can,” he said, “so they can meet their social needs, too, and not be restricted to rural areas.”

Brian Barrett with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service told Merrigan that Georgia may soon move from being a state with few certified organic acres to one of the top 25. A $1.2 million NRCS grant will help it do that.

“Ag continues to grow in Georgia,” Angle said, “both at the state and local levels. It’s an interesting place to be right now.”