Kathleen Merrigan thinks every family needs a farmer.
Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wants people to understand the importance of knowing where their food comes from.
"Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" is the USDA's effort to encourage direct farmer-to-consumer connections and strengthen access to locally produced foods.
Merrigan, the USDA's second-in-command, was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine in 2010 for her work in agricultural policy. She presented the initiative on campus Thursday night.
About 200 people attended the event at the UF/IFAS Straughn Extension Professional Development Center.
Merrigan said interest in sustainable agriculture and demand for local food is strong and growing.
"Local's hot, if you will," Merrigan said. "People want to know where their food comes from."
When farmers sell directly to consumers, they receive a much higher return, she said, and money spent at local businesses strengthens local economies by recirculating within the community.
Local food systems are more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable, said Xin Zhao, a UF assistant professor who teaches courses in organic and sustainable crop production.
A food system includes everything involved in getting food from the farm to the table, she said.
Merrigan said she hopes any audience members who were interested in an agricultural career are now set on it and that people understand the USDA is responsive to the growing interest in local and regional agriculture.
Tarik Eluri, a 22-year-old horticultural science senior, said he is interested in local food production because it supports environmental sustainability and local economies. He said he is happy to know the USDA backs it.
"It's good to see that that's going from the top down," he said.
The USDA is a mysterious and sometimes controversial branch, said 19-year-old plant pathology sophomore Kellee Britt, who hopes to intern and eventually work there.
"If more presentations like these were available," she said, "we'd understand more about our economy, agriculture and the food that's circulated all over the U.S. and the world."
U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan speaks about agriculture and its importance in the U.S. at the Straughn Extension Professional Development Center on Thursday night.