It is an exciting time when it comes to good food. Farmers and consumers are organizing locally and regionally, creating markets close to home via farm stands, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Farm to school programs are found in more than 12,000 schools, in every state in the nation. The U.S. organic food market continues to outpace conventional food sales. These are signs that there is a clear and growing demand for good food from family farms.
While these trends are promising, the largest, most industrial farms are getting bigger. By 2007, just 6 percent of US farms were producing 75 percent of agricultural product. Meanwhile, our small and mid-sized family farms continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Between 1982 and 2007, USDA numbers show a loss of 40% of farms making between $10,000 and $250,000 – an average of 353 farms a week! These are the very farmers and farms best positioned to grow and strengthen local and regional markets; but they’re also the same farms most threatened by failed policies that seek short-term gains and favor large corporations at the expense of public health, the environment, local economies and community well-being.
Family farmers are among the most innovative and hardworking folks out there, often working 365 days a year to produce good food for our tables. But their ingenuity and commitment can only go so far in a marketplace that is stacked against them. Family farmers who are investing in the health of their land and spurring local and regional market development are excluded or not properly accounted for in most federal farm safety net programs. Without adequate and effective support, we are setting these producers--and their wise investments for a better future--up to fail.
Communities that lose family farms lose a core of skilled producers with exceptional experience and practical insight. They lose a base of committed employers and consumers, causing more businesses to shut their doors, shrinking the local tax base and ultimately leading to population loss. The industrial system that so often replaces family farms siphons millions of dollars away from rural economies. This pattern drains local businesses and decimates the social fabric of rural communities. Combine this with an aging farming population and an exodus of rural youth to urban areas, and it’s clear why previously vibrant farming communities are in sharp decline.
But each and every one of us can work to change this. The structure of our food system is not inevitable; rather, it is a reflection of choices. The future we seek is a matter of making the choice to create and strengthen local and regional markets that support family farmers and good food, and in turn fortify the health and prosperity our families, our neighbors and all Americans.
The growth of local and regional food systems relies heavily on building physical infrastructure and expanding access to affordable farm credit to help farmers transition into these markets. This will require a coordinated agenda among a wide range of public and private stakeholders – an agenda that helps farmers makes choices based on local economies, environmental stewardship, community and health, and that rewards them when they do so. Farmers will also need greater technical assistance, help with business planning and an increased flow of research dollars to effectively reorient family farms toward local and regional markets.
As we celebrate Food Day, let’s make sure we celebrate and support the roots of good food: the family farmer. Family farmers are essential if we’re going to begin solving the economic, environmental and public health challenges our nation faces. Ultimately, an investment in family farmers is a critical investment in our economy, our communities and our future: an investment that returns in spades.
For more about how family farmers are strengthening our local economies, see Farm Aid’s report “Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems.” And to find ideas for celebrating family farmers this Food Day and everyday, visit www.farmaid.org/foodday.
Hilde Steffey is Farm Aid's program director, and serves as the organization's principle issue analyst and liaison to farm and food groups nationally. Farm Aid's mission is to build a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America.
Photo Credit: Patty O'Brien