Remember the Farm Aid concerts from the 1980s? Did you know this year’s concert took place last weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews gathered to perform? Farm Aid is the longest running benefit concert series in America, but they’re not getting the press they used to, and they should. For the past 27 years, Farm Aid has been working to keep families on the land growing our food.
Between government policies that favor a commodity market and agribusiness practices that exploit it, the odds for survival are squarely against small family farmers. And this is true in just about every part of the world, with devastating consequences for many. As Colin Tudge explains in a recent piece for The Guardian, “traditional farmers of Africa and Asia are urged to give up growing food for their own people and raise commodity crops for us.” In time, most of these farmers discover they’re unable to compete in a global market. In India, “hundreds of thousands have committed suicide,” Tudge reports, “but most flee to the cities to join the estimated billion rural exiles who now live in urban slums.”
In America, according to Farm Aid and as reported by Sustainable Table, hundreds of farmers leave their land every week. There are now 5 million fewer farms than there were in the 1930s, and of the two million remaining farms, only 565,000 are family operations. The decline of small family farms is not just a problem for the families losing their land. It’s a problem for individual consumers, society and the environment. Sustainable Table explains:
The loss of small family farms has dramatically reduced our supply of safe, fresh, sustainably-grown foods; it has contributed to the economic and social disintegration of rural communities; and it is eliminating an important aspect of our national heritage. If we lose our family farmers, we’ll lose the diversity in our food supply, and what we eat will be dictated to us by a few large corporations.
Tudge, a biologist by training, argues that the best way to provide good food for everyone is through “farms that are mixed, complex and low-input (quasi-organic). These must be labour-intensive (or there can be no complexity), so there is no advantage in them being large scale.”
In other words, good food — food that’s good for the environment, good for the economy, good for the consumer — can only be produced by small farms. For wherever economies of scale rule, wherever quantity of profit easily supersedes quality of product, food can only be grown in vast monocultures fueled by machines and agrochemicals. But food so produced is food as commodity, not as nourishment for a community and a nation. “Although industrial farming doesn’t feed everybody, has led to mass unemployment and the poverty and despair that go with it, and is wrecking the fabric of the world,” Tudge writes, “it must prevail because it produces piles of short-term cash for the people who are calling the shots.”
By saving small family farms, we can bring back good food for everyone. But it’s a cause that often flies under the radar of mainstream media. Do what you can by buying food from local farmers whenever possible — at farmers’ markets, at food co-ops or by joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Also, ask your grocery store and wherever else you shop to supply more food from local farmers and other local food producers.
There are compelling reasons to have huge agribusinesses and eliminating small family farms, but to do so creates a cost in loss of quality of soils, crops and water. Run off from heavy use of petroleum products pollutes