The special-edition article shared here is a collaboration born from the Farm Aid Connection column in Craft by Under My Host - an indie food and beverage publication.
The speed at which we got our rock and roll information was electrified into a frenzy in 1981 when MTV launched their music video station. In 1985, when MTV was just four years old, several massive “charity rock” collaborations, including Band Aid, Live Aid, We Are the World, and finally, Farm Aid were launched, featuring A-list rock and roll heroes, and forging new relationships between entertainers, fans, causes and charities.
Reebee Garofalo writes in Farm Aid - A Song for America, “Spearheaded by Willie Nelson, following an offhanded comment by Bob Dylan from the Live Aid stage, Farm Aid was launched to draw attention to the plight of the family farm, once the iconic image of rural America.”
Thirty-four years later, Farm Aid is still going strong, buoyed by its principle board members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, a year-round staff, and a robust farm advocate network. They continue to fulfill a crucial fundraising role, lending their considerable voice to easing the plight of independent farms and farmers, who unbeknownst to most of us, are facing endless battles in their effort to put wholesome food on family tables across America.
I was in high school during these years and remember the impact. These new cause-driven music vehicles gave adults reasons to talk about music with their kids, and teachers reason to bring pop-culture into the classroom. It brought daylight to current causes and gave youngsters an introduction to some legends, and vice versa.
Farm Aid’s legacy has driven awareness and massive familiarity with their mission: to strengthen the American farmer. They have focused on the need for agricultural support during a time of great change, where many people were invited and inspired to look at food and drink differently, being more mindful of sourcing, practices and provenance.
As a musician, a craft food and beverage professional as well as an aspiring hobby-farmer, I was thrilled for the invitation to collaborate with Farm Aid on this column, and more specifically this particular article, covering Farm Aid itself. Of course, like most of us, my immediate thoughts went to the music festival, the artists, the excitement of the day, the visible, tangible moments of all of those people coming together to rally for a cause.
Yet, through the process of writing this column over the last year, I began to wonder about what I really knew about the organization overall. What happens during the rest of the year, behind the scenes? What does their support look like, and for that matter, what are the systemic agricultural and regulatory issues that have required such constant vigilance and advocacy over more than thirty years? What do any of us regular folks know about why our farms and our food are in crisis?
In September of last year, I was privileged to visit with the people that make up Farm Aid’s Farm Advocate network at an all-day retreat, On the Road to Resilience | Moving from Individual Crisis to Collective Power, in Hartford Connecticut. It was held on Thursday of Farm Aid Weekend, with the festival scheduled at nearby Xfinity Theatre on Saturday. The day included a Keynote, several expert speakers and panel discussions, and of course valuable networking and camaraderie. Kyle Bice, my collaborator in This Craft Nation, came along to document with photographs, while we talked to the interesting characters that make up the connective tissue of Farm Aids behind-the-scenes farm advocacy.
I received the book, Farm Aid - A Song for America, published in 2005 to celebrate twenty years of Farm Aid. Its themes rang true to what I know about our rural and agricultural struggles of today. Despite what this next story reveals about the tardiness of my preparation, I’ll confess that I only started digging into the book in earnest on the plane ride to Connecticut. A predawn race to the airport spurred on by a forgotten wallet, furthered my frustration when I went to take notes, and found I was without a notebook. In hindsight, it seems rather fitting that I scratched out my impassioned notes inspired by the book on the airline-provided barf-bag, plucked from the seat-back in front of me.
I feverishly put down my thoughts in dark ink on both sides of the dark blue paper bag. I underlined “Trust” and scribbled about how government has worked against independent stewards of land and in support of greed-driven opportunists, who have mined instead of farmed, extracting what they could for profit. I underlined “Stewardship” and scrawled that “We have witnessed destruction at the hands of those that chose to exploit, instead of stewarding and caring for our land, our food and our people.” Some notes about centralizing farming into the hands of a few, and centralizing wealth and power, culminated into a big arrow pointing to “CONTROL.” In writing this article, I struggled with whether to share this anecdote, but I suppose as a way of setting the tone, and owning my bias, I decided to share it up front. If you care about food, farming and fairness, you don’t have to look very far to find outrage, frustration and even shame. My last note jammed onto the corner of the blue barf-bag is inside a strongly outlined box, “We should be ashamed, but shame doesn’t get anything done.”
So, my objectivity may have been in short supply, but we were on a mission to learn more. I hoped we’d find out about what was being done, what we can do, and if there is any sliver of hope for optimism and progress. I can’t help but laugh at the barf-bag coincidence, because the stories shared here are simultaneously inspiring and sickening.
During preliminary conversations with Farm Aid’s Communications Director, Jennifer Fahy, she described their network of farm advocates supported by Farm Aid. I felt like I understood, but in hindsight, I was unprepared to grasp the severity of the need and the intensity of the task at hand.
It is difficult to grasp the complexity of the effort towards helping independent American farmers for a couple of reasons. There are several concurrent struggles. There’s the most obvious, but still confusing challenge of growing food profitably. Not only does one need the skill and expertise to successfully raise the food, but one must do it in spite of rising land and fuel costs, and artificially depressed food prices. There’s also the regulatory navigation, which can loom like a dark cloud of mystery over a small operation. Independent farmers need to keep up with the latest changes in farm bills, which can affect pricing, available governmental resources, and requirements, as well as credit and borrowing opportunities. Perhaps most surprising to some, is the physical and mental toll these realities bring to farmers.
When I began this project, I felt like the needed support was most likely technical and logistical. Mentoring and resource finding; skills-building. Even with a fair amount of awareness, I didn’t comprehend the deeper need to defend and support farmers who are fighting valiantly for their own ability to create a sustainable business, and contribute to a healthier food system, despite a regulatory and financial system that is seemingly designed to put them out of business.
The need for expertise to succeed against the natural threats to crops isn’t the half of it. These farmers need to protect themselves from the very system they exist within, and it is heartbreaking to realize that their commitment to the earth and our food is often killing them. Instead of farming methods, the poignant and prominent theme reverberating through the advocate network at On the Road to Resilience, was suicide prevention. It is sobering to absorb the helplessness that family farmers must feel with their entire lives invested in land, equipment and crops, when they can’t see a way to make it work.
How are we so upside down when we’ve had a strong and vocal effort from impassioned champions for so long? In order to try to answer that question and understand what the challenges have been and what people and organizations within the Farm Aid network have fought for over the years, we’ll need to start with some history.
In Farm Aid - A Song for America, Tony Conway, Willie Nelson’s booking agent describes the birth of Farm Aid in the midst of a national farm crisis, as an “out of the blue” idea hatched on Willie’s tour bus outside the Illinois State Fair in August of 1985. “I want to do a concert for the American farmers. I want to see if we can do it here in Illinois.”
A short while later, Governor Thompson knocked on the bus door, and soon the stadium at the University of Illinois was reserved for the first Farm Aid on September 22nd, only five weeks away. Things moved fast; artists and collaborators came together and worked feverishly to put this seemingly impossible concert together. Neil Young and John Mellencamp were notable partners, along with Carolyn G. Mugar, Farm Aid’s first Executive Director, who was charged with figuring out how to answer the question on many farmers’ lips, “What the hell are you going to do?”
Jennifer Fahy, who works closely with Carolyn who still holds the role of executive director today, shared the perspective and effort back then. “Carolyn was hired to help distribute that first seven million dollars that was raised. It was intended as a temporary job, but the work continued on. They kept raising money and kept advocating and Jennifer describes, “John and Willie went up to Capitol hill and testified, and Farm Aid got connected into all of these farm organizations. The next thing organized was the first United Farmer and Rancher Congress in 1986, which was a gathering of farmer delegates, who were elected in this process. They represented farming counties in all of the agricultural states from across the country. All of these folks came together in St. Louis and worked for five days to create a policy platform for family-farm agriculture. That groundwork helped pass legislation, the Family Farm Credit Act, the following year which put a moratorium on farm foreclosures and enabled farmers who were in arrears to hold onto their land with a payment plan.” It was sometime around then, it became clear that the organization needed to move out of Mugar’s kitchen, eventually growing into their office of today, complete with a fifteen-person staff.
In the early ‘80s, Benny Bunting was a poultry farmer in North Carolina, who along with his friend David May, began trying to organize poultry farmers to address the many obstacles they faced in the shadows of “contract farming” by giants like Tyson. The Agricultural Act of 1964 was supposed to protect farmers that were getting together to organize from being blacklisted. “We realized that even though there was a regulation — congress didn’t provide any funds for enforcement, so it was passed, but not implemented.”
Benny was inspired by an article, Billions of Chickens, written by Hope Shand in 1983, of the Rural Advancement Foundation International - USA (RAFI-USA). “I looked at that the article, which was the first thing that really got my attention, and I wanted to find out where it came from — it was right on target. I contacted the group and looked at the United Farmers Organization, (a group for farmers started by RAFI-USA - better known as U.F.O.), as being an umbrella organization for poultry growers, that they could really see as their organization.”
As Benny remarks on the legislation and lack of protection, he laughs while lamenting, “Sounds a lot like the GIPSA Regulations [which were recently proposed to help protect farmers and ranchers], doesn’t it? That happened just two or three years ago — same thing as in ’64.” He continues, “So many things change, and so many stay the same. And that’s what we read in Billions of Chickens. If you read that article now, which was written in the early eighties, you’d think it was written a few weeks ago.”
Benny began working with U.F.O as a legislative representative, as they were working on a national focus on the farming problems going on in North Carolina. That effort got tied up with several other groups including Farmers Legal Action Group, National Family Farm Coalition and RAFI-USA. He was at the first United Farmer Rancher Congress in 1986 and saw the impact of the support Willie Nelson brought through Farm Aid. “Willie has been around that whole time and has given the farmers a national voice.”
Beyond that voice to garner support, and defend against opposition, Benny also speaks to the strength of coming together—his original goal. “There are an awful lot of farmers that gather. Groups and training advocates across the country – we get to compare notes about how we’re addressing appeals and how we’re assisting farmers.”
Today, Benny serves as RAFI-USA’s Lead Farm Advocate, a role he’s held for more than twenty years. He works one-on-one with farmers, assisting them with applications for loans and services from the government, including responding to denials.
“It is unbelievable what the farmers are expected to know. If you get an adverse decision, even if it’s not written, you only have thirty days to contest that decision. You have to know that it was adverse, and that’s the problem we’re dealing with in the appeals process. They expect the farmers to know all of the regulation and to have anticipated whether it’s adverse or not.”
Benny reveals the unbelievable bureaucratic reputation and track record of the NAD (National Appeals Division) of the FSA (Farm Services Agency) within the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). His wry smile and quick laugh are juxtaposed against the continuous battle he’s been in -- against and within the governmental agencies that are supposed to protect and serve the agricultural community. He explains that when it comes to loans or services, it requires an astute knowledge of the system, and believes that “The majority of the time they [the agencies] are looking for a reason to deny; while we are looking for reasons to approve.” It feels even more daunting to hear him quote that when they went back and looked at the numbers, 97% percent of the appeal reviews requested by “The Agency” were found in favor of the agency, and only 3% requested by farmers were overturned in farmers’ favor.
Besides the amount of despair, and what already feels like an historic lack of progress, all of the acronyms for government departments and agencies, plus the support organizations and farm advocates, make for an alphabet soup that is downright bewildering.
Shirley Sherrod was also at the first Farmer and Rancher Congress. She was the Georgia state lead for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and chosen to organize delegates for Georgia and South Carolina. She spent several months meeting farmers, taking them through a process of selecting who would serve as delegates.
Shirley recalls, “The crisis was really tough during those years. In the earlier part of the ‘80’s, farmers were committing suicide - it was a really tough time to be a farmer. Between the first Farm Aid held in 1985 and 1986, they came to realize the farmers (crops) were saying one thing and ranchers (livestock) were saying another. There was a need to try and bring them together to deal with the farm crisis.”
Shirley shared stories of countless meetings across the two states and shared that it was “…interesting as a black woman, to go into white communities and get white farmers involved.” She persevered and got sixty-eight farmers to come together, funded by the first Farm Aid, to serve as delegates in St. Louis and have their voices heard.
“To see farmers come from all over the country, and to leave with one message was very powerful, during those years.” It was something Shirley had never seen before. “I didn’t know of any time where you had black and white farmers and ranchers… they came together from all over...”
In a way, the national crisis was unifying in that there was a common problem that different types of farms across all regions had shared. Shirley continued, “It really helped us to come together. Without Farm Aid that would not have happened. Farm Aid was so important to having that big meeting here in this country. Black farmers had the opportunity to participate as well as - look - I’m a black woman, and I was a younger black woman, back then… giving me the job of helping to pull this together - totally new…” she laughs warmly, “… yeah.”
“Some major things happened at Farm Aid - because — we didn’t just show up. You were able to make major connections there. We knew as black people, with the issues we had around land-loss and so forth -- this gave us a major opportunity to talk with the press about our issues.”
It is both stunning and telling that the phrase, “black land loss” is a well-established term in these circles. As blunt as it is, the phrase hardly covers the systemic racism and injustice that it is born from. We sat with Savi Horne, Executive Director of the Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP), who helped put the farm crisis and black land loss into perspective.
The LLPP was founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers to curtail epidemic losses of black-owned land in North Carolina. Savi explains, “The impetus was the small farm crisis, in which small farmers across the country were going out of business due to the crash in the commodities market.” The crash made it difficult to impossible for them to cash flow their existing loans with the USDA. “While that was going on in the Midwest, black farmers disproportionately, given their size, were going out of business across the South.”
While Savi is clearly emotionally invested, she speaks clearly and directly to the point, which helps me grasp the specifics of what was at the root of this issue. “They set up a task force to look at the problem and felt that legal skills could be brought to bear towards stemming land loss by providing legal services to farmers who were losing their farms. “
“What they discovered, was that the root of most of the problem lied with the federal government. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its local Farm Services Agency (FSA) of today, which going back would have been the Farmer’s Home Administration Agency.”
“There were a lot of instances in which black farmers did not get access to operating loans, or when they got it, it was post season. When they defaulted on their loans, they didn’t get restructuring assistance, they didn’t have ready access to disaster assistance [crop failure] and they didn’t have access to risk management tools that would help turn their operation around. In that period of time, what you had was a system of supervised bank accounts [for black farmers] which led to quite a lot of abusive practices and intimidation that the farmers felt.”
Savi describes some of the response. “You had advocates -- there was an organizing of black farmers that resulted in the [class action] discrimination lawsuits that were filed against the US Department of Agriculture. Pigford One primarily and subsequently Pigford Two [the largest civil rights settlement to date].”
“In the testimony of Shirley Sherrod, coming out of Southwest Georgia, her testimony would replicate the objective conditions on the ground in North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama and elsewhere - because what you had was a Federal agency (with local offices) that were systematically discriminating against black, African-American borrowers.”
Shirley, mentioned earlier as part of the Federation for Southern Cooperatives, was a co-founder of New Communities land trust and farm cooperative, a 6,000-acre farm co-owned by a dozen black farmers for sixteen years. The USDA denied their emergency loan request for irrigation in response to a severe regional drought. The USDA later seized the property in 1985. They were a prominent plaintiff in the Pigford lawsuits.
Savi explains further, “They proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the agency had discriminated. There was proof that when black farmers sent complaints to the national office in D.C., those complaints disappeared and were not addressed. On that basis, they were able to organize a Federal class-action lawsuit, in which they prevailed [in 1999]. After the long-haul, the agency acknowledged that they had wronged farmers; particularly African American farmers.”
“You had a 1982 Civil rights commission report that puts squarely from their findings, that the federal government was leading to such an alarming rate of land-loss by African Americans that by 2010, black farmers would have disappeared off the landscape.”
“When you marshal all of those factors that influence the federal class-action and the settlement that occurred - it really did push the agency to have a period of reconciliation and to figure out how best they can move forward and reorganize the agency”
“The office of civil rights was strengthened. The office of advocacy and outreach came into full being and has provided a pivotal role in providing information in Federal programs through grass-roots activism and national small farms groups. We got accountability of language in the Farm Bill. And since the last Farm Bill, A federal USDA agency must provide receipt of service to farmers who come in seeking assistance. We can begin to track who is applying for programs and who is not getting it and figure out what needs to be done.”
“As Farm Aid came together - they developed a farm advocacy network, of which our project was a part of. It’s clear that the farm advocates network saved quite a few farmers, but it also helped to root social change agents within their communities.”
“What helped to sustain the groups in part, was the kind of general support assistance that most of them were getting from Farm Aid - so that they were able to pursue some of these remedies, in an organized way.”
I was almost rendered speechless by this account but managed to ask the nagging question in my head. The practices were being changed, protections being put in place, wrongs being acknowledged. But what about the land itself?
“It’s lost. It was one of the potential claims in the class-action; perhaps we could get land that was in Federal inventory, to give black farmers first option to get this land, but that was all bargained away. No land was recovered.”
I am dumbstruck as I hear these stories and realize that we’re not talking about governmental discrimination from some other generation; some era before my time. This was happening in the eighties, during a brutal crisis that put all small farms at risk, and unfortunately still continues, to some degree today. Scott Marlow, Senior Policy Analyst at RAFI-USA, weighed in on some parallel incentive. “Coming off of World War II, in the fifties and sixties, there were some articles of economic analysis stating that ‘There’s not enough value in agriculture to support the number of people currently in farming. The best thing the government can do is to transition those people out of agriculture as soon as possible, so they can find other places in the economy.’ This was the logic behind a move to a larger scale and the underpinnings of a long-term federal policy that believed the best thing we can do is drive farmers and labor out of farming.”
Scott, along with Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid’s in-house Farm Advocate who oversees their hotline, both independently shared their blunt and often bleak view on the financial aspect of commodity farming. They helped shed light on how gearing an industry for low-priced exports creates a demand for volume and price that the small farmer just can’t compete with.
Scott explains, “Subsidies to large commodity farms help prices fall below the cost of production, which would normally put the farmer out of business, but the taxpayer makes up the difference - so you keep them barely in work.” Even without subsidies, crops with their value decided by commodity market can have brutal financial realities, with gross farm income across the U.S. being down 50% since 2013.
Most of us feel the economy improving, and if we’re in the craft industry, we see people paying more for food and drink. How is it that this group of advocates is describing and facing such big challenges? Why are we in crisis and how is it different from the ‘80s?
Joe helps bridge that gap of understanding, “It’s similar and different. It is now obvious that it is not about the quality of the farmer, or the management. It’s no longer about size and efficiency. There are fewer farmers; we’re not losing 2000 farm families a week from things that weren’t their fault. [In the ‘80s,] people were going into foreclosure, having never missed a payment. The value of their land dropped due to interest rates, and all of a sudden, they were underwater. Within a few months, thousands of farm families were going out. That was like an atom bomb across rural America, where there were still enormous populations tied to agriculture. People had to do something about it. Thirty-three years later, we don’t have those populations in farm country anymore.”
“Now there are small farms, and little crises happening all over. We may have lost three quarters of our farm families over the last thirty years. We lost all those people really fast. It’s important to know the percentage we lost and the percentage that still exists, because we need to apply that lens to the crisis we’re in now. How do we gauge it? Is it as bad or not? What’s the percentage of people who are imminently losing their farm? If we lose two hundred [now], that’s worse in some ways. We have multiple-thousand-acre farms who are in trouble because of a price problem, yet they have grown astronomically…”
Joe is on the front line with and for these farmers. He receives the distress signal and responds with help or referrals. “The vast majority of cases are financial. I dive in, ask questions and try to understand the full scenario. Most people know what they need, but they may not understand the options or how to navigate federal programs. It’s using everything in the book to strategize a way to save it. Quite often you have to navigate the emotional land-mines to get into the financial stuff. You’re never going to get the farmer to relax who’s in this distress by traditional, mental-health exercises, because they know the source of the stress is financial - they’re [about] to lose their grandfather’s farm.”
Ok, it all sounds pretty doom and gloom - in fact, at some point in talking with Joe, he exclaimed, “Listen buddy - if you’re talking to me, you’re going to hear some pessimistic shit…” But in talking throughout the day with advocates who have been defending ethics-minded, small and independent farms from a system engineered to thwart them, it was abundantly clear that they stand up and step forward, no matter how dire it continues to look and feel, and they tell it like it is.
Our last conversation of the day was outside on the front steps with Niaz Dorry, Coordinating Director at Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) and Executive Director at National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). It was immediately before attending the closing session, What we Love the Most: Reflections and Commitments, which she led. Like the others, Niaz spoke the cold, hard truth, and didn’t pull any punches. However, our conversation with her also helped us turn the corner and look forward.
Niaz began her career working with fisheries for Greenpeace. She brought her experience and exposure to the importance of farming and community farms to her work in organizing fishing communities. “The fight to protect small scale fishermen is the same fight as protecting family farmers. My knowledge of the family farmer struggle, and their social, environmental, economic importance in our society, is what drove me to work on fisheries issues. As time has gone on, I have seen that overlap more and more.”
In 2008, Niaz joined NAMA as coordinating director, and soon thereafter, “…because we were able to demonstrate the similarities between these two populations of food producers, we were able to join National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC).”
“Suddenly, everything I had imagined in my head about these two populations’ importance to our society, our economy, to a more ecologically sound food system and our ability to eat good food was just materialized by the joining of forces by these two organizations. That was the first year, in 2008, that I went to Farm Aid as an advocate for a new way of food production. I’ve been to Farm Aid festivals ever since, with one exception, because we recognize that Farm Aid offers us a platform to talk about these important elements of food production, and the marginalized part of our food system. That ensures access to not only good food, but to a broader part of our population. Ever since then, Farm Aid has provided us with a venue to talk about these issues.”
“Earlier this year, as of May 1 - the two organizations entered a shared leadership model, where I run both, and we build on those synergies. We’re grateful that Farm Aid recognizes that the synergy exists, and they’re willing to raise the voice of family farmers and still invite the fishermen.”
I ask the big, simple question - why does it matter? What’s important culturally or systematically about protecting the small farms and traditions? Niaz stands tall and speaks calmly and matter-of-factly, yet with full voice.
She flips the question around - “Why is the other system bad? That is even more important in some ways. When I think about the other system, I think about Tyson Foods, I think about Cargill, Caterpillar - all these industrial companies, highly capitalized, living literally on the backs of eaters and farmers and fishermen and subsidies from the federal government. I think about and know the impact they’re having. Think about what just happened with Hurricane Florence and the images of pigs and chickens that were held in captivity. They didn’t have a chance.”
Would the impact of that disaster have been different with more balanced farms?
“In the alternative, independent, diversified, small and mid-scale farms. Forget the dead animals floating in the water - the manure lagoons we’re seeing photos of - those would not exist - and now they’re being washed into waterways and effecting marine environments and rivers and fresh water sources. That doesn’t happen on small to midscale [farms].”
Will our current state of advocacy be able to shape that story differently? Is it important to get the story of this potential change in impact out?
“Absolutely. I think some of the organizations in Carolinas are essentially focusing on [the message that] this would be a different story, had we had a different food system; a different farming system. Industrial ag is already capitalizing – saying, ‘This is an economic loss to us.’ Their economic loss pales in comparison to the long-term economic loss that family farmers have been experiencing and the social cost of infrastructure loss, as farming has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.”
“They use this economic burden cost as an excuse to hide behind their operations and to - one more time - tap into tax payer resources to get bailed out. While the small farmer, who may also be impacted, gets told, ‘Your business isn’t big enough to pay attention to.’ Well, it may not be big enough, but it’s the most sustainable part, and you should be paying attention. But it’s this mentality that unless you’ve got millions invested in the farm or the boat, in the case of the fisherman, that’s the only time you have a voice.”
I remark on the advantages that industrial ag had in the first-place, before the emergency/disaster. That they’re likely more prepared to weather the storm.
“They built this into their business model. A lot of these companies have disasters as part of their business model and they probably have diversified investments to make up some of these losses, that we will never know about. Family farmers don’t, and that’s unfortunate.”
It’s this sort of baked-in systemic defense and protection of industrial ag that reveals a decades-old story. When crisis hits, whether it’s economic, weather or natural disaster, the recovery effort deals devastating blows to independent farms’ strength and value. I wager that giant industrial farms, divisions of even larger corporations, aren’t facing bankruptcy or losing the farm in the midst of a crisis of that scale. The family farms, however often aren’t given a second chance and don’t have the same protections. I start to really feel how this this vulnerability has fed the historically repeated land-grabs by big ag, feeding off of disaster, then farming with methods that are more susceptible to make the land, or fishery, even more vulnerable.
Niaz picks up the thread, “Not only do they not get the second crack - if they do get one - they are de-prioritized in the process. They are left to linger for so long, that the opportunities presented to them…out of frustration, they end up losing their land. Sometimes it’s just ‘I just can’t deal with this…’ the stress is so much - they lose the land.”
“We’ve lost the farms and therefore, there’s less impact on the land; there’s fewer farmers and more efficient industrial-scale farmers. What’s not taken into account [is that] we lose the land, so it’s no longer used in sustainable production, and now it’s used to confine huge numbers of animals to produce what we call cheap food. That’s what we’re losing.”
The David vs Goliath story is compelling. I naturally root for the small and independent, but I want clarification. Being big can’t be the only issue here. Growth and success aren’t the enemy, are they? What makes the shared ethos of family farms different from a food quality and sustainability point of view? Why do the behemoth, consolidated, subsidized competitors also have a shared ethos - and why is it so destructive?
Niaz starts by explaining her view of big-ag’s perspective. “They would say, ‘We want to give people access to cheap food, we’re the ones who are going to feed the world. We’re the ones who give people safe food. Small family farmers are the ones who are going to kill people. They don’t have the education to do safe food. Their food is going to be more expensive than our food. They can’t feed the world, because they don’t have access to the global commodities market.’ They consider all of that the plus. Family famers and small-scale fisherman consider all of that the minus.”
“I’ll paraphrase Jim Goodman, NFFC’s Board President, ‘They tell me I have to feed the world, but I don’t want to. I want to feed you. Because I believe the world can feed itself, if we let it. If we give the world, the farmers, access back to their land. To seed, to fishing rights for fisherman - they can feed themselves.’ We have taken that all away and given it to the industrial system. And they’re claiming they’re the ones who are going to accomplish all of our needs. They claimed that at the onset of the farm crisis, forty, fifty years ago. They said ‘In order to feed the world, we need to make a more efficient system, that creates cheap food, and we can do mass production’ of what I call unidentified-food-objects at this point. What did we end up with?”
“For the first time in our history, we have food that’s killing us. We saw a higher use of pesticides, herbicides and chemicals in our food and in our land. We have seen our land’s health degraded. We now know how important healthy soil is to mitigating climate change. We’ve seen loss of infrastructure in rural communities across the U.S. at least, if not globally, because of that system. We’ve seen poor animal husbandry. We’ve seen monoculture as a way of feeding people, which essentially means you get a choice of a handful of foods, versus what we know to be healthy; which is diversity of foods in your diet. That’s what that model has created under this guise of ‘We’re going to feed the world cheap food.’”
“Now, we’re seeing what that cheap really translates to. It means higher health care costs that we gotta pay for, because they don’t. It means trying to restore the land that we gotta pay for, because they will just abandon it and move on to the next piece of land. We have to figure out a way to take care of rural communities; because once they’re done, they’ve moved on somewhere else and those rural communities are left reeling.”
“All the external costs of their way of producing so-called cheap food, is now on the rest of us and the farmers and fishermen they’ve left behind. When I think about the options of a Tyson versus an independent family farm - I know enough. A family farmer isn’t perfect. I’m not looking for perfection at this point, I’m looking for potential.”
Niaz explored Tyson’s venture into fishing operations, which failed and was subsequently bailed out by the government. As she saw them return to what they described as their “core strength,” Niaz viewed their movements as something different.
“What that told me, was that their ethos was really profits to the shareholders. That is it. Everything else is a pathway to highest return to the shareholder. From the end of May to the end of July, I took a trip I called, “America the Bountiful Tour,” traveling 13,000 miles across the country to fifty-three primarily rural communities. When I think about family farmers and fishermen, the shared ethos of those family operations was, ‘I want to feed my community first. I want to take care of my family. I want to take good care of these animals. I want to be able to make sure my community is healthy and has infrastructure it needs. I want to make sure the water is safe for us to drink. I want to make sure land is safe for the next generations. I want to make sure the future generations can farm and feed my community…’ That’s what I heard fifty-nine days in a row. That’s the shared ethos of the people we’re talking about here.”
“Our job as advocacy organizations is to raise the voices of those independent and small and midscale farmers and fishermen, so we can not only unseat what they [industrial ag] have created as their narrative, but also a way of production that they talk about as being the key to feeding the world.”
“We believe the world can feed itself, as Jim says, but we need to make sure farmers have access to seeds that are not dominated by Monsanto and Bayer and that they can save those seeds for future generations. We need to make sure farmers have access to land that is being grabbed by retirement funds and banks and industrial agriculture. We need to make sure infrastructure is rebuilt in communities, so a lot of their costs aren’t going to transporting animals and produce elsewhere and therefore the profits go out of their community.”
“That’s our responsibility, but it starts with making sure we tell the truth about what’s happening to those rural communities and our food production system. That takes a level of bravery, because we have to directly combat this false narrative that the industrial production system is necessary to feed the world. It is not necessary to feed the world. The world fed itself for hundreds of years, before they arrived on the scene. They arrived on the scene and saw an opportunity for profit, and now we have the system we have today.”
That helped me put things in perspective. It’s not size, it’s not money – it is the ethos of industrialized farming versus sustainable agriculture. It’s not big versus small - it’s productive vs destructive. It is the difference between those that want to find ways to farm sustainably, balancing the needs of community, earth and the bottom line, which does include profit, and those who want to sustain their profitability, at whatever human and ecological cost.
It can be tough for us well-intentioned consumers to suss out which operators to support, especially when the unsustainable, industrial operators so cleverly disguise their efforts, while co-opting terms like “all natural”, and pushing stories in the media and marketing efforts to position themselves as the good guys. At the same time, at least we know what we’re looking for. We’re looking for practices that support once-obvious essentials for healthy food. Animals need fresh air and room to move, versus confined spaces and routine antibiotics. We’re better off when our produce is still traceable to its source and is grown with methods that support nutrition. When fruits and vegetables are commoditized into generic handling, the incentive for quality and healthfulness, can be upended by “good enough” and an incentive to lower the price at all costs.
Part of me was filled with hopelessness. During each interview I asked about what we can do, what does the system need, where do we go from here? Those questions were usually answered with a sigh, maybe a reflective pause, and then two basic answers; what they wished we could do, and what we’re actually doing.
Benny shared his enthusiasm for the connections made through Farm Aid and the advocate network. “It is a meeting of the minds, really. You like to see somebody who is interested in some of the same sort of changes you are interested in, and the same activities you’re interested in. It is great to come back and see new faces. That’s one of the best things now, when my face is getting so old! It is great to come back and see younger people that are coming in, that are ready to continue…and it has increased. The consumer is becoming much more educated in the health of their food…about trying to stay away from these chemicals that we don’t know what they’re going to do to our bodies. They’re learning that helping their farmer is helping themselves, they are an integral part of that farmer being able to survive and provide that food.”
Savi explained why small and diverse systems are important and capable of making continued impact, “Because we care about the planet. We care about the fact that agriculture has the most significant fossil fuel footprint and is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. It is the case that when people eat locally, they eat better, and they feel ownership. It is everything to say that community food sovereignty is an important factor in people’s lives and mental wellbeing.”
Shirley shared, “It can be as simple as talking to some of the people in your community who grow food to see what I can do. Can I buy more direct from you? Can I buy more locally to try to help bring the change here that needs to happen with the food that we eat? We’ve gotta start asking those questions and becoming involved in what happens.”
I mention to Shirley that it feels like we need this movement to look beyond “fancy food” and that farm to table needs to be more than elevated dining but considered a fundamental for community health. We talked about how that dining audience does, however, have many people who are ready to go deeper, ready to listen. She responded, “We need ‘em. Part of our strength is coming from younger people. They have all of these skills. The things they can do to mobilize each other in areas where we do have people who are still farming and trying to do the right thing. They could be key to some of those types of changes.”
“We still have to get involved and elect the right people. It’s so hard, and with so much money out there to help people do the wrong thing; these donors that really don’t care about anything but power. They have to understand what it is doing to the environment; the water you drink - the soil that eventually leeches into everything you eat. We have to help them understand what’s happening, what that means.”
Niaz led the wrap up, sharing stories from her “America the Bountiful Tour,” and showed a mason jar that had a little bit of water from each of the fifty-three communities she visited. She talked about being cynical about “love,” an informal theme for the day. “I’ve always been very cynical about the word love - it gets thrown around quite a bit. I learned what it really meant this summer. I learned that there are people across the country who have great love for the land, the water, for the animals, for feeding people, for the work that they do, the energy they bring to their work and for the people in their community. As a result, those of you we visited, you made me change my attitude towards the word love. I’m using it more — I’m actually talking about it. I’m using it in my daily sentences.” Niaz laughs through tears, “This is new for me - and I appreciate it. “My commitment is to continue to use love in my work – to use it as an anchor in my work.”
Niaz invited people to come up, front and center, to share their take-aways from the day and what they were committing to giving back. People shared personal stories, and sentiments. They quoted Juanita Wilson, Cesar Chavez and Wendell Berry and talked about interconnection to the land, and those who came before us. They reminded each other that if we look around, we have what we need, and they celebrated their belief in the power of what can happen when people work together. They shared a Che Guevara quote, “Love is the most revolutionary word.”
Alicia Harvie, Advocacy and Farmer Services Director for Farm Aid, who had led the organizational effort towards putting this entire day together, closed by talking about the power of holding space, being present, and committing.
This was the end of the workshop day, although not the end of our day. From here, we would trek out to the Xfinity Theater, as the team continued the massive effort of getting the concert site ready for twenty-five thousand people.
We had been there less than six hours at this point. My head was swimming and my heart was full. I knew that I had way too much information to easily pare down into an article, but I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t stop recording, and I couldn’t stop scribbling notes. The last note in my notebook, as they closed the session was this: “I’m pretty sure a conference with Tyson, Monsanto, Kraft, etc. — doesn’t look like this. Doesn’t feel like this. They’re not talking about love, suicide prevention, land loss and systematic discrimination — all while supporting, [and] advocating for one another.”
As the sun set over the trailers and crew outside of Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, we talked with Jennifer, Farm Aid’s communications director. Jen is a vocal leader, an often called upon spokesperson, and she understandably holds a somewhat different tone than we experienced with our behind-the-scenes, battle-worn advocates, telling it like it is. She’s no less aware, and no less on the front line, however within her role, she brings light, encouragement and invitation, by showcasing the farmers, the advocates and the progress being made.
She reasserts the relationship of Farm Aid with the farm resource network of regional and national organizations. “We have the privilege of knowing these amazing organizations. People that would never normally call themselves environmentalists, or protesters…but these people in the Plains states and in the Midwest, who are fighting for soil and water and democracy. Especially nowadays, people don’t think about those parts of the country and don’t think there are people out there, doing that kind of work; putting their bodies on the line to stop a pipeline or protect farmland. Yet, we know these people. Some of them are seventy-year-old cattle ranchers who have been doing it since they were twenty.”
“We’re so lucky to know them, so we want to shine a spotlight on them, and tell the rest of the country, ‘We can’t just paint this with a big broad brush,’ because there are people fighting and they’re right in the middle of where we need people to be fighting the most.”
As we get close to wrapping the day, loud carts push past us, and we talk about the flaws that keep returning us to crisis. When I ask what needs to happen -- Jen shifts -- and leans into a grittier reality; sharing a common refrain among the advocates, but one that seems entirely necessary and simultaneously impossible.
“Essentially, the whole system needs to be demolished and rebuilt. The flaws are that we haven’t been able to do that. In the Farm Bill that is about to expire on September 30th , that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re just trying to chip away and retain as much as we can for family farmers, for conservation and for food access; rather than rethinking the whole thing and starting over - we just don’t have that opportunity…”
I interject that it seems like the power structure hasn’t accepted that this whole thing is upside down.
“Power!” she exclaims, “It’s not upside down for them! They’re profiting from it. That’s the problem — corporate greed, corporate profit; the power of the interests who are making all the money off this system -- they don’t want things to change. That’s an uphill battle — David vs Goliath.”
“But what we have in place now, is this growth in people who care about farmers, who care about local food production, who care about sustainable agricultural methods, how their food is grown, what is sprayed on it, or not sprayed on it. How the animals are treated, how the farmer is treated, how the farm workers are treated. There is so much more transparency in our food system and there is so much more consideration that people put into what is on their plates. That is huge, and it continues to grow. We have growing recognition in how important our food is.”
“It’s what sustains us, you’d think we’d put more care into what we are eating every day. But more and more, people are - every day. I always point to the fact that what we’re doing isn’t telling people ‘You should quit that, it’s bad for you...’ and shaking our finger at them. We’re saying, ‘Come on in and try this with us, and see how much fun it is, how much joy it brings you - how much connectedness and authentic and rootedness it brings you.’ It’s all positive and we all need more of it in our lives.”
Despite this positive invitation, the terrain between like-minded consumers and producers rooting for a healthier farm and food system is riddled with obstacles and opposition - so what’s the call to action?
“They [consumers] need to do it more. Anecdotally, farmers are saying that farmers markets are not selling as much food as before. People may still be going, but they may not necessarily be buying food there, or maybe they’re buying less. We need to be really committed to purchasing from the farmers. Same thing with CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) numbers. They went up, up, up and now they’re coming back down again. It is a hard commitment. It’s hard to get to the farmers market, to put up money early in the season to become a CSA member, and to pick up your share every week. It’s hard, and people are busy. But if we want it, we’ve got to make sure we’re supporting it.”
“We need to bring new people into that, by introducing our friends and family and getting them on board. Getting more people advocating in our communities, making sure businesses are supporting local farmers.”
“I just did it in my local store, which was bought out by Amazon. They got rid of all the local product, and I said, ‘Where’s my salsa? It’s made in a commercial community kitchen, two streets over.’ They didn’t do anything - and I got mad - and I don’t shop there anymore.”
“We have to be doing that at the policy level too. Calling our representatives at City Hall, at our State House, at Capitol Hill and the White House. It’s hard. We’ve got to be fighting.”
It’s difficult to stay encouraged, hearing that we’re headed back into crisis despite what we should have learned by now. It’s disheartening to recognize that our biggest problems are human-made, and are driven by profit, greed and a desire for power and control. On the other hand, listening to these stories of resilience, collaboration and advocacy make me acutely aware of just how bad it could have been without the work of these humble, but incredibly dedicated human beings that stood up so long ago and raised their voices to stand up for change.
I am a little more buoyed and lifted up to continue the fight, and believe in progress, no matter how grim the obstacle may be, because of the grit, courage, resolve and fierce determination shown through the stories of these remarkable farm advocates and agricultural heroes. They reveal an inner strength that not enough people know about, and even fewer possess. We know that there will be challenges, threats and dark days ahead. But we should be inspired by the example of these people who show us that collectively, we have the heart to stand up, share our voices, and work to bring daylight, progress, ethics and sustainable methods to our Mother earth, to our bodies and our communities. I am humbled by the remarkable, multi-faceted communities and organizations Farm Aid has brought into a living and breathing network. Thanks to the incredible and tireless Farm Aid family who worked to make Farm Aid so much more than a concert. The title of the day says it all - We’re On the Road to Resilience - Moving from Individual Crisis to Collective Power.
To the organizers, activists, farmers, ranchers, artists, poets, defenders of truth, and makers of peace — we are forever grateful and in your debt.
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