When small family farms produce so little of the nation’s food supply, does a charity designed to help the family farmer still matter?
That’s the query Harvest Public Media recently posted in hopes of creating a conversation about the value of the Farm Aid concert, which is coming to Kansas City on Aug. 13.
This query -- Does Farm Aid still matter? – was the first of what we hope to be many connections we will make with our Harvest Network. The network is grassroots reporting on important food and fuel issues with help from you, our readers. With your insight and expertise, we are building a powerful new public radio tool that will better inform our region and country about issues facing food producers and consumers.
Our Farm Aid question elicited some anger, with some readers questioning if we knew what the heck we were talking about. In fact, only some family farms are small -- and those with with annual sales of less than $250,000 create juat a small percentage of the food supply, according to USDA statistics. Large family farms and corporate operations account for 84 percent of total output.
The question triggered an emotional response from many people. Some folks reported that they had grown up on a farm, had moved away, but still felt the pull to return to the land. Others said their parents or grandparents were the last of their family who had made a living on a farm.
“I grew up on a 1,000-acre crop farm in southern Illinois, we lost it in the '80s farm crisis. It is still too painful to talk about,” wrote Tabitha Marx of Orem, Utah. “I have lived in the city since and want to get back out to a farm of my own before I die. I don't know if the concerts help, but any mention of family farms in the news is better than nothing.”
The photo above was sent in by Raymond Adkins of Modesto, Calif. This is Grandpa Buchanan, who was born in 1898 and died in 1976. He lost his Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years – “chased off,” according to Adkins. They, like millions of others, moved to California, where Raymond’s mother became a farm worker.
“Picking cotton, melons, tree fruit, or any crop that would support their family. She bared scars from pulling a cotton sack from the time she was 6 or 7 years old,” he wrote. “This was all before any kind of subsides existed for the farmers, or farm workers. Thank god for people like Farm Aid that help out the little farmer.”
Amanda Fletcher, who lives in Massachusetts, said her uncle owned the family farm, but he “got old, retired and none of his kids saw a future in farming.
“They sold off the farm to developers and not its street after street of McMansions,” she wrote. “Kinda sad.”
Kolleen McCathern of Dallas, Texas, is a proud second-generation farm advocate. Her father, Gerald McCathern, was a leader in the American Agriculture Movement in the late 1970s and he took part in the Tractorcade to Washington, D.C. in 1979.
“I grew up on a farm. Daddy was a leader in farm politics my entire life. He, and so many others like him, shouted out the plight of farmers for years, only to have it fall on deaf ears. The powers that be never understood the concept of parity,” she wrote.
McCathern seemed irritated by my query, saying that questioning whether family farmers need financial assistance “just goes to show you how uneducated people remain about where their food comes from!”
“I promise you that it doesn't come from the shelves of Walmart. A loaf of bread doesn't start out that way, a bag of Frito's doesn't just appear from some machine in a factory,” she said.
John Zumalt from Kansas will be attending the Farm Aid concert this year. He believes that the concert at least bring awareness of the issue of local farms in the media.
He thinks farming is becoming much like other industries, with production taking place outside the U.S., placing the small business owner at a disadvantage because he can’t compete. He wishes more people would buy products that are made by American workers.
“I am only 48 but remember when that was more of the case, before all the Home This and Wal That’s took over every city,” he wrote, “so unfortunately, those days are gone.”
Paul Salden, of Ontario, Canada, has attended about 20 of the concerts and will go this year, too. He agrees with Zumalt.
“Just look at towns across the United States and Canada that have been changed forever by mega-stores. Downtowns are becoming ghosttowns and we will be limited in choice to a very few retailers. The same is true for farming - mass production, unhealthier products, less choice and in the end much higher prices.”