How Willie Nelson’s Bedrock, the Family Farmer, Could Save the American Economy

As an advocate for local, and for family farmers, I know that there is immense power in the experiential. When you have a direct relationship with a farmer, you just know that relationship is mutually beneficial. When you see four leggers on pasture instead of concrete, it only makes sense. But, do we have our talking points lined up on a deeper level? Are we ready for that serendipitous moment when online dating sets you up with an agribusiness ladder climber who wants to debate free trade two beers in? Or when it comes time to make policy recommendations or offer a zinger quote to a reporter? Despite being a career local foods non-profit staffer, I don’t always feel prepared when I leave the realm of the story for that of the concrete. Now that consumer awareness of the story of local has reached a critical mass, it is time to take our movement to the next level. Research. Organize. Speak out.

In celebration of its 25th year, Farm Aid, the longest running concert-for-a-cause, has published a report to help us make this push. Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family-Farm Centered Food Systems takes one of the more sensitive topics in the American psyche today, the economy, and convincingly demonstrates the bounty of opportunity that family farmers can bring to local and regional communities.

Starting with a rally cry from Farm Aid’s celebrity board, originally drafted in a letter to Congress in September of 2008 in a call to recognize the potential of family farmers to revive the collapsing U.S. economy, Rebuilding America’s Economy paints a vision of what our nation could look like:

A $1 billion [a micro mini portion of the $700 billion bailout] investment in family farm agriculture would enrich us all, because we are all shareholders of the family farm. The return on investment in the family farm includes thriving local economies, nutritious food for better health, a safer and more secure food supply, a cleaner environment and more renewable energy. Investing in local, sustainable and organic food would shorten the distance between eaters and farmers, conserve energy, create economic opportunities, and new jobs through innovative processing and distribution systems, resulting in a better, greener, more efficient food and farm economy.

Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Dave Matthews
Farm Aid Board of Directors

Showing the sophistication of knowing millions of farmers over the years, Farm Aid authors launch the report by eschewing black and white definitions of “family farmer” and other key terms. Instead, the report offers that family farmers are those who own the majority of the land or tools, make most of the decisions, and do most of the work. Perhaps more importantly, however, that each farmer who meets the above description inherently possesses the capacity to earn and demand fair wages, further community well-being, be an environmental steward, and promote public health. These are the values that make up the foundation for the family-farm centered food systems envisioned in the report.

It’s hard talking points fall right into line as you read “Rebuilding America.” For example, research by David Swenson of Iowa State University, in conjunction with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, shows “increased fruit and vegetable production could boost regional farm sales by over $882 million, and spur retail-level sales as high as $3.31 billion. The effort would also generate 9,032 farm-level jobs and 9,652 retail level jobs, and a corresponding $395.1 million in farm level labor income…”

To my mind, jobs and increased income/sales are exactly what’s needed at this very moment in economic history. Just in case data doesn’t make people’s heart sing the way mine does, I will simply submit that the report gives a multitude of similarly compelling facts that demonstrate the potential impact of small and medium sized farms to create thriving local economies by growing local, direct markets and regional value chains to feed wholesale demand.

Giving color to the well-researched data, are six case studies that show what can be done when a commitment to values is held equally to that of the bottom line: Shepherd’s Grain, Indian Springs Farmers Association, Woodbury County, IA, Red Tomato, Hardwick, VT, and Community Farm Alliance. These case studies show that each region, group of farmers, or specific product requires its own innovation. In Kentucky, for example, where tobacco used to be the cash crop, Community Farm Alliance has helped farmers put their Tobacco Settlement offers to good use shifting their farms to more diversified operations. With more food crops in the ground across the state, CFA can now estimate that “if Kentucky were to match the national average for per-farm direct marketing sales, it would generate an additional $7.9 million in farm income and $15.8 million for the state as a whole.”

In 1985, Willie Nelson named the family farmer the backbone of the country and the bottom rung on the economic ladder on which all else depends. Twenty-five years later, it is the job of the enthusiast and the advocate to understand what family farmers truly have to offer and what resources they need to seize the moment. Farm Aid, this report, the resources (down to the footnotes), and case studies in it, are an excellent place to start.