This article was originally posted at sustainablekentucky.com.
Twenty Seven years ago, before I even liked carrots, a serious farm crisis was going down and it was about to take family farms with it.
In the seventies, leading up to the crisis, interest rates were low, export commodities were high, and farmers, hoping to become more efficient, increased production and borrowed money to purchase land and equipment. During the credit crisis of the eighties, interest rates rose, commodity prices fell, and the value of farmland dropped by more than half in the midwest. Farmers were now defaulting on loans and watching their farms being foreclosed while also having to deal with legal battles over production contracts. To try and save their livelihood, some farmers borrowed even more money in hopes of being able to pay it back when the economy got better. The results were catastrophic; businesses failed, families were torn apart, and suicide hotlines sprung up across the country to talk farmers down from the ledge.
Enter Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp.
Since 1985 these guys (and now Dave Matthews) have held an annual concert to raise funds to keep family farms on their land. Farm Aid has raised over $40 million that helps regions develop markets for local food, provide grants for organizations promoting family farm policies, and run the Farm Aid hotline which provides direct support to farmers in crisis. The concerts, held in a different state each year, always pack the house and the artists perform for free on behalf of family farms.
I won’t brag but I was able to attend this year’s concert this fall with Community Farm Alliance in Hershey, PA. Perhaps the most beneficial part of this trip was being able to attend the Farm Advocates Conference hosted by RAFI a few days before the concert. There were incredible folks present from PASA, National Family Farm Coalition, Farmer Veteran Coalition, The Seed Farm, and many others. You can imagine the incredible conversations going on, many on very specific topics but all focused around small family and beginning farmers.
The state of small farms today is at a pivotal point, much like 27 years ago. Not only are there not enough new farmers to fill the shoes of the retiring farmers, but the price of commodities is not providing the same return for farmers as it once did (just look at the dwindling amount of dairy farmers). Farmers are constantly faced with the choice of getting big or getting out. And in Kentucky, the loss of the tobacco industry has left many farms fallow or in transition mode to cattle or a more diversified operation.
This pivotal moment has the potential to be a great positive change. Many farmers are deciding to switch to direct marketing their products straight from the farm or at farmer’s markets. Agriculture has always been risky business but more and more farms, dealing directly with their customers and adding value to their products, are putting in place a strategic risk-management system that gives the farmer control over the price they receive for their goods. If the cost of grain rises, farmers are able to increase their price instead of being bound by an industrial contract (as in the case of major poultry houses). Farmers are able to offer products they feel good about because they decide on the growing methods. There is also a greater opportunity for beginning farmers to dabble in farming first before they spend their life savings to buy a combine.
The beauty of Farm Aid, is that Neil Young is getting the word out about small farms to thousands of folks everyday, millions every year. If a thousand people walk away from each annual concert vowing to buy local for their families, I believe that’s an amazing grassroots campaign at work. I left Farm Aid feeling completely excited to be at the cusp of this food movement. As a beginning farmer, it made me more than ever want to recruit hundreds of other young folks to farm in Kentucky. We are up against some powerful competition but honestly, does that competition think their ideas can stack up to the creative powerhouses who are starting farms? Sometimes I feel like my voice on the farm is too small to really affect anyone but when I think about Willie Nelson being on my side, I find it hard to believe this grassroots campaign won’t succeed.