by: Willie Nelson
On Saturday, a cast of Republican presidential hopefuls will take the stage at the first-ever Iowa Ag Summit.
The event—organized by Iowa native and Big Ag operator Bruce Rastetter—promises to be a conversation about modern agriculture, renewable fuels, biosciences, GMOs, grain and livestock markets, land conservation and federal subsidies. Over the course of the day, Rastetter will sit down on stage with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and more.
Often, conversations like these become about “feeding the world,” a slogan that industrial agriculture uses to justify its existence.
But family farmers are adamant that the focus should be on feeding all of us, rather than feeding corporate interests. People, not profits, should come first.
The truth is, while the motivation to feed the world sounds noble, it’s often a front for corporate consolidation and power.
Industrial agriculture displaces the people who farm and steward the land. It produces cheap food that damages our health. It pollutes the soil and water. And it makes it harder and harder for small- and mid-sized farmers to access the credit, markets and fair prices they need to make an honest living. Yet, it’s these very farmers who show up in report after report as the ones who will actually feed the world, while also diminishing climate change and alleviating rural poverty.
In the 1980s, during the height of the farm crisis, as I toured the country on my bus, Honeysuckle Rose, I stopped in at diners and truck stops. I wanted to talk to the people who lived in the towns I was driving through. It was from these folks that I came to understand the challenges our family farmers and rural residents face—and to know what a tremendous resource they are to all of us.
For 30 years since, the group we started then, Farm Aid, has stood with family farmers as they’ve rallied against the forces of a corporate-controlled, industrial agriculture system.
Over three decades, we’ve listened to their heartache as corporations have squeezed their profits and pushed them from their land, and banks have refused them loans. We’ve acted, joining with farmers to protest bad policy, to stand up for a democratic food system, to make everyone aware of how important family farmers are to our food system. We’ve seen the resilience of family farmers firsthand.
It’s that resilience and innovation that fuels their farms and keeps them hopeful each year at planting time, in spite of all they’re up against.
These values are at the heart of the future of agriculture—a future that is guided by family farmers and supported by policies that promote access to land, credit and fair markets.
The good news for all of us is that right now, this family farm vision of agriculture is taking hold. Farmers like Craig Watts—a poultry farmer in North Carolina—are fighting back, telling corporations that their industrial way of farming isn’t working. Craig has a contract with Perdue Farms and has spoken out about the unjust conditions the corporation perpetuates on its farmers. In response, Perdue retaliated. Rather than cancel his contract, they’ve made his life difficult—taking actions to audit his farm, criticize his farm management and place him under a performance improvement plan, even though he has very often been named a “Top Producer.” Just last week, Craig filed a historic lawsuit against Perdue, suing for this retaliation and raising awareness about the inequities and unjust practices that are inherent in corporate farming contracts.
Farmers like Sarah Hoffmann and Jacqueline Smith—who run a sheep dairy in Missouri—are finding ways to partner with other farmers to create stronger business models. They found success selling their sheep milk to local restaurants and grocery stores, but demand soon outstripped supply. Around the same time, a number of area dairies who had recently transitioned to organic production suddenly had their contracts canceled. Sarah’s and Jacqueline’s business venture, Only Ewe, helped those farmers get started in sheep milk production, giving them a new income stream to keep their farms going.
Farmers like Phillip and Dorathy Barker—African-American farmers who fought to keep their land in the face of institutional discrimination—are providing mentorship and concrete skills to the next generation of farmers to get them back on the land with the tools they need to make a sustainable living. Operation Spring Plant, the nonprofit organization they started, also operates a food hub that aggregates and markets the produce of area farmers and co-ops to open new markets to rural farmers and improve their livelihoods.
These are just three examples that capture the strength of the family farm vision of agriculture. But examples exist everywhere you look. More people than ever are seeking out family farm food. Businesses sourcing from family farmers are searching for new farmers because demand exceeds supply. Entrepreneurs are creating new markets that connect eaters and farmers. Community organizations and passionate volunteers are bringing good food to neighborhoods that need it most. Together, all of these people are building communities centered on a family farm economy. They’re linking eaters and farmers, building relationships and nourishing bodies and souls. Their actions are transforming food and agriculture from the ground up.
On behalf of family farmers, I invite the attendees of the Iowa Ag Summit to examine what policies are needed to support a family farm vision of agriculture, and how each one of us can support that vision of agriculture.
Here are the questions I’d like to see come up onstage with the Republican presidential candidates in Iowa:
How can we stabilize rising production costs and uncertain market prices? How can we increase access to the credit that farmers need to plan for future growing seasons? How do we increase healthy competition in agriculture? How do we make sure corporate influence doesn’t have an outsized influence on agricultural policy? How do we give eaters more access to the good food they are demanding from family farmers? How do we ensure that farmers and farmworkers earn a living wage?
Even if those questions and topics don’t come up during the summit, it doesn’t mean they won’t be raised in another venue. Lucky for us, farmers, rural residents, activists and eaters will come together right down the road from Big Ag’s “2015 Iowa Ag Summit” to answer these questions. Our friends at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have organized a Food and Ag Justice Summit to outline a vision of agriculture that is locally controlled and sustains the health of soil, water, communities and rural economies for future generations. Their rally and teach-in will feature farmers and activists speaking about a food and agriculture system that works for people. They’ll talk about ways each one of us—farmers and eaters—can be involved in making this vision a reality.
People are rallying around these issues.
People want change in the farm and food system.
It’s time our politicians did, too.