Agriculture is at a critical fork in the road. Every day, our individual food choices either help create more sustainable forms of farming or reinforce a socially and environmentally destructive factory farm system. I helped found Farm Aid in 1985 to help preserve family farm food as an option for Americans. We've made good progress on that front, but the war is not over.
Two food production models have emerged to compete for the nation's collective heart, mind, and pocketbook. Of course, the bigger and more powerful force is a handful of giant grain-trading and food-processing transnational corporations known, warmly, as the agricultural-industrial complex, or factory farms.
Anyone who has driven by a factory hog farm knows that corporate farming is neither healthy nor sustainable. What's obvious to you and me is apparently lost on Congress. The debate and passage of the recent farm bill was a shameful process that put election year politics ahead of family farms and American taxpayers. It showed how agribusiness can muscle its influence through direct campaign contributions and teams of professional lobbyists to steer farm policy in a direction that benefits huge corporations most. What was finally passed is a farm bill that will deliver more of the same: larger, more concentrated, factory farms; more genetically modified food; more chemical-intensive monoculture plantings...you get the picture.
The second force exists in stark contrast to this corporate food machine. It is built on relationships forged between those who grow food and those who eat it. In some areas, the number of family farms is actually increasing as people learn about how their food is grown and begin to demand food that sustains rather than destroys the farmers, their neighbors and customers, and the environment. Sustainable, diversified, organic production is helping family farmers off the treadmill of industrialized agriculture and letting them rediscover their basic reasons for farming: a love of the land and a desire to protect its integrity for future generations.
This is the future of farming. But because our elected leaders have largely failed to see and support this new vision, it is up to you and me. It's a long row to hoe, but by working together, we'll get there. Many success stories already exist. Community-Supported Agriculture—where a family pays up front for a subscription to a weekly box of vegetables, sharing both the risks and the bounty of farming—is bringing farmers and eaters together in new ways. Local farmers' markets are growing in popularity. Chefs are discovering that local, organic food tastes better. Local demand is helping family farmers retool their farms and stay on their land.
To many farmers, organic farming represents, above all, hope that they can make honest livings and take care of their land, water, and soil; that they can pass on their farms to their children; that farming can heal America's disconnection from the earth. This new way of thinking is taking root across the land. We must do what it takes to cultivate and protect it against the pests that would destroy it. Corporations and politicians are no match for a people united in understanding and purpose. Join me in supporting family farmers' fight for survival. Make each dollar you spend on food a vote for the future.
National troubadour Willie Nelson is a founder of Farm Aid. To learn more, visit www.farmaid.org.