Family Farmers and the Hands That Feed Us

by Anna Lappé for World Food Day


When my first daughter was born, we lived in a tiny walkup apartment in Brownstone Brooklyn. In the heart of the 8.3-million-large metropolis of New York City, one might think that getting farm-fresh produce from family farmers we trusted would be tough. Instead, we had access to some of the finest, healthiest food around from a farm less than an hour’s drive away through a community-supported agriculture program and from the many family farmers who sold regularly at the city’s greenmarkets. Thanks to these farmers, my daughter’s first taste of peaches, raspberries, spinach, sweet potatoes, and more, all came from nearby farms.


The farm-to-consumer movement in the United States has gained ground in recent years. Virtually non-existent twenty years ago, there are now farm-to-school buying programs in every single state in the nation, reaching 12,500 schools and millions of students in 2013 alone. From only several hundred in the 1970s, the number of farmers markets across the country just surpassed the eight thousand mark—more than doubling from just ten years ago.


Some people write-off these examples of family farmers thriving in the United States—and networks of farmers and consumers—as marginal. While it is true that agriculture is big business here, and that the top 4 percent of the largest farms produced 66 percent of all farm products sold in 2012, family farmers are key to our food economy: Much of what these largest farms produce isn’t food we eat directly, but commodities sold for livestock feed or for processed foods and industrial products. This is true, even more so, around the globe: Family farmers are the heart of the global food system. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, seventy percent of the world’s food comes from family farmers and smallholders.


And family farmers do more than feed us; they provide essential services. They’re key stewards of the biodiversity so essential to ecological health and food security. They’re also key to keeping carbon in the soil, not the atmosphere, and helping reduce the worst greenhouse gas emissions from overuse of synthetic fertilizer and petrochemicals on large-scale monoculture farms. Even more importantly, they are one of our most visible connections to the Earth, a powerful reminder how the fate of humanity is linked, inextricably, to the health of the land.


aldo leopoldA family farmer we interviewed for our video series on food and farming conjured the words of the environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold when she talked about the relationship between her farming family and their land. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” Aldo Leopold had written, but “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


As we face extreme weather events becoming more common, species disappearing, and rising sea levels, Leopold’s insight takes on renewed poignancy. The family farmers we connect to every day remind us of the meaning of these words and the profound connection of love and respect between farmers, the land, and us eaters.

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