What is a "family farm food system"?

June 2005

Dear Laura

Farm Aid often uses the phrase “family farm food system.” In point six of the 10 Ways booklet, it says to educate your friends and neighbors about food and farm issues “to help build family farm based food systems.” What does this mean? How is a family farm food system different from other food systems? How can I tell the difference?

Dear Reader,

I guess I asked for challenges, right!? Oh dear! This is a tough but important question. In the world of farm and food activists, we toss this phrase around pretty often, but we haven’t exactly figured out how to communicate this sentiment to the general public. To get an idea of how other people were talking about family farm food systems, I Googled the phrase, and I was surprised to see that all 145 hits were from Farm Aid! So, it seems that we’ve coined the phrase. Now, it is my duty to take what should be a relatively simple concept and explain it without mucking it up with too many confusing details. I’ll try. Hang in there; bear with me! 

Let’s think of the previous questions that we have addressed with this column:

  • How can I find a farm near me?
  • What does April on the farm mean?
  • Who are the corporate players in the meat industry/how can I avoid the big companies?
  • What questions should I ask to get the food I want?

If you were actively participating in a family farm food system, you would already know the answers to these questions. Not because you would be doing more research or going way out of your way to find info, but because you would be surrounded by the answers. You would have a relationship with farmers in your area, shop at a store that carries family farm identified foods, eat at restaurants that talk proudly about where they buy their food and your kids might even be eating food from local farms at school.

In general, we have gotten so far away from the people who grow our food, both mentally and in many cases geographically, that this seems a little surreal. However, it was not that long ago that food from family farms was the norm. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about recreating an antiquated system. Our work today, in building family farm food systems, is about combining the benefits of what once was with a vision of farming for the future that meets the needs of farmers and consumers alike.

First off, the concept of family farm food systems is open to interpretation. Every community comes to a slightly different version. Regionally, participants struggle with different questions and obstacles, but ultimately three goals are common across the board:

  • Everyone has access to food produced by family farmers.
  • Food products are processed, distributed and marketed in a way that people know where they came from and what growing practices were used.
  • Farmers have access to local markets and are paid a fair price.

To make this happen, without over-complicating things, many players must be actively committed to this goal. Farmers will have to grow/raise products with consumer demand in mind. Processors will have to work locally, in conjunction with farmers and marketers to create products whose origins can be easily identified. Retail outlets like farmers markets, independent grocery stores, restaurants and school cafeterias will have to work with those same farmers, marketers and processors to create a supply and distribution system that works for everyone involved.

Consumers! We need to do our part. We need to buy the products we say we want. Everyone will have to take a minute to create their list of food priorities and communicate those to everyone on this food chain, especially farmers….and then we come full circle to where farmers are growing directly for their customers.

There are other things that make building and strengthening family farm food systems a little easier.

  • Consumer education Many local, regional and national organizations, like Farm Aid, are working hard to teach people about their food choices and the benefits of food from family farms.
  • Supporting Farmers - On the other side, there are just as many groups working to provide farmers the support they need to meet the demands of a more localized food system. Organizations like these provide technical support, marketing/business planning, new farmer support and access to reliable lenders.
  • Policy - Lastly, policy makers must recognize the value of family farm agriculture and create laws that promote the creation of family farm food systems.

For me this is how it works: I like to buy quality food because I love to eat. I consider myself a “foodie” in the best sense of the word. I often go so far as to say that fresh food from family farms is more enjoyable than the lifeless things I find at the back of a shelf in my urban grocery store. Each time I visit a farm or go out to my roof garden, I see first hand the beauty of growing, thriving plants and animals. This gives me new appreciation for the food that I eat and pleasure in knowing that in life it was tended with respect and joy. I feel good about what I eat, I feel good that my money goes to support businesses that I know and respect. Most importantly, I learn something new every time I ask a question, plant a seed or taste something new. This is how I participate in my local food system. Oh, and I work at Farm Aid to help farmers and consumers fill in the blanks where I can!

Getting through this is a little like running a marathon, right!? It is a little tricky because there is never just one answer. Food systems evolve and change to meet the needs of the people who are participating within them. Right now, corporations are working hard to create one global food system which in many cases will disregard the interests of both family farmers and consumers. Building many family farm food systems that are tailored to fit the family farmers and active consumers that participate within them is one way to ensure that everyone will have a part in deciding what that food system looks like.

Take another look at the 10 Ways. This is really a primer about how to start these conversations with people in your community. Together, you can figure out what your food priorities and resources are. Just keep thinking, keep talking, keep asking questions, keep eating and you’ll make your way to a family farm food system before you know it.

Here is a thought, for those of you who are reading this thinking “I can do that!” or even “that isn’t so hard!” lets do a little project together. Over the next month, while you are going about your business, keep a little notebook with you and write down what you buy and where. Lets start just by trying to see where your food comes from right now. I will do the same and we can compare a sample week or day. It will be fun! Don't forget to email me with your stories - asklaura@farmaid.org

Until next time,

Laura - The Farm Aid Shopper/Researcher/Question Answerer Extraordinaire!

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