I am a long-time fan of Willie Nelson and the Farm Aid concert but it recently occurred to me that no farmers I know have ever gotten Farm Aid funds, and there are many deserving farmers. So, where does the money go? How does Farm Aid help family farmers?
San Luis Obispo, CA
Thank you so much for sending this question. It is a really important one and I know that you are not the only person who is confused about this very issue. It is a fairly common misperception that Farm Aid is quite literally a vehicle for getting money from people who care about family farmers to those farmers who need direct financial assistance. In times of disaster or personal crisis, this is fairly accurate but the rest of the time Farm Aid is pushing for deep, systemic change that will keep farmers on the land in the long run. More than that, we are working to ensure that you and I will continue to be able to reap the benefits of family farm agriculture. Now, I can imagine that you are starting to go back to your original question: “But does Farm Aid really help?” Let me reassure you that Yes! We do! Let me tell you how.
First the money: Over the past 20 years, eighty-one cents out of every single dollar spent by Farm Aid has gone to our programs that keep family farmers growing the kind of food that you and I enjoy. There are two major reasons why our funds go to programs that help and support family farmers instead of going directly to their bank accounts.
In twenty years of operation, Farm Aid has raised more than $29 million dollars. At last count, there were 2,128,982 farms in operation. If we had retained all of our funds from every concert we would be able to send each farm $13.62 cents today and with farm business debt forecasted to reach $218 billion by the end of this year, it isn’t going to make a dent.
As a non-profit, we are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service from contributing funds directly to a business, farm or otherwise. We do often help families that have significant household needs, like groceries or utility bills, but we cannot give funds for debt, construction or any kind of farm operating funds.
Now, the good stuff; roll up your sleeves-this is the meat and potatoes and the reason that I come into the office every day. Farm Aid creates and supports four different kinds of programs to keep farmers on the land.
Promoting Food From Family Farms: Through consumer education campaigns, our web site and our concert, Farm Aid invites people to choose local, humanely raised, organic or family farm identified foods and thereby become active members of their food system. How does this help? When we purchase good food from family farms, we increase farm income, support local food systems and send a message about the importance of protecting our natural resources.
Growing the Good Food Movement: Through grants and Farm Aid programs, people all across the county are creating local food systems, farm to cafeteria programs and pushing for public policy that help make these things possible. How does this help? Again, increasing markets for family farmers allows them to keep more of their profits and return to their place as a cornerstone of local economies.
Taking Action to Change the System: Through grants and networking Farm Aid supports national, state and local efforts aimed at creating fair food and farm policies, researching and promoting alternative energy uses and production and creating local food systems. How does this help? Well, we have a Farm Bill, which is likely to come up in 2007, this is where Farm Aid is able to support food and farm policies that have the interests of small family farmers in mind.
Helping Farmers Thrive: This is where we are able to directly help the farmers who call our hotline or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Financially speaking, we provide grants to organizations that provide direct services like financial counseling and farm advocate services and organizations helping farmers transition to organic and access local markets. Our hotline and FarmHelp link allow farmers to get to these services and take advantage of the vast amount of knowledge that farmers and farm advocates have developed over the past twenty-one years – we call this community the Farm Resource Network.
Since, we have deep relationships with many of the organizations and individuals who participate in this network, we are able to give very personalized referrals to farmers. Say someone calls from Pennsylvania with a question about pastured poultry; then we know that there are experts on staff at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture who can help the farmer figure out what options he or she might have on his/her farm for exploring this method of production. Or, if a farmer in Louisiana calls about an extended legal battle, we know that Betty Pucket with the Louisana Interchurch Conference is the person to help.
While significant staff time goes into developing these resources and maintaining our knowledge of all the programs that are out there to help farmers, it does happen that we get calls from farmers in an area where we don’t have the resources they need. So what do we do? Research. We start with the experts and ask if they know of anyone in the area. We call universities. We call farmers that we know. We call churches, social workers and utility companies. We call until we know the answer. And when there isn’t an answer, we listen. Especially in high stress situations, a lot of the farmers and farm families that we work with just need someone to listen, to reassure them that they aren’t the only ones who have had such difficulties.
When farmers are in real danger of losing their farms, the most extreme cases, are the ones that I find the most inspiring. Without fail, whether its the first call or the seventh, they get to a point where they say “I want to help. I don’t want anyone to have to go through this without help.” That is how new Farm Advocates are born. It is a deeply moving moment of universal generosity. Once they are back on their feet, we get them in touch with an organization or an advocate that can help get them started. This kind of personal experience and commitment to service has created a network of some of the most brilliant and caring people that I have ever met.
It is in these moments that I always realize the importance of our work. If we just ran a hotline, we would be doing good work. But, since we do such good work across the board, I can tell someone who is frustrated and angry that they system is unfair that we have people shouting for better policy, we have people that are building new systems where farmers make fair prices, we are teaching people about all of the good work farmers do every day in the fields and we can teach people how to help.
Anyone who has worked on our hotline can tell you without a single doubt that Farm Aid helps every single day. And, when you and I find the excellent local apple at the farmers market near us, it’s all worth it!!
Thanks for the great question, and keep sending them!