I recently received Farm Aid’s email announcing your 2008 grant recipients, and was surprised to see that they were mostly farm groups. While it looks as though these groups are doing some really wonderful work, is there a reason why Farm Aid doesn’t grant more to individual farmers?
Great question! You are certainly not alone in wondering about the details of Farm Aid’s grant program, and we always appreciate the opportunity to fill our members, donors and fans in on the nuts and bolts of what we do. It is a fair and common misconception that the money raised by Farm Aid passes straight into the pockets of farmers in need. Goodness knows there are plenty of family farmers out there facing dire circumstances and unable to find the immediate money and support they need to make it through the week, let alone the year. While we would love to be able to fully meet this need (and beyond) there are both practical and philosophical reasons for why we direct the bulk of our grant money to farm and rural service organizations. My hope is that by the end of this column you will understand our rationale and be all the more inspired to help strengthen our movement to keep family farmers on the land for generations to come.
For starters, Farm Aid doesn’t grant directly to farmers because we can’t. Sounds a bit ironic, I know, but Farm Aid’s charter as a non-profit organization under the IRS restricts us from granting to any for-profit business. While family farms are made up of families, they are first and foremost a business. What we offer to family farmers instead is a voice on the other end of the line. Through our 1-800-FARMAID hotline and newly launched Farmer Resource Network (www.farmaid.org/ideas), Farm Aid works to connect family farmers with trained farm advocates across the country that specialize in just the sort of help they are seeking. For the majority of farmers who contact Farm Aid, an open ear and referral are exactly what they are looking for. And while we are unable to assist with on-farm operating expenses, we can and do provide important emergency funds to family farmers for groceries and basic household utilities – funds that have been just the boost many families have needed over the years to make it through some trying times.
In the absence of this IRS restriction, however, our granting program would remain more or less the same. And this is why: If all the money Farm Aid had raised up until 2007 ($33 million) were to be divided evenly amongst the more than 2 million farms in operation, we’d be able to grant a little less than sixteen dollars to each farmer. Considering farm business debt is forecast to be more than $215 billion in 2008, it is easy to see how a series of small grants to farmers might not be the best use of your donations or the most effective means of fulfilling our mission.
At the core of Farm Aid’s work we are building a movement. For the past 23 years we have been pushing for deep systemic change: change that will take the industrial agriculture model from its roots and shake the good people and good land free of the corporations and chemicals and factories that have taken over our food supply. This is a big task, and not one any single group can undertake on its own. Instead, we’ve enlisted a network of farm and rural service organizations across the country. We provide grant funds to many of these organizations, and always wish we could support more. Only together can we effectively provide the immediate assistance farmers need to get on their feet in the face of natural disaster and crisis; fight for policies that protect the rights of family farmers and the environment; build and strengthen the infrastructure needed for supporting local and regional markets; and provide the space and opportunity for innovative ideas to take root and grow. In order to create the sort of change we envision, we need to inspire change from the top down, the ground up, and everywhere in between. The good food movement demands the efforts of all.
To this end, Farm Aid is committed to supporting a wide range of activities and programming necessary to build a movement. Through our grant program, we do so in three core areas of work:
- Helping Farmers Thrive addresses many of the here-and-now challenges facing family farmers by supporting groups that provide credit counseling, natural disaster relief, legal guidance and business planning assistance. In addition, these grants aim to provide farmers with the tools and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more ecologically sound and economically viable modes of production. Many of the grants in this category support organizations in Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network and are the groups we refer farmers to on a daily basis for the help they need.
- Taking Action to Change the System is geared toward groups promoting fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns designed to defend and bolster family farm-centered agriculture on a local, state and federal level. This activity includes beginning farmer initiatives, fighting factory farms, challenging corporate concentration, and monitoring Farm Bill implementation among other policy oriented activities.
- Growing the Good Food Movement seeks to develop the awareness and infrastructure needed for local and regional food systems to prosper. Through “buy local” campaigns, farm-to-school programs, distribution networks, and education programs, the grants we issue in this category are creating and strengthening markets for family farmers in their own communities. It is interesting to note that in 2008 we received a record number of proposals and funding requests in this category, indicating that more and more consumers and communities are clamoring for food systems that support family-farm identified, local, organic and humanely-raised food.
We are very proud of 2008’s batch of grant recipients, and feel thoroughly energized and inspired by their work. We hope all of our readers will take a few minutes to learn about these 71 organizations working across the country to support family farmers and ensure good food today, tomorrow, and for generations to come. We couldn’t do our work without them, and we certainly wouldn’t want to!