Ask Farm Aid | October 25, 2009

What are some ways people can get involved in farm activism?

October 2009

Dear Hilde,

I watched the Farm Aid concert on TV this year and was touched by the stories you shared of farmers standing up for their livelihoods. I know there is a long history of farmer activism in this country—how can more farmers get involved?

Miles P.

Dear Miles,

I am so glad you had the chance to watch the show, and to hear the heartening stories of family farmers like Jerry Harvey, Rhonda Perry, and Joel Greeno. Their activism is certainly inspiring, and we hope contagious. For 24 years, Farm Aid has been hearing from farmers across the country with stories of struggle and perseverance. Our hotline continues to ring because government policies have failed to protect America’s hardworking farmers and ranchers from market failures and the ravages of natural disasters. Through our Farmer Resource Network we do our best to connect farmers to the tools and information they need. We also aim to link farmers with groups that can help get their stories to elected officials and the public. There is nothing more potent than personal experience to bring about meaningful change, and we are always looking for ways to inspire activism by farmers and those moved to stand beside them.

A long history of farmer activism

Farmer activism has been around as long as there have been agricultural markets prone to manipulation and injustices. Farmer protests during the Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in the Agricultural Adjustment Act – the beginning of many of the government farm policies and programs we know today.

One of the most remarkable acts of farmer activism in this country took place thirty years ago in Washington D.C., when over 5,000 farmers, led by the newly-formed American Agriculture Movement, converged with their tractors on the National Mall to fight for the basic right of a living wage.[1] At this time, the family farm system was in serious trouble, with family farms closing at a rate of 2,500 per week. The 1979 tractorcade brought farmers together on their tractors from across the country (some of whom had driven for 18 days at 15 miles per hour through treacherous winter conditions), in protest of yet another Farm Bill failing to guarantee a fair farm price that matched farmers’ cost of production. Many of the farmers involved had never left their counties, let alone spoken out in public or to government officials. There were no guidebooks for how to organize or what to say – but the farmers knew that nothing was going to change unless they told their stories in solidarity.

The farmers camped out for weeks, attending hearings and meeting with reluctant USDA officials and legislators. In an ironic twist of events, these farmers, who were largely written off in the media and even labeled “greedy” by the Secretary of Agriculture on a morning news show, came to the service of the D.C. area when a debilitating blizzard brought the city to a halt. Farmers jumped into action, using their tractors to dig out the city from 20 inches of snow, transport medical workers to hospitals and assist emergency crews.

While the tractorcade didn’t result in the policy changes it sought, the grassroots rebellion got the attention of the American public. Farmers left with new and strengthened alliances and skills in leadership, public speaking and organizing. Over the years, similar efforts in farmer activism have led to the establishment of a number of progressive government programs and policies that have saved thousands of farmers from being pushed off the land and encouraged innovation in family farm agriculture. These acts have also helped to garner a consumer consciousness about the many contributions of family farm agriculture and grow a burgeoning good food movement.

Activism of all shapes and sizes…

A full-on grassroots rebellion like the tractorcade may not be on the short-list of feasible acts for you to get involved with, but not to worry – farmer activism comes in all shapes and sizes. There are a number of effective options for bringing about social and political change and fighting for economic and environmental justice:

  • March and rally. Take part in one of the most basic human rights – freedom of speech and expression! Click here for some tips for organizing a rally in your hometown.
  • “Fly-in”. Often organized by D.C.-based farm coalitions such as the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), fly-ins give farmers the opportunity to learn from policy experts about farm policy and its implications, with follow-up visits to congressional representatives on Capitol Hill.
  • Organize an in-state meeting. NFFC, NSAC and their member groups can also provide tips for scheduling face-to-face time with your congresspeople while they are home for congressional recess.
  • Join a farm group. Whether it’s a local grassroots group, your state’s Farmer Union, or a national coalition, these groups are great sources of information and provide many opportunities to engage in activism.
  • Write an op-ed or letter to the editor. Inspire action by explaining why a particular issue is a problem for your community. Even if you can’t get your writing published, you can always inform the media of a march or rally that may be in the works.
  • Sign up for updates from Farm Aid’s Action Center. Our Action Center will send alerts when important opportunities arise for signing a petition or making a public comment during the federal rulemaking process. These are both great, simple ways to take a stand on an issue.

Eating as activism

Increasingly eaters are reclaiming responsibility for their part in the farm economy. Farmer activism can be expressed when people change their behaviors directly and encourage others to do the same. In the past decade we have witnessed the growth of a mass cultural movement demanding good food from family farms. Either through boycott or through intentionally purchasing products that support family farm agriculture, eaters can bring about powerful change. This action has nothing to do with altering laws or pressuring officials – it is, in Wendell Berry’s words, “understand[ing] that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

A bit of encouragement…

I am endlessly inspired by one of my favorite farmer activists who is, how shall I say…wordy! This man knows his issue inside and out, and can speak clearly and articulately to anyone willing to listen. His voice has motivated fellow farmers, eaters and policymakers alike, and has been an invaluable mechanism for change. Turns out he used to be so shy you’d have to yank the words out of him! Every time I get nervous to speak in front of a crowd, I think of this farmer. We all have it in us, whether we realize it or not, to step outside of our comfort zones, stretch our boundaries and fight for what we know is right. Too often we leave the solutions to the marketplace or the government and we forget about our own powerful voices. By being active, ordinary people can do extraordinary work to raise awareness and advocate for change.

We’ve said this plenty of times before but it’s so important, we’ll keep saying it again and again: Realizing meaningful change in the food system is going to take the sustained efforts of all. Whether you write a letter, attend a rally, or eat your neighbor’s homegrown food, together we can strive for a family farm system that is just and good and fair – but you (yes, YOU!) need to be a part of the solution. So step out, speak up – and let us know what happens.

1. To honor the thirtieth anniversary of this historic tractorcade event, Willie Nelson recognized Gerald McCathern, National Wagon Master of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) from 1978-1979 at Farm Aid’s 2009 concert.

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