In the past, “small family farm” was one of the vocational options on the census form. Go back 50 or 60 years ago and half the population of the U.S. was directly or indirectly involved in agriculture. Today that figure is under 1%. It has become such an incidental number that we now fall under the classification of “other.”
During that time, we’ve allowed there to be a disconnect between the producers and consumers. As roads and refrigeration improved, and chain grocery stores came into play, one by one, small family farms were pushed out because they couldn’t compete. Ultimately, it became about growing for price rather than the quality or integrity of the product.
Americans Need Small Family Farms
I believe our society has suffered as a direct result of the quality of the food that we’ve been consuming since commercial farms began to dominate agriculture. I’ve read medical reports describing a 3,000% increase in kidney, liver, heart and cancer diseases; attention deficit disorder, autism and childhood obesity in the last 50 years, and I believe there’s a direct correlation with the way we’re eating and the health or lack thereof of our nation.
We have the opportunity to change this by voting with our dollars. If we go and we buy our groceries at a big-box chain store, we’re communicating that cheap food is most important. The reality is we’re going to pay now or we’re going to pay later.
Health care costs in this country are coming at us like a tidal wave. The way that we farm commercially and chemically today is much like our Western culture of medicine. Go to the doctor for strep throat and you’ll be prescribed an antibiotic. We’re constantly treating the symptom.
Chemical farming operates much the same way. Agriculture students are given a book with a picture of a healthy plant and a picture of an unhealthy plant. If it has this particular disease, they’re taught, here’s the chemical to get rid of it.
Eastern culture, from a medical standpoint, gets your body in balance so you can defend against strep throat in the first place. I think that how we spend our dollars and who we spend them with can communicate where we, as a society, think the emphasis should be.
When we work with small family farms, we can reestablish the connection that we’ve lost the last 60 years and communicate what’s important to us: environmentally friendly practices like rebuilding nutrients in the soil and a socially responsible approach like farming for flavor and nutrition.
What You Can Do
As the consumer, go to a farmer’s market, reconnect with your farmer and communicate that how the product is grown is important to you and that you are willing to pay a little bit more for it. The reality is, that’s the missing piece in the sustainable equation - the small family farm has to have enough customers to be able to survive.
Small family farms were once the backbone of this country. Our numbers reached a historic low two years ago but have since ticked slightly upward. Hopefully this is the sign of a new trend. There is still a place in society for the small family farm and I think it’s critical for us, even if you aren’t directly involved in agriculture, to recognize its impact on each of our lives and support the reconnection between producer and consumer.
And, remember, it’s as much about what you support as what you don’t.
Farmer Lee Jones is the co-owner of the The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, a family-owned farm that practices sustainable farming of specialty vegetables for some of the country's most heralded kitchens. He was the first farmer ever to judge Food Network's "Iron Chef America."