Family Farmers Need Our Help, Again

“Never pass by a farmer’s market without buying something,” said Neil Young at Farm Aid 2018. Dave Matthews echoed it. So I made sure to load up at the Del Ray Farmer’s Market last weekend.

My family marks the seasons with the bounty we can find on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria every Saturday morning. In the spring, it’s strawberries and asparagus. My daughter jumps out of bed to secure her quarts of the red fruit, which she would eat with both hands if I let her.

The summer brings tomatoes and basil that we use for a lunch of caprese salad, a nod to my husband’s Italian heritage. The fall is my favorite, because it means it’s pie time. Herbs, flowers and pickles make their way home with us as well.

This ritual comes with weekly conversations with the farmers themselves:

Us: “How are you guys holding up with all this rain?”

Them: “I’ve got those hot dill pickles your son loves.”

Us: “I see your daughter is running the cash register now.”

Them (reading my husband’s baseball cap): “How are the (Georgia) Bulldogs going to be this year?”

This is why we love our farmer’s market. It’s not just about the food we are feeding our bodies but about the connections we are making to our community.

I also have the perspective of knowing the other side. Working with Farm Aid and attending several of the annual music and food festivals have enlightened me about the crisis family farmers face, despite the smiles I see every Saturday.

Uncertainty around the Farm Bill, sinking commodity prices, rising production expenses and interest rates and U.S. trade and immigration policies are putting family farmers in a vice that is forcing many to call it quits, or consider worse. At Farm Aid 2018 last month in Hartford, Conn., I learned that the organization is fielding between 60 and 80 calls each month to its hotline. Many of these are from highly stressed, desperate farmers who are out of options and often left with no choice but to sell farms that have been in their families for generations. For me, this is heartbreaking.

Growing up in northeast Georgia farming was a constant presence. I enjoyed gathering eggs from my grandmother’s hens, snapping homegrown beans on my Aunt Joy’s porch and “visiting” the cows at Red Hills Farm. Many years later, farming is still a way of life there but it’s not an easy one.

My cousin, in his 50s, owns a cattle farm in addition to working a full-time job at an automotive plant. My father’s oldest family friend — now in his 80s — still harvests his wheat himself.

Around the country, family farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The work is difficult. The hours are unforgiving. And faster, stronger, better still isn’t good enough to put food on the table or keep creditors at bay. Due to forces beyond their control, the farm can’t produce enough to be profitable, but no one wants to bear the personal and societal costs of letting it go.

Who would have thought that 33 years after its founding, Farm Aid continues to be needed? Do we no longer care from where our food is sourced? Have we become immune to the messages of “buy local”?

As a PR professional and someone who has roots in family farms, I hope the Farm Aid message is hitting home: Farmers need our help. They have not made fortunes from their work but have made those of us around them feel incredibly rich.

I hope I never see a For Sale sign on Red Hills Farm or any other that would change the physical and cultural landscape of home.

Be sure to visit your local farmers market as often as possible and get to know your family farmers!