Sunday, October 11, 2009

Farm Aid 2009

Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Mathews at Farm Aid 2009
Photo courtesy of Sharonc

Farm Aid Swings and Misses
By Frank Priestley, Idaho Farm Bureau President

A group of musicians including Dave Matthews, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp got together in St. Louis, Missouri recently and held a benefit concert to raise money for small farmers.

This 24th anniversary of the Farm Aid concert / fundraiser broadcast to millions on Direct TV sounds like a noble cause, but on closer inspection it’s more of a charade than anything. Good music indeed and Farm Aid deserves credit for shining a light on some of American agriculture’s problems. However, we disagree with the amount of misinformation they are spreading to consumers and we think it’s poor judgment for farmers to attack other farmers when times get tough.

We commend Farm Aid for showing the plight of small farmers everywhere. And they do a fine job of showing examples of small farmers using creative niche marketing strategies. But Farm Aid’s public relations machine doesn’t have a good grasp on the real problems agriculture faces. For instance, they vilify corporate farms without taking the time to understand that 98 percent of American farms are owned by families. It’s true that many of those farms are incorporated for tax purposes, but are nonetheless still family owned.

In addition, Farm Aid attacks large farms and modern production methods much the same as PETA and other animal rights groups. They argue America’s remaining small farms soon will be swallowed up and before consumers know it they won’t have a choice except to buy processed foods from giant agribusiness corporations. These assertions are not even remotely accurate.

First, we all need a clear understanding of the fact that there are 300 million Americans who need food every day. That food is currently produced by less than 2 percent of our population. If we were to take away large farms and modern production methods, most of us would have to go back to living and working on farms, much like our society was in the 1930’s. Even if we had the land, water and other resources available, how many Americans would quit their jobs, give up their pensions and health insurance coverage, move to the country and assume the risk and hardship that comes with running a farm?

Consumers today have more choices and more opportunities to buy fresh, local food than they have in more than 20 years. The popularity of farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures are off the charts. Plenty of farmers across this nation are offering farm fresh eggs, vegetables, meat and dairy products and consumers who want to know their farmer are reaching out. The opportunity to buy farm fresh meat and produce has never been greater.

Farm Aid also has its own unique interpretation of why the dairy industry is financial duress. It’s not overproduction, they say, but big dairies, supported by the government and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are the real villains that have driven milk prices to well below the cost of production. If Farm Aid were to ask an agriculture economist or a dairy market analyst, they would soon understand that the dairy industry is suffering from overproduction and lagging demand, but at the same time dairy producers are taking steps to correct the problem. Small dairies that sell milk to large corporate processing companies are in direct competition with big dairies that can produce milk for less because of economies of scale.

However much Farm Aid would like big dairies and other confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to disappear, the reality is there are 300 million Americans to feed. That simple fact dictates the need for large-scale, modern agriculture methods. But there are lots of examples of small dairies and other small farms producing value-added products and marketing them locally. Reed’s Dairy in Idaho Falls and Ballard Dairy in Gooding are excellent examples of dairy niche marketing. They milk small herds by today’s standards, rely on the quality and freshness of their milk, and produce a wide variety of cheeses, ice cream, and other dairy products. Many small dairies also provide delivery service as an added convenience to their customers.

Farm Aid also misses the mark on agriculture trade, genetic modification of crops, country of origin labeling and many other points we don’t have space to address here.

Farm Aid has the potential to do some good for American agriculture by helping to educate the public about how food is produced, where it comes from and the hardworking families who make their living on the land. But in our opinion, they won’t get there by placing blame at someone else’s doorstep.

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