Opening aged boxes of family treasures, I found yellow-stained papers with cursive penmanship and brittle photographs. Each piece told a story of my grandparents’ youth, when days were marked by simple rhythms and neighbors helped out in a pinch. Faded pictures show men and women holding the feet of chicken as a dusting of white covers the ground—de-feathering dinner. Grandpa Van’s career as a meat distributer meant he had established relationships with local farmers and butchers. In my grandmother’s home, an icebox kept food cold, including milk delivered every other day by the milkman.
Home gardens, milkmen and butchers speak of simpler times, when families had a vested interest in where their food came from and how it was produced. The local sourcing of my grandparents’ food was based on necessity, but also on relationship: relationship with local businesses, next-door neighbors and the land and animals that provided the very nutrients they needed. In the decades following my grandparent’s youth, a peculiar change occurred in our food system. As a drive for efficiency increased, minutes became too valuable to spend on relationships. Nation-wide companies that held production in highest esteem overtook the growth and production of crops, elbowing local farmers out of the way.
Yet over the past few years, public perception has shifted. We are tired of the unknown mysteries involved in bringing nutrition to us and, consequently, we are reverting back to a more transparent food economy. Digitally connected friends share their photographs of vegetables grown in their very own garden, the daily chore of cleaning out their chicken coop, and visits to the neighborhood farmer’s market. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions are promoted as people revel in the fact that twice a month a fresh box of produce, meat, cheese and locally made goods are delivered right to their front door. Becoming a farmer, especially an organic farmer, is seen as a respected career decision.
This shift is clearest in the United Nations’ declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. By spotlighting the role of small-scale family farmers around the world, IYFF reminds us that relationships and local production remain key to global food security and a sustainable food economy. In his article, “The Family Farming Revolution,” José Graziano da Silva writes, “[IYFF] provides an occasion to highlight the role that family farmers play in eradicating hunger and conserving natural resources, central elements of the sustainable future we want.” The UN’s decision sheds light on an important cultural trend—we are re-learning to celebrate and support small-scale farmers and locally sourced food.
Dale Partridge, who has studied cultural trends, shares that a shift toward transparency is not so unexpected in his talk titled “People Over Profits.” He explains the explosive popularity of farmer’s markets is evidence that “we have lost trust in our grocers, we have lost trust in our food companies.” Partridge argues that “truth, transparency, quality, and authenticity” will be the best strategy for businesses to move forward over the next couple of years as we transition into a more honest business era. This quality and relational element is exactly what consumers are looking for in homegrown foods produced by family farmers.
We should be encouraged to note that a people-based food system isn’t just a trend; it’s the model by which most of the world’s food is grown. Family farmers—those who farm the small plots next to their homes for their own sustenance as well as a source of income—produce 70 percent of the world’s food. They represent the backbone of our global food system. For the rural food economy, and therefore the global food economy, relationship is everything. Family farmers intimately know their land, the seasons and their neighbors, with whom they barter food and sell produce. The International Year of Family Farming gives us a chance to recognize people as the essential ingredient in a healthy food system.
If we truly value a food system that hinges on transparency and relationship, then it is time to invest in family farming. Despite the essential role they play in the earth’s food production, rural farmers have limited access to resources. Plant With Purpose, an international environmental development agency that promotes healed relationships with land and livelihoods, reports that crop production from family gardens can double with small investments in basic tools and training. This increase in crop productivity is opening the door for rural farmers to earn an income through hard work. And as a result, it is changing families’ futures. This unique development model not only promotes healed relationships between people and their land, but also between each other.
The International Year of Family Farming is representative of an important movement toward a more transparent era. We are trending backward as well as outward, remembering the relational value our grandparents’ placed on their food, as well as the 500 million family farms producing food today. Let’s welcome 2014 as the year to support family farmers, both locally and globally. Plant some seeds with your children, volunteer at your community garden, invest in rural family farmers, cook together and cherish the relationships that deepen around the table.
Our culture’s movement toward farmer’s markets, CSA shares and handmade products is more than a trend. We are entering a new, transparent era, one that is reminiscent of my grandparents’ youth as well as family farms worldwide. There is no better time to invest in the future of a transparent food system—one that hinges on our neighbors, local growers, and small-scale farms—than the Year of Family Farming.