Last month at Farm Aid 2014, I was lucky to meet Phillip Barker, a Black farmer who, like many minority farmers, lost much of his farmland as a result of discriminatory lending practices by banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, Phillip and his wife Dorathy farm the 20 acres they were able to hold on to in Oxford, North Carolina. Their farm is one of two Black dairy farming operations in the state of North Carolina. They also operate a nonprofit organization, Operation Spring Plant, which provides resources and training to minority and limited resource farmers, including a program that introduces young people to farming and provides youth leadership training. Phillip said one of his goals is to provide tools for the next generation and to help young people "come back to the farm to understand the wealth of the land."
"Wealth of the land." That's a powerful phrase.
Phillip believes the next generation must see a sustainable livelihood from the land, but the wealth he refers to can't be measured only in dollars. It is measured in the experience of working on the land, tending the soil, and caring for the animals and crops that grow from it. It's measured in the ability to be independent, to feed himself and his family. It's measured in the way he and Dorathy sustain and strengthen their community. It's measured in being rooted to a place and passing something valuable to the next generation.
It seems to me that understanding the real wealth in the land is key to a sustainable future for all of us.
Our greatest challenge is in re-visioning how the majority see "wealth." The wealth of the land cannot be boiled down to the investors' return on investment. It cannot be gauged by the commodities it returns to us -- in gallons of oil and bushels of corn.
The drive to extract as much value from the land as possible -- to maximize production without regard to whether we're exhausting the soil, to give over our farmland to Wall Street investors, to seize land held by families for generations for corporate profit -- bankrupts the land, our food, our nation and our future.
We need to redefine wealth as the ability to make a decent living from the land and sustain it for the next generation. To grow crops for food and fuel while simultaneously enriching the soil upon which future crops depend. To support a family and a community. To work in partnership with nature to protect our health and the health of our planet. As caretakers of our soil and water, this has been and always should be the essential role of the family farmer.
Today, as we mark World Food Day, which this year celebrates family farming, fewer than 2 percent of us live on farms. Clearly, we can't all be family farmers, but we can all shift our priorities to ensure we're doing our best to support them and encourage new farmers to get started on the land. Playing music to bring awareness is how I started Farm Aid in 1985, and it's how I continue to support the people who best know how to care for the land: our family farmers. Each and every one of us has the power to do what we can to support and sustain family farmers. Our common wealth depends on it.
This article also appeared on the World Food Day Perspectives Blog.