What We Can Learn From Family Farmers in the United States

On Thanksgiving we express gratitude for the abundance on our holiday tables, but rarely do we thank the people who grew, harvested, and processed that food.
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This post was co-written by Danielle Nierenberg, Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Benjamin Graub, and Caterina Batello.

On Thanksgiving we express gratitude for the abundance on our holiday tables, but rarely do we thank the people who grew, harvested, and processed that food.

But a very diverse group of family farmers around the world, and at home, deserve our support -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 98 percent of American farmers are family farmers. The United Nations recently declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, celebrating the global community of family farmers. Forthcoming reports by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Food Tank: The Food Think Tank suggest that through local knowledge and sustainable, innovative farming methods, family farmers can improve yields and create a more nutrient-dense and diverse food system. They're even key players in job creation and healthy economies, supplying jobs to millions and boosting local markets.

In the United States, however, small and medium-size family farms are suffering. One bad harvest, a rejected bank loan, and too much or too little rain can drive farms out of business. In 2012, for example, a "once in a generation" drought cost farmers some US$35 billion and reduced American GDP by up to one percent.

But in many parts of the country, farmers are finding ways to create resilience on farms.

In California, organizations like the Community Alliance for Family Farming are reaching out to farmers with education tools and resources aimed at helping them do their jobs better. In addition, winegrowers in drier areas of the state are now integrating sustainable techniques like water conservation into their farms.

In Missouri, Cultivate Kansas City is starting a series of urban farms and connecting them to existing farms where food is grown, harvested, and sold completely within the confines of Kansas City. B

And Slow Food USA, an organization that works to promote environmentally-conscious farming and foster communities of people around a shared interest in sustainable agriculture, has 170 chapters across America working to promote biodiversity and food justice.

Across the United States, small-scale farming is a growth industry, and one which the world desperately needs. A 2002 World Bank report examining 61 countries with contributions from over 400 agricultural scientists determined that small-scale farms have the best potential for alleviating global hunger. As recently as 2007, small farms made up 88 percent of all American farms, holding 63 percent of total farmland in the United States.

Because of public initiatives aimed at helping new farmers buy land, small-scale farmers are also often much younger than the average American farmer, who is 56 years old. As the next generation of food producers and leaders, they represent a rare growing demographic within American agriculture, an industry that struggles to appeal to young people. Organizations like the National Farmers' Union, Food Corps, and Growing Power are reaching out to young people to show them the importance of and the connection between our food system and our environment.

While the importance of Family Farming and its potential for a more sustainable food system are clear on the ground a lot of work is still necessary to get coherent state, national, and international policies to strengthen Family Farmers!

Next week, let's give thanks not just for the food on our table, but for farmers and their efforts to build a better food system.

Danielle Nierenberg is the co-Founder of Food Tank; Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Benjamin Graub and Caterina Batello are Programme Specialist, Programme Analyst, and Senior Agricultural Officer, respectively, at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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