By Woody Woodruff
Making farming a livelihood for families in Illinois has been one of the greatest changes in the past five decades. There has been a devastating decline in the number of farm families leaving the land for what seems to be safer and more lucrative blue and white collar jobs. In fact, the U.S. family farm industry has witnessed the loss of 1.25 million farms since the early 1960s according to the Colorado State Extension. It seemed that if we could just make food cheap enough for everyone to afford, we would all benefit. Slowly, the scale began to tip from consumers supporting farmers directly, to supporting industry, and slowly, farm families made less and less. Sons and daughters did not return the farm to make their livings, as there was less and less living to make. That shift of focusing more energy on industrial growth and efficiency came with a high price to not only family farms, but to our environment and our food system. When we prioritized industrial growth, we failed to recognize the multi-functional role that farm families had on the land and the community.
To me, the diversity that comes from having multiple farm families in each local community provides food security, improved local economic development, and a deeper understanding of how food production impacts our environment. These past five decades our culture has made the shift away from supporting opportunities for those farmers that don’t fall in line with the industrial efficiency model and that sell their products at local markets. The question now is, is our food production system safer? Are the foods we eat healthier? Are economic disparities in our communities improving? Are our environmental ecosystems being maintained? And now that we are finally starting to see the effects of the industrial system, what is the next step? How do we learn from the consequences of this industrial agriculture model and return to a more community based agrarian society? Agriculture production was formed by the law of supply and demand. This is where I feel we need to focus our energies.
The law of supply and demand should govern what and how much we grow. It works if consumers’ demands for certain foods are adequately communicated to farmers to supply that food. Unfortunately, this communication has been disconnected by commercialization from national industrial food companies. It seems industry spends more on branding products than farmers spend on production. How do we fix this communication breakdown between farmers and consumers? The age of digital communication appears to be helping. As information becomes more widely available, more and more consumers are demanding to reconnect to farmers. Consumers are seeking healthier, more nutrient rich food made using more ecofriendly practices– like grass fed beef or grains made on farms that add cover crops for improving soil & water health.
One of the elements of our food system that worked before the industrial food era was that farm families grew food and processed locally their own harvest- either on farm or by selling it to local millers, brewers, bakers, and other processors. This type of system stimulates the production and consumption of nutritious locally grown products. Our policy associate at Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Rebecca Oland, has been succeeding on improving this route for farmers. The Illinois Food Freedom Act (HB3063 – Rep. Guzzardi) provides that a food producer or entrepreneur can process and sell foods made in a home kitchen to an informed end consumer. This makes it possible for farmers to process excess cucumber crop and turn them into pickles, make tomatoes into salsa, or sell packages of frozen veggies. Previously, Illinois required an expensive commercial kitchen for this type of minimal processing. The Illinois Food Freedom Act is close to becoming a law in Illinois.
In addition to making changes in local food policy, Illinois Stewardship Alliance is also working to strengthen local food systems through conservation. Our conservation program has been involved in bringing together soil health and water health oriented organizations and farmers interested in promoting eco-friendly practices. One diverse group which has now officially formed is Regenerate Illinois, which recently held its first conference in Alton. The Alliance sponsored this conference, which brought together farmers and local bakers, micro-brewers, and distillers to discuss production and supply needs and how farmers can incorporate local grains into their corn and soy rotations. This type of attention to local production, storage, food preservation and processing adds new jobs to communities and improves the affordability of locally grown products. The growing number of locally owned businesses and neighboring farmers coming together to listen to each other’s needs is helping to the lay the foundation for strong, healthy local food systems. Bringing these diversified groups together will help break down barriers in processing, shipping, start-up costs, and equipment, and may lead to innovative solutions and new research that will help further improve these elements in the future. The Healthy Soil, Water and Food Movement is gaining momentum. Get involved!!! Join Illinois Stewardship Alliance today.