It’s not often that you get to enjoy locally grown food and listen to some of rock’s greatest legends while knowing that you’re contributing to a better food system. That’s why the Farm Aid festival is so meaningful. As John Mellencamp pointed out during the pre-concert press conference, “I don’t think any of us, in our wildest dreams, believed that 38 years later we would still be doing—and need to do—this.” The fight for family farmers will continue after a new farm bill is drafted, but the autumn air was crisp and full of hope and potential for the 22,000 who descended upon Noblesville, Indiana from September 22-23.
Farmer Forum and People’s Hearing
OEFFA’s weekend at Farm Aid began with a day-long session on Friday. Farmers, fisherpeople, and food system advocates shared their stories, hopes, fears, and dreams for a more sustainable, just, and equitable food system. A shocking statistic set the tone for the conversations: Indiana imports 98% of its produce, even with 56,000 farms in the state.
Panelist Denise Jamerson of Legacy Taste of the Garden was quick to point out that the statistic is an underrepresentation, and that “there’s a misconception of BIPOC farmers not exiting, [but] they are!” Jamerson resides in one of the last African American farming settlements in the state alongside her father, who would later be recognized by the festival for keeping his family’s farming legacy strong, even in his late 80s.
The conversation went on to center around policies and programs that could support America’s farmers, especially those who’ve been harmed by long-standing discrimination from the USDA. With several state legislators and USDA staffers in the room, the time was ripe (pun intended) to share that reduced paperwork barriers, better understanding of small-scale production, more direct access to funding, and a prioritization of food instead of subsidies would better support the farmers in attendance.
As shared by Justin Solet of the Louisiana-based organization NAMA, we also need “direct action when it comes to racial and climate justice in the farm bill.”
Shifting From Consolidation to Collaboration
In addition to providing people with the tools they need to farm in a way that strengthens communities and respects natural resources, the conversation frequently turned to the influence of Big Ag. Whether growing vegetables on a half-acre for a CSA or producing grain on thousands of acres for an aggregator, there seemed to be a consensus that increased corporate control over seed, fertilizer, and retail is bad for modern-day farmers and the future of our food system.
The crop insurance program was called out for inadvertently urging producers to farm on more marginal land, often at the cost of regional conservation. Companies like Tyson and JBS were mentioned because of their ability to quickly devastate a community. A dairy farmer spoke out about how the runaway vertical integration of his sector may result in cheaper milk, but it’s also causing dairy farmers to disappear in large swaths.
Shifting from problems to solutions, Reverend David Ostendorf would later remind us, “Organizing is not just about power—it’s about building relationships.” The panelists agreed that the divisiveness of our country is by design. Words like “community,” “coordination,” and “collaboration” continued to emerge when discussing how our food and farming systems should proceed.
Even as Sherri Dugger of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project shared the sobering statement that “we have little evidence that Congress will deliver the farm bill we want and need,” it was easy to feel hopeful. As we broke bread and shared a delicious, locally-grown meal together, the words of Lauren McCalister (Bloomington People’s Market) rang in our ears: “They got lawyers, we got people.”
Play a Leading Role in the 2023 Farm Bill
Situated at the center of Farm Aid’s HOMEGROWN Village tent, our team welcomed concertgoers to a movie premiere-style booth. Playing the role of “policy paparazzi,” we cheered people on as they walked down the red carpet to get their photo taken in a selfie frame decorated with their farm bill priorities. The red carpet quickly became boot-stained as the booth welcomed a flurry of activity.
As people sipped on locally sourced cocktails, snacked on Indiana-grown popcorn, and posed with friends and family, over 100 members of Congress were tagged or mentioned in social media posts. They were urged to draft a farm bill that makes our food and farm system fairer, more sustainable, and more equitable. Along the way, we connected with legends in the food policy space and put faces to names of fellow advocates from partner organizations.
After a fun and fruitful day, it was great for everyone to come together at the outdoor amphitheater. The mood was right and the music was great. Knowing that the annual music festival has raised over $70 million to help America’s family farmers? Even better. Until next year, Farm Aid ✌️