I recently represented the National Farmers Union (NFU) at the North American Dialogue on the United Nation’s “2014 Year of Family Farming” hosted by L’Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA). Canadian and U.S. general farm organizations participated, but unfortunately, none from Mexico attended.
In declaring 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF), the United Nations aims to raise the profile of family farming by focusing world attention on the essential contribution this sector makes to food security, economic growth, preservation of agricultural biodiversity and the wellbeing of communities. The goal of the IYFF is to reposition family farming – its strengths, opportunities and vulnerabilities – at the center of national agricultural, environmental and social policies, thus promoting equitable and balanced development. (FAO)
The FAO’s definition of family farm is based only on labour inputs: “A family farm is a farm managed and operated by a family which provides most of the labour used on the farm”. This purely labour-based economic perspective fails to recognize other characteristics of family farms that exemplify their unique natures and strengths, such as land ownership, a connection to community and the environment and the intergenerational transfer of farming knowledge and skills. These characteristics have little value for a system focused on increasing production, concentrating land ownership into the hand of absent landlords, rising corporate control and increasing international trade without considering environmental or societal fallout.
Part of the Dialogue focused on resilience – our ability to withstand crisis and adapt to ongoing change. More resilient and sustainable natural populations occur in biodiverse, healthy environments that have more interconnections with communities. Family farmers live where we work; we are embedded in our communities. We work where we live, and thus have a high stake in assuring healthy environments. The current trend toward absentee ownership of large tracts of farmland means those owners will have little if any exposure to any adverse effects of land use.
One keynote address explored various aspects of family farming in North America, presenting nothing new or surprising. There are fewer farmland acres, fewer farms and fewer farmers, and the greatest losses are among small to medium-sized farms in all three countries. Farm operators are older, and there is increased competition for land and other productive resources.
The speaker recommended that public policies must change to recognize and strengthen family-based farm operations, and to restore more localized autonomous systems by separating from global food and banking systems. Suggestions included shifting from vertically integrated systems to more horizontal or territorial models featuring local/regional marketing alternatives and more value-adding opportunities.
The speaker also advised that policies reflect the diversity among family farms and recognize the cross-cutting social, economic and environmental benefits provided by family farming. Thus, policies should include and assure the survival of the family farm for the benefit of society through, for example, linking domestic production and markets, strengthening support for collective action, empowering farmer-friendly marketing systems such as single desk selling and supply management, connecting food and public health and providing risk management for market anomalies, among others.
When visitors enter my home, they see a small sign that reads: “You are entering the habitat of an endangered species – the home of a family farmer.” The International Year of Family Farming offers an opportunity to change that – to reclaim the “family farm” as legitimate and essential to human survival. This is exactly what the NFU’s vision of and ongoing work for more than forty years has focused on: protecting the essential role of family farmers in providing safe, healthy, sustainable food to communities; as economic drivers for local and regional as well as national economies; and as stewards of land and natural resources into the future.
Photos: At top, Joan addresses attendees at the 2013 NFU Convention in Ottawa. Above, Joan’s family on their farm circa 1997.