Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Big Farm Philanthropy: A Secret that Shouldn't Be Kept!

Last week I was on a panel talking about agriculture, sustainability and the role of the commercial producer at the Tomorrow's Top Producer Seminar in Chicago. One of the points I and others made is that sustainability is a multi-faceted concept and includes the things that farmers do to care for their community and for communities far away as well as what they do to care for the land and the surrounding environment.

At the seminar, I heard about the Farmers Feeding the World campaign, which is a Farm Journal Foundation initiative that teams up with Heifer International to help impoverished families break the cycle of poverty by providing them with livestock, education/training and organizational development assistance. Their approach is summed up in the founder, Dan West's oft-used saying "Not a cup, but a cow," similar to the whole "teach a man to fish . . ." saying. The group provides poor populations with a gift of livestock as a means of creating personal wealth for their family and ultimately, their community as they are able to expand their small farm business.

This effort is indeed a noble one - being supported by many large-scale and small scale farmers who no doubt, will not get a press release passed around explaining the good they are enabling. I know that is not why they are doing it -- and the farm culture tends to generally frown upon putting out too much publicity or "bragging" about these things, but it is important for the public to know that today's large-scale, efficient agricultural operators are not only providing us with a healthy and abundant supply of food -- but they are also in many cases, deeply connected in the process of helping the less fortunate both here and around the world.

Even if you do hear about the occasional big campaign like the one I just described, chances are you won't hear about the amazing individual efforts that farmers have enacted as policy on their farms. I only know about some of these actions because I work with a group of amazing farmers on sustainability issues -- and in the process of cataloging what it is they do that contributes to their overall sustainability, I have learned a great deal.

Take for example, one of the farm operations I work with that has a policy to provide college scholarships for all the children of their employees who have been with them for 5 years or longer. Or the operation that gives generously to the local rural hospital and community college enabling the creation of a heli-pad with life flight service to the surrounding rural areas and the ability for the community college to continue serving as a rural training outpost. Then there are the farmers I know that serve as members of the school board, donate to their county fairs and the local school projects every year, provide scholarships for ag-related careers and have a "buy local when possible" policy in place. These folks are large-scale agricultural producers -- and their success means the community around them succeeds too.

Too often, there seems to be a default assumption by those championing the cause 0f the environment, that small must always be better and big is akin to bad. I challenge my friends who think that way to get to know some of these people and what they are doing for their community. You might just find that the same skills that make these folks successful businesspeople are also being used quietly to help spur rural community investment and wellness.

I'm not trying to say that all large farms are always model community supporters. There are always good and bad actors in all areas of life. But more often than not, large-scale or commercial ag producers are very invested in their communities because they know that this is both smart business as well as the right thing to do. Large scale producers grew up in these small towns and have a lot to do with why many rural areas are still able to exist.

When thinking about what makes agriculture sustainable, please remember the charitable and community focused support that the ag industry has a long history of providing.

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