Can real change take root in the aisles of a grocery store? In the past few decades, consumers the world over awoke to rapidly diminishing choice. We began asking what freedoms we still had left within this ever-conglomerating, homogenizing, alienating food system to truly determine how our next meal is grown, raised and brought to our plate.
Today, only a generation later, we find grocery store shelves swathed in new labels—local, artisan, organic—all claiming to empower shoppers with the information they need to choose, connecting them with the source. But do all these new options really give a voice to the farmers on the ground? Can a real food movement be driven by the expectations of consumers alone? And do these new, “enlightened” purchases give farmers the full freedom to truly grow by their values?
This Independence Day, we ask those growing our food to speak up. We ask them to reveal the very real obstacles between their production and consumers’ ever-loftier expectations. And we ask them to look forward to what’s possible by declaring their own statement of liberty. We call them “free farmers.” You can read the declaration here.
Discovering What Connects Us
Two farmers riding tractors on opposite sides of the world can today communicate with a push of a button, all without leaving the field. And likewise, consumers can today connect with producers through all variety of social media. Not every farmer carries a smartphone in the pocket of their overalls, nor do they have time to update their Twitter accounts. But in today's connected world, we should no longer have to rely on trade organizations, lobbyists or government departments to speak on farmers’ behalf.
That's why this month farmers are setting down their hoes and picking up cameras. The Farmers Guild – a new wave of California farmers, ranchers, chefs, artisans and sustainable food system advocates with a passion for feeding our local communities – is asking them to snap a photo of themselves holding a sign that begins with the words “free farmers” and concludes with their own declaration of what food freedom means to them.
From an intern in Mendocino, Calif., who writes "Free Farmers shouldn't have to look for loopholes," to celebrity agrarian Joel Salatin who responded, "Free Farmers are land-caressing multi-speciated direct-market entrepreneurs who have access to their own neighborhood to freely provide food that enables all parties to win," the perspectives of our farmers are many and diverse. That's why we want to hear from them.
Meanwhile, those with vocations beyond the field are taking the opportunity this July 4th to leave the dining table, step into some work boots and consider the farmer’s perspective – from chefs to schoolchildren to celebrated authors like Michael Pollan. Their statements speak to the eaters, the policy-makers, restaurateurs and to the aspiring young farmers and ranchers in this country. They’re declaring not only what freedom means to them but what it will take to make that freedom possible.
From market fluctuations to complex regulation, from the rising price of land to onerous contracts with corporate buyers that makes indentured servants of our local growers, the principles of even the most virtuous farmers often collide with the constraints of our modern food system, economy and culture. Today’s consumers want their food grown locally, organically, in harmony with our natural resources and by family farmers who provide social equity to all parties involved – but we also want it cheap, convenient, cosmetically flawless, centrally regulated and available year-round upon our slightest craving.
Labels offer poor substitutions for relationships. But for those, like me, who like their coffee despite living so high among the latitudes, they are sometimes necessary. Rather than visit Costa Rica to simply meet the harvester of my coffee beans to ensure the integrity of my purchase, I trust that the “Fair Trade” label will at least offer some assurance. But only by hearing from those farmers directly – if not across a table than on a screen – can I choose freely. Only together as one can we declare food liberty.
The Farmers Guild invites you to take a stand to empower farmers by completing the phrase “Free farmers…” however you see fit. What does Food Freedom mean to you? Simply write it down on a piece of paper with your name and share the photo by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find the movement on Twitter and Instagram at #freefarmers and #farmersguild, and on Facebook.