It’s no secret that today’s global food system doesn’t do its best by family farmers or eaters. Most of the world’s food economy is designed as a commodity market that drives down the price paid to farmers and drives up the cost of food to consumers. This thought of food a commodity like any other widget is just one concept that Family Farm Defenders (FFD) is working to dismantle in pursuit of food sovereignty and a more just and sustainable food system in America and across the world.
Family Farm Defenders, a small yet unyielding organization based in Wisconsin, would not exist without its late founder John Kinsman, who passed away at age 87 this January. After nearly dying from chemical exposure to agricultural pesticides, he made the switch to organic farming decades ago. But that was just the beginning. It wasn’t long before Kinsman transformed from a dairy farmer in Wisconsin with 36 cows to a global advocate for a just food system.
Food sovereignty rooted much of John Kinsman’s and Family Farm Defenders’ work. The term food sovereignty was coined by La Via Campesina, an international group that began in 1993 as a collection of peasants and farmers working to defend sustainable agriculture as a means of gaining global social justice. After travelling with Via Campesina and aiding in its formation, Kinsman brought the idea of food sovereignty back to FFD. While FFD had really started as a grassroots reaction to pressing issues related to milk and dairy farmers, the notion of food sovereignty broadened the organization’s mission and found resonance with several other organizations fighting for a just food system in the U.S., in no small part because of John’s dedicated work.
There was magic in Kinsman’s seemingly effortless ability to unify individuals in a common fight — a fight against “corporate agri-business and institutionalized oppression,” as John Peck, the current executive director of Family Farm Defenders, puts it. “Meeting peasant leaders from all around the world, [Kinsman] saw that we have more commonalities with, say, peasant farmers in Mexico than we do with someone working for Monsanto here in the U.S.,” Peck explains. “Our farm workers and farmers together are both struggling for a living wage and dignity.”
Family Farm Defenders’ work expanded to include other threats American family farmers face. One of those concerns is land grabs, whereby corporations and wealthy investors buy up farmland. These investments drive up the cost of farmland so that farmers can no longer afford it and are driven out of business. In Wisconsin, where natural resources are so abundant, this has become a major problem with the growth of the natural gas and mining industries. The folks at FFD offer a listening ear for farmers in need and a grassroots approach to rallying against this kind of corporate power.
Family Farm Defenders also promotes the concept of “fair trade” (as opposed to free trade). Beginning in 1996, Kinsman spearheaded the Family Farmer Fair Trade Project. At the time, Peck was a University of Wisconsin-Madison student involved in a campaign to bring Fair Trade Certified coffee to campus. With Kinsman as his mentor, Peck questioned why Fair Trade only applies to foreign goods. Shouldn’t farmers here in the U.S. also benefit from fair trade? In response, Kinsman created FFD’s own Fair Trade Certification that applied to Wisconsin cheeses. Farmers with the certification doubled their profit per pound of cheese sold, when compared to their regular markets. Though FFD no longer sells the Fair Trade cheese, the model stands as a successful method for farmers to secure a fair price for their products.
Through this work, Family Farm Defenders’ strength has resided in educating and organizing. FFD works locally through town hall meetings and pushes for local ordinances that give the community control over their own resources. The organization hosts a number of farm tours — or as Peck calls them, “farm reality tours” — for the public, including many international visitors. FFD also leads protests related to its campaigns, primarily holding them in Chicago where many citizens they encounter have never met a family farmer before. The group is active at conferences across the country and holds its own annual meeting in Wisconsin. To educate the public, FFD hosts forums, panels, church groups and does outreach to bring awareness to its constituents.
Family Farm Defenders lead a rally in support of family farmers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the day before Farm Aid 25. Photo © Paul Natkin.
Today, Peck is the only Family Farm Defenders employee, but a team of dedicated volunteers and passionate board members join him in carrying on the work. The organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary at its annual meeting this March, where the winner of the annual John Kinsman Food Sovereignty Award will be presented. While the future of FFD remains uncertain, Peck is confident that Kinsman’s work and legacy will endure.
Mentored for years by Kinsman, Peck sums him up this way, “He was able to take all of that negative energy and awareness and turn it into something positive, to try to figure out how we can build coalitions around the struggle, how we can change. He was a quintessential grassroots organizer. He was very good at telling stories that were empowering and gave people hope… He made connections between people that maybe didn’t know they had anything in common. If they sat down and talked together they realized that they all care about dignity and justice and fairness and peace in the world.”