From Black Friday to Christmas Eve, every charity and cause in existence is all about “piece on Earth” — a piece of your paycheck, that is. But not all appeals are to be quickly dismissed.
As December passes the halfway mark, the pressure ramps up dramatically, exponentially even, as the days tick down toward Christmas.
The mailbox is stuffed full like no other time of the year. The inbox is loaded with dozens of holiday messages — not just in the morning, but throughout the day. All day. Every day.
Although the cards and letters and emails are filled with every sentiment, every variation on holiday cheer, that’s not why the groups and organizations are sending season’s greetings. The point isn’t to enjoy the holidays, the point is to convince the recipients that someone else isn’t having a very joyous Christmas.
Which is easily rectified, if only you reach into your heart — and your wallet — and make the holidays brighter for a [fill in the group or constituency] like [fill in name of poster boy/girl/couple]. The letters and emails always end the same way: “Thank you for helping/contributing/caring about this important cause. We count on your support, and even the smallest donation can make a big difference.”
Followed by the series of handy boxes to check off, indicating $20, $50, $100 or even greater amount that you plan to hand over. In the spirit of the season, of course.
The money grubbing is as much a backdrop to the holidays as Christmas carols blaring at the mall, and to be honest, it works. According to recent survey conducted by the Network for Good, a marketing firm for nonprofit organizations, as much as 90 percent of many NGO’s annual contributions are donated during the six weeks preceding Christmas Day.
Bigger’s not always better
Thanks to having attended several of their annual fund-raising concerts, one of the groups that has me on its permanent solicitation list is Farm Aid, the organization formed almost 30 years ago by country singer Willie Nelson to promote the cause of America’s family farmers. When Farm Aid first launched, the group became identified with the controversy over the expansion of large-scale, vertically integrated pork production operations, particularly in Missouri. As the major players in the sector invested in the construction of larger and larger production complexes, numerous small-scale producers were driven out of the business.
Or simply exited to pursue other options, depending on your perspective.
Of course, many other factors were involved, including a couple devastating crash in live prices that USDA estimated in forcing tens of thousands of small-scale producer to liquidate their herds as the only way to cut their losses.
It was relatively easy for Willie and friends to convince concerned consumers that poor, struggling family farmers were getting steamrolled by Big Corporate Ag — especially since his friends happened to be such music industry icons as Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
And there was some truth to their campaign. It’s never pretty when big business dominates a category, whether it’s a Wal-Mart store forcing the closure of some town’s Main Street shopkeepers or a multinational feed and food company’s immense production capacity all but guaranteeing that even well-capitalized family farms aren’t able to compete.
I’ve long argued that agriculture is best served by supporting both large, efficient farms and livestock operations and small-scale specialty growers and producers, whether family-run or not.
That’s not how Farm Aid plays it, though, and this year’s holiday fund-raising appeal has turned to an attack on the broiler industry. Here’s an excerpt:
“Craig Watts is a contract poultry grower in North Carolina. He raises chickens for a company that can terminate his contract at any time, for any reason. Companies like these have so much power, they can keep farmers like Craig in limbo, in debt and in fear they could lose their livelihood at any time.”
How can people redress this dire situation? Three words: “Donate, donate, donate.”
Now, I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that the big poultry companies have been ruthless in setting up contract growout systems that push both costs and risks onto the growers, while (partially) shielding the company from losses and/or liabilities. The contracts definitely favor the company, yet by shrewdly locating operations in economically depressed rural areas, many folks who are out of other options flock to their doors.
And with the razor-thin margins earned by even the most efficient operations, most contractors end up taking on enormous debt to ramp up production in order to achieve profitability.
But I’d be a lot more responsive to Farm Aid’s tear-jerking appeal if it were less about “Fighting to take back control of our farms” and more about investing in alternatives to support small-scale growers and farmers. There are premiums to be made in raising specialty crops, heritage breeds and identity-preserved commodities, but such farms often struggle with the business and marketing side of the operation, and that’s where Farm Aid ought to be directing its support and funding.
It’s right in line with every other holiday solicitation when Willie entreats his supporters to “Let family farmers know they’re not alone. Let them know they’re valued and they are needed.”
You let them know, of course, by writing Farm Aid a check, and they’ll pass along your heartfelt sentiments.
Snark aside, the preservation of family farms, of small-acreage farms and of farmland itself — especially cropland in proximity to urban areas — ought to be an urgent priority for the public and policymakers alike.
I just wish the messaging on that subject from our friends at Farm Aid could be a little more positive and proactive.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.