We walk out in the early morning. The sun rises slowly, peeking between the trees in the distance. Dew drops slip silently off leaves as we march through. We are careful not to step on the vines. It is quiet.
The kind of quiet filled with the rhythmic chirps of small insects, lowing cows, and grass folding forward, sweeping past our knees.
We fill wooden baskets with squash: butternut, spaghetti, and long-necked yellow squash. “We have to hurry before the market opens.” We haul the bushels to the truck.
Dad takes out a long knife and hacks open a green-striped melon. He passes me a wedge about the size of my face. “Breakfast,” he says. I sink my teeth into the red, watery flesh. It’s sweet and full of flavor. “Come on,” he says, “we’ve got to go get tomatoes now.”
My dad is a small family farmer. He sells produce at the local farmers’ market in an area surrounded by miles and miles of green, arable land in a rural town in the South. This area happens to be classified by the government as a food desert.
Typically, we associate food with inner cities draped in concrete, devoid of trees. In this case, this food ‘desert’ was in a place far from it. In this community, there is one grocery store. Options are few, prices are steep, and finding fresh, affordable food is a challenge for residents.
It’s in places like these that small family farms can make a big difference. Food that is grown locally costs less for the consumer, and, in exchange, the consumer gets better nutrition. This is how you feed nine billion.
The rural population comprises 43 percent of the world, according to the World Bank. Of those in the world who are food insecure, 70 percent live in rural areas. For us all to be dependent on the lifeline of large, industrial growing centers is economically irresponsible. It favors larger cities and deep pockets. In places where transportation infrastructure is not strong enough to facilitate large-scale food distribution, small family farms make sense.
By teaching people in rural areas to farm and by closing the gender gap between men and women, for instance, we could feed 130 million more people. Encouraging family farms promotes food security and economic independence.
Small farmers also bring diversity to the food marketplace. Can you think of the last time you went to the farmers market? How many vegetables did you see that you’ve never eaten before? Family farms can grow produce we don’t typically see in the average grocery store because they’re not tied to the demands of growing what sells.
In a small market, Dad gets to know his customers and vice versa. If there’s a demand for something different, he’ll grow it. He plants regional favorites like orange watermelon and okra, purple hull peas, and white sweet potatoes. He ensures agro-biodiversity by rotating a variety of crops and growing produce from heirloom seeds.
Family farms ensure we never forget where our food comes from and forces us to stop and think about things like the impact of monoculture and pesticide overuse, and maybe we start to think that we want something better, that we might want to ask our food producers to be responsible and use more sustainable farming methods.
You’ve never seen hard work until you’ve seen it in someone’s hands. It’s in the roughened fingers that plant seeds, one by one into the ground so you might eat. It’s in the wrinkles of hands that have been wrung in periods of drought, or when crops have been destroyed in hurricanes. We don’t know because we can’t see. All we know is that an apple arrives in a grocery store, and that is where apples come from—a pyramid of wax on a store shelf.
Once you’ve had fresh-picked vegetables straight from the field, you’ll never turn back. When I’m not in the field with my dad, I continue to buy from local family farms. Everyone wins. You are not only feeding yourself, you are feeding your community.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.