Philanthropy and Agriculture

Nichole Martini is the Associate Director of Program and Development at The Declaration Initiative.  While currently working on poverty alleviation in the United States, her interest in philanthropy extends to strengthening the sector in the U.S. and abroad, particularly in the arts and culture, social justice, and sustainable agricultural fields. Nichole is a 2010 graduate of New York University with an M.S. in Fundraising and Philanthropy.






“... the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” 
– Michael Pollan

Prior to the last decade, agriculture in the United States was very rarely seen as an arena for philanthropy or the non-profit sector. Farming has, in the past, been considered either a way of life that provided for families and communities or a business. But as food has increasingly become more processed and mass produced, a reactionary movement has developed to return agriculture to small scale and natural practices. Sustainable and organic farms have started all across the United States and as a result many consumers are more interested in where their food comes from. However, because of the current government subsidy structure, and the eating habits of many Americans, being an organic farm that solely relies on earned income is very difficult in its early stages. Several of these farms have chosen to take on an educational component and utilized the non-profit structure to gain additional investments from philanthropy to remain economically viable. While philanthropy for sustainable agriculture is rather small compared to other non-profit sectors, the culture of philanthropy brought by initial donors to non-profit agriculture has shaped a founding style of philanthropy to resemble that of the arts and culture sector. Consequently, the movement has created a somewhat elitist approach to the quotidian need of healthy and local food.

One of the first values of the sustainable and organic food movement was to lead with pleasure. Early advocates like author Michael Pollan, raised awareness about agricultural practices through concepts surrounding the experience of eating.  As Michael Pollan said, “this is a movement that has largely been built on the words and actions of chefs and writers.” These chefs, largely from fine-dining restaurants, view their craft as an art form and much of their efforts to source local and sustainable products were based on increasing the quality of their artistic medium.  Their customers pay for the experience as much as they do for the food’s nourishment. When the farming portion of the food movement started captivating the interest of these consumers, they were already primed for an artistic, cultural, and pleasurable experience, much like the arts and culture sector.   As Wendell Barry put it “eating is an agricultural act.” These diners became the first donors to the non-profit agriculture sector.

As non-profit farm fundraisers began strategizing ways to engage donors, the most natural association, because of the fine dining culture already in place, has been events and membership:  both successful aspects of cultural organizations. One particular example that has received an enormous amount of media attention in New York was the Sotheby’s auction gala, “The Art of Farming” benefitting The Sylvia Center and Grow NYC. At this event, diners come for a very high quality dinner catered by Great Performances and have the opportunity to bid on items to raise money for the host organizations. They auction off heirloom vegetables, organic farming research internships, and agricultural or wine tours for several thousands of dollars each, as if it were a Sotheby’s art auction. This event raised over $100,000 in 2010.

Memberships also resemble cultural organizations because of the structure of benefits. Stone Barns Center for Agriculture has memberships ranging from $75 to $1,000 that include newsletters, personal tours, and advanced opportunities to purchase tickets for programming events as benefits, which reflects the strategy of a theater or museum. Both of these adopted approaches have been extremely successful, attracting donors who love food, great culinary experiences, and high quality to invest in local farming.  

A possible consequence of the movement and its culture of philanthropy is the tendency to be elitist. Access to local and organic produce can be cost prohibitive to many because of current policy and business practices surrounding food in the United States. The philanthropy itself, has a high barrier to entry, and is associated with a certain lifestyle. As sustainable/organic agriculture ideally becomes more main stream, the necessity of philanthropy will hopefully decline for these organizations. But until then, organizations will need to plan ways of supporting agriculture that will allow everybody to participate. Food and eating, after all is a necessity for everyone and therefore healthy and local farming should be universally accessible.

The early culture of philanthropy being developed in non-profit agriculture will set precedent for not only funding structures, but future management and farmer education approaches.  It is really important that these early pioneers who are structuring how philanthropic investments are made in non-profit agriculture be mindful of the systems and strategies they set for the future. Currently, the culture of philanthropy, borrowed from the arts and culture sector, has been very successful in raising awareness and sustaining the movement that will hopefully create policy changes and consumer tastes to make the approach mainstream. Until then, it will be the responsibility of these early farmers and non-profit farm administrators to continually develop and balance the current culture of philanthropy, for the reason that it will shape the culture of food for the United States. 

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