As sustainable agriculture and food systems philanthropy explodes across the country, the one theme we repeatedly come back to is the diversity of the funders interested in this issue.
There are justice-oriented funders like Jessie Smith Noyes fighting to improve working conditions and build grassroots power. Health funders are working to curb childhood obesity and improve access to healthy food. You’ve also got rural funders driven to help family farmers.
Case in point, there’s a brand new family foundation out of Texas that’s entirely devoted to innovation and sustainable dairy farming. The De Jong Foundation kicked off with a mission to “empower dairy farmers by investing in research, education, and programs that inspire innovative practices and nourish the world through sustainable dairy farming.”
It’s the philanthropy of Donald and Cheri De Jong, a couple based in Dalhart, Texas, a rural area in the very northern part of the state, where the economy is strongly centered on agriculture. They’re family farmers, but have taken dairy agriculture by storm, growing from 1,000 to 17,000 cows. They oversee both conventional and organic dairy farms through multiple operations, including the couple’s own Natural Prairie Dairy, one of the country’s largest organic, family-run dairy farms.
The De Jong Foundation doesn't put an big emphasis on the environment, at least not explicitly. But it does want to make agriculture better through innovation and sustainable practices, and aim to support dairy farmers globally, especially young innovators as they figure out how to feed a growing population.
In one blog post, Donald De Jong explains how, coming from a family of farmers, he’s seen firsthand that the way to make a sustainable family farm is to make the life of a farmer more balanced and less of a constant struggle.
“Sustainability is most often thought of in environmental terms. But, I know from experience that the family farm is only truly sustainable when the family wants to stay on the farm," he writes.
That means being forward thinking about use of technology to create family-run, sustainable dairy operations.
The foundation’s first grant goes a lot farther from home than you might expect, however. De Jong has awarded support to Opportunity International, a nonprofit that provides loans and training to small-scale entrepreneurs in impoverished countries. In the case of the foundation’s first grant, the outfit will provide financial and technical support to rural smallholder farms.
Note that, in its recent report on the connection between sustainable agriculture and climate change, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations strongly emphasized the importance of supporting smallholder farms worldwide.
So what's particularly interesting about this grant is the way in which it bridges the issues facing farmers in the rural U.S. with those in developing nations. It's yet another example of how agriculture is a link between so many economic, environmental, and development issues, across geographies.