Friday, September 27, 2013

A Reflection on What FarmAid Really Means

Hello all.

The FarmAid concert was last Saturday. I couldn't attend, but I saw on Facebook that a number of my farm friends did attend.

So I asked one -- Rebecca Schuelke Staehr of Cayuga Pumpkin Barn -- to write about it. So here's her report.


Ed and Rebecca Staehr as "farmer heroes" in the ASA booth at Farm Aid's Homegrown Village. The group encouraged everyone to become "farmer heroes" by supporting farmland conservation.
We’ve just returned from Farm Aid – a daylong celebration of farmers, “good” food, and music – held, Sept. 21 in Saratoga, NY.

It was Farm Aid’s second trip to New York State. My husband, Ed, and I are pleased to say, “we were there” – this time around, as well as at the 2007 event on Randall’s Island in New York City.

Now in its 28th year, Farm Aid is an annual concert and much more. Born out of the farm crisis of the 1980s and conceived as a fundraiser to help farmers remain on their land, Farm Aid has evolved to include a Farmer Resource Network, a sort of
clearinghouse that offers information and contacts to hotline callers. Farm Aid runs an annual grant program, mostly for agricultural nonprofits, and has reportedly raised more than $43 million.

For years, the show has been anchored by performances from Dave Matthews Band, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson – peppered with a revolving door of musicians that donate their time to the cause. This year’s lineup included Jack Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Carlene Carter, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and many others.

Despite a heavy downpour that began shortly after John Mellencamp took the stage, the Indiana singer-songwriter’s performance was among the evening’s highlights. It really wouldn’t be Farm Aid without the seminal “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a
haunting song that describes a multi-generation farm lost to foreclosure that Mellencamp released in 1985.

Food was center-stage at Farm Aid, too. Farm Aid’s trademarked Homegrown Concessions seeks to bring the good food movement to rock stadiums. The $11 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and nachos with “cheese-like” goop were still there, but so too were veggie burritos, “non-confinement” hot dogs, organic French fries, and antibiotic-free chicken tenders.

A big difference in Farm Aid from the 2007 show was the expanded role thatfarmers and agricultural organizations played, thanks to the Homegrown Village.

Fifty or so groups, including Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Northeast Organic Farming Association, found creative ways to reach out to concertgoers while describing their work.

 The American Stewardship Association encouragedpeople to don a cap and mask and pose for “farmer hero” photos of those that
valued farmland conservation. Somervile, MA artist Cheryl Hirshman asked peopleto decorate a glove with words that represented farming to each participant; the gloves will be part of an installation about the work of farmers.

As Farm Aid has matured it seems to have moved from its more centrist roots toward an idealism that glorifies the small, family farm while vilifying the “factory farm.” Food quality, environmental stewardship, and biodiversity – as Farm Aid
will tell you – are issues of critical importance to farmers, and all living beings.

However, it’s disappointing to see an organization promote division among farmers, even proposing that large farms are crowding out small farms – glossing over the pressure all farmers (good and bad ones, too) are facing from urban development, government regulation, business taxation, and more. Despite the diversity of
business and production practices, farmers are a really small group. It doesn’t make sense to direct the little energy we have in fighting each other.

Equally disappointing is to see the occasionally complex issues around farming over-simplified to good versus bad. Farm Aid, after all, has the nation’s ear.

I said this once already – Farm Aid is a concert and much more.

The greatest accomplishment of Farm Aid has always been its ability to raise awareness about farming, and farmers, among the general public. In the days before farmers and local food were trendy, the Farm Aid concert was among the few times each year
that the media might cast a light on agriculture that was positive.

For a few days, we might set aside our stereotypes about the millionaire absentee-owner whocollects farm subsidies, the alleged polluters and animal abusers, and a whole slew of stories that could be summarized as “the dumb farmer.” We could remember – or, learn – that the vast majority of farmers in the United States work pretty hard, for not a lot of money, but a great deal of love, to produce fiber, fuel, and food – the stuff we literally cannot live without.

** Rebecca Schuelke Staehr is co-owner of Staehr Family Farm and Cayuga Pumpkin Barn, a field crop and vegetable farm in New York’s Finger Lakes region. 

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