The changing face of Farm Aid

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August 10, 2011 - 7:00pm

When rock stars Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985, they portrayed the family farmer as white, rural and poor.

Twenty-six years later, Farm Aid is helping fund a much different version of the American farmer -- found here at the Juniper Gardens Training Farm.

On a recent summer day, Cathy Bylinowski, the garden's program manager, counseled two farmers about planting their fall crops.



Courtesy photo

Willie Nelson


"So middle to end of August, the first two weeks of September, it's time to plant again," she told them. "Spinach, lettuce, mustard greens, turnips all those things that like cooler temperatures."

Through an interpreter, Bylinowski was speaking to Sandar and Soe Myint, two of the 17 Burmese refugee farmers who are being trained at Juniper Gardens thanks to $9,000 in grants from Farm Aid.

This nine-acre operation in urban Kansas City, Kan., tucked between plots of public housing and the railroad tracks that line the Missouri River, has been the only organization in Kansas to receive Farm Aid funds in recent years.

It represents an evolution for Farm Aid's mission beyond the farm crisis of the mid-80s to what the group calls the "good food movement."

"There was the humanitarian response, but now we're seeing more and more people realizing that it's in their interest to react and support family farmers," said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid's communications director. "They will have better food, better health, better community and a connection to our food."

The groups who benefit from Farm Aid funds also have evolved.

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center in Columbia was started with a $10,000 grant in 1985, which helped thousands of farmers who were suffering during hard times, said Roger Allison, who founded the center.

But Allison's thinking ultimately moved beyond responding to the crisis. Fourteen years ago, he and 15 other independent hog farmers started Patchwork Family Farms literally a patchwork of several farms producing pork. The cooperative sells to local restaurants and does a national mail-order business during the holidays.

"The farmers in turn receive cost of production plus a reasonable profit for raising their hogs in traditional manners that results in a healthy, happy pig," Allison said. "Then it also results in pretty good pork chops and ham steaks and hams for the consumer. That's local."

Since its beginnings, Farm Aid has raised about $39 million to, as its website says, "promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture."

There are concerns that the family farmer is losing ground to larger operations farms with annual sales of less than $250,000 accounted for just 16 percent of U.S. production in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many people responding to a Harvest Network query mourned the loss of family farms.

Asked if Farm Aid mattered given the small proportion of small family farms, most responded emotionally and reported a continued connection to their family's farm.

"I grew up on a 1,000-acre crop farm in southern Illinois, we lost it in the '80s farm crisis," wrote Tabitha Marx of Orem, Utah. "It is still too painful to talk about.

"I have lived in the city since and want to get back out to a farm of my own before I die. I don't know if the concerts help, but any mention of family farms in the news is better than nothing."

John Zumalt, who is from Kansas, said he would be attending the Farm Aid concert this year, which is set for Aug. 13 in Kansas City, Kan. Farming is becoming much like other industries, he said, with production taking place outside the U.S., more people should buy local products made in America, he said.

"I am only 48 but remember when that was more of the case, before all the Home This and Wal Thats took over every city," Zumalt wrote, "so unfortunately, those days are gone."

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center received $8,000 from Farm Aid in 2009 to fight what it calls the "corporate takeover of agriculture." While Farm Aid's mission has incorporated the good food movement, Allison said it's important to remember that family farmers are still going out of business, making Farm Aid as relevant today as it was in 1985.

"When people get down and out, it's just hard to get back up again. Having Farm Aid out there is hope," Allison said. "Willie Nelson gives a damn about a farmer. That makes that farmer feel good."

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