Guest post by: Linda Piotrowicz, Director, Bureau of Agricultural Development and Resource Conservation
Farm Aid’s high-profile, talent-packed annual music festival took place in Hartford on September 22, 2018, with Connecticut agriculture prominently featured through exhibits, videos, blog entries, photographs, and farmer appearances on stage before the music began.
Musicians Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land. Dave Matthews joined the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001, and the organization has grown in the three decades since its founding to include year-round programming to assist farmers in need and to encourage food systems fostering local farm viability and providing nutritious food to communities.
While the 10-hour music festival often garners the most attention, the annual gathering also includes numerous events in the host state to engage farmers and activists through tours of farms and food venues and via both organized and informal discussions about the challenges and opportunities experienced by farm families and consumers. The Homegrown Village features exhibits that engage and educate festival-goes and concession stands featuring local, family farm ingredients.
Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky participated in the hour-long press conference Saturday morning on the main stage. He welcomed Farm Aid to Connecticut, thanked the organization for all the work it has done to support farm families, and spoke of recent heartache suffered by Connecticut’s agricultural community over the past year. He also talked about the resiliency of farmers to persevere and overcome the many challenges they face each day as they work the land to feed us and improve the quality of life we enjoy.
Willie Nelson looked back on 33 years of Farm Aid, noting that he had thought the first concert would be enough to solve many of the crises faced by farmers in the mid-1980s. Much to the contrary, however, the crises have expanded and the need to help farm families survive is greater today than ever. “I think the family farmers are the keepers of the soil, the land, they feed us.” he said. “Everybody eats so everyone should be very concerned about who does their food and where does it comes from.”
In addition to interacting with Farm Aid founders and board members, Commissioner Reviczky and Connecticut farmers Willie DellaCamera, Joe Greenbacker, Eric Henry, Christina Sandolo, Alexis Martin, and Delisha Ramsay engaged with Wholesome Wave CEO Michel Nischan and Farm Aid’s Executive Director Carolyn Mugar and Communications Director Jennifer Fahy in conversations about farms in crisis, farm resiliency, and urban food production, among other topics.
Videos shown on the gigantic, high-definition screens shared stories about the farmers on stage as well as that of Greenbacker’s daughter, Melissa Dziurgot, and Peter, Kristin, and Kies Orr of Fort Hill Farms, illustrating some of the enormous obstacles faced by each farm and steps taken by the farmers to deal with and, hopefully, overcome those challenges.
In the case of Brookfield Farm, sadly, Joe Greenbacker’s family opted to sell the dairy herd after 10 generations of farming in order to provide a more economically stable footing for current and future generations. “It is an emotional decision to sell the farm and the cows after all these years,” he said. “But in reality, if we had kept going, we would have just continued to erode the value and equity in our business.”
At Cecarelli Farms, longtime employee Willie DellaCamera has teamed up with the widow of farmer Nelson Cecarelli, who passed away earlier this year, to keep the land in Nelson’s family for 105 years producing a wide variety of vegetables and value-added products made from those vegetables. “His wife and I have taken the reins, and will keep this farm going as long as we can,” Willie said. “I’m only here merely to guide this ship…it’s still going to be a family farm.”
Eric Henry continues to seek ways to innovate and improve production on 300 acres of land that has been in his family since 1903 at Blue Hills Orchard, despite weather extremes and other factors beyond his, or any farmer’s, control. “This farmland means the world to me,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. You can’t be afraid to try something different, to do something differently.”
Christina Sandolo works with youth at Bridgeport’s Reservoir Community Farm to teach them how to produce fresh food in their own communities to feed themselves and their neighbors healthy meals that would otherwise not be accessible. “When we talk about food justice, we are talking about ability of everyone to participate in the food system, in all aspects of it from seed to plate,” she said. “We are trying to engage as many people as possible in growing food and learning about where food comes from.”
Kristin and Kies Orr have dedicated themselves to honoring the love and legacy of Peter—who tragically took his own life after concluding it was in the farm’s and family’s best interests to mitigate overwhelming medical bills—through diversification of the dairy farm. While the Orrs were not on stage during the press conference, their presence and loss were strongly felt as many of the participants wiped their eyes watching the segment.
Wholesome Wave CEO Michel Nischan spoke about food insecurity, food access, and the benefit of SNAP-related incentives, not only for consumers but farmers. “We were able to prove, surveying 3,600 farmers two years in a row, that farmers put more land into production, they diversified their crop plantings, they bought new equipment, they made infrastructural improvements, and the average farmers’ market saw an 42 percent increase in sales,” he reported.
John Mellencamp added a passionate and colorful commentary on the state of the nation’s politics and policies, pointing out that everyone needs to stand up and demand change to fix the problems.
“When I wrote Rain on the Scarecrow, they used to play protests songs on the radio. They don’t play them anymore,” he said. “Our voices have been silenced.”
Neil Young issued a call to action to get out and vote for those individuals who believe in and support the issues most important to each person, and emphasized that no one should pass a farmers’ market without stopping to purchase something from a farmer who grew or produced it. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, but there’s a real good reason we’ve been doing it, and there’s something you can do,” he said. “Every day when a farmer wakes up, it doesn’t matter what’s happening, he or she has to go to work…they have to do all of these things, or things die. If someone drives by a farmers’ market, they are killing a farm. Please, do not abandon the farmers of America.”
Dave Matthews emphasized the importance of connecting with one another in person—rather than on an electronic screen—and of shopping and meeting neighbors at farmers’ markets, providing equitable access to fresh food, and supporting the families who work to support themselves farming the land around us.“The one thing you’d think everyone in this country, the richest country in the world, should have access to is good food,” he said. “And that the people who produce the best food should be able to do so without the fear of going hungry themselves because they can’t make ends meet.”
The press conference was followed by an afternoon and evening of musical sets performed by Nelson (and Family), Young (with Promise of the Real), Mellencamp, and Matthews (with Tim Reynolds), as well as Chris Stapleton (introduced by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin), Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, Particle Kid, and Ian Mellencamp. The Xfinity Theater was at full capacity both inside its seated arena and outside on the lawn. The concert sold out in four hours. All performers donate their time and talent to the fundraiser.