Farms and Bands: A Curiously Joined Charisma

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

BERKS COUNTY, Pa. — With many farmers reaching out to their communities through direct marketing and using a variety of efforts to make connections and generate revenue, hosting live music with a sound that fits well into farm settings is becoming appreciated all the more.

In Boyertown, Pa., Frecon Farms has grown and sold tree fruits for 65 years. Now, the farm also produces value-added products for sale at its storefront location and offers live music on its grounds. In addition to hosting regional performers throughout the year, the primary annual event for farm is the apple-everything attraction known as PickFest. At PickFest, held in October, the farm’s autumn apple harvest is celebrated with bluegrass music out in the orchards.

Many of the musicians have connections to farming and a desire to support farms.

The main band at PickFest each year is the Manatawny Creek Ramblers, which also plays at the Frecon family’s recently opened coffee shop-turned-brewpub venue, known as The Other Farm Brewing Company, on the main street in Boyertown, Berks County, Pa. At last year’s PickFest bluegrass concert, the rest of the lineup in the orchards included musical groups mostly from around Pennsylvania.

The Manatawny Creek Ramblers carry strong Berks County roots and a dedicated fan base.

“Farming is our heritage,” said musician Daniel Bower of Ruscombmanor Township, Berks County, Pa.

Bower plays guitar and handles lead vocals for the Manatawny Creek Ramblers and plays drums for another Americana folk rock band known as Frog Holler.

“Farming is American, and so is bluegrass,” Bower said.

He also works as the music events coordinator for different branches of the Frecon family’s businesses.

“Farming is how this country was founded, and bluegrass was born on a farm,” Bower said about why he thinks tying together farms and this music is a success. “Fiddle tunes evolved from common farming people trying to learn to play the violin but without access to learning. Before people had DVD players and iPads, they had a fiddle.”

Bower and his fellow bandmates have played at Wood Farm Records in Fleetwood, Pa., and Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook, Pa., in Chester County. Wyebrook Farm hosts bands on-farm most Saturdays throughout the summer season with the farm being open to the public most weekends.

Musician Josh Sceurman, also of Fleetwood, is a member of the Manatawny Creek Ramblers, Frog Holler and a band called Tin Bird Choir. He plays upright and electric bass but also teaches through his home-headquartered business, Richmond Street Music Lessons, where his band of young children, the Richmond Street Rockers, is based.

Last year, the Richmond Street Rockers performed at an on-farm event called the <\n>Jolly view Jam, a strawberry festival at Prout’s <\n>Jollyview Farm in Oley Township, Berks County, Pa.

Farm owner Jillian Prout said that face painting, strawberry picking, free pony and hay rides, and listening to a handful of bands perform is what keeps the festival growing each year.

“Most live music you hear in bars or stadiums,” Prout said. “At the farm, it’s so much more family-friendly.”

Prout said that the cross-promoting of farms and bands is a beneficial marketing tool.

“Food feeds bodies,” Prout said. “Music feeds the soul, and you can’t live on bread alone.”

Combining farm festivals with local music brings people to her farm and creates an interconnected community, Prout said about her drive and efforts to put the two together.

Sceurman pointed out that farmers and bands joining together is a matter of small businesses working to benefit each other.

“These gigs have a more family-oriented atmosphere and are so much more laidback — not so urban and structured, being out in nature,” Sceurman said. And that is largely what people seem to want these days.

Sceurman and his fellow bandmates in the Manatawny Creek Ramblers have also played at Frecon Farms’ Peach Celebration Week in July, performing at the roadside market location of the family farm.

Hank Frecon, 38, is the president of his family’s apple cidery as well as The Other Farm Brewing Company. He said that PickFest began in 2006, and in recent years, it maxes out around 1,500 attendees.

“We start promoting PickFest in July at farmers’ markets around the region, and really focus on brand reinforcement,” Hank said, mentioning that this is even done with peach sales in summer. “When we attach our name to something, people are left with a warm and fuzzy feeling about us.”

And fuzzy feelings are easy to get with locally grown, fuzzy peaches.

“Philosophically, I think musicians and farmers have a lot in common,” Hank said. “They have to think on their feet and work with science and math, maximizing the environment around them.”

Sean Hoots, a lead singer who plays guitar and writes songs for another farm-friendly Americana band called Hoots and Hellmouth, is from Philadelphia. He said his connection to farming goes back deep into his heritage. Hoots is the grandson of a livestock farmer on his mother’s side and an apple farmer on his father’s side.

His band plays for non-farm venues, but he admits that, “Farms and farm events, while they may not pay out as much, tend to nourish our souls (and bellies!), which gives us a different sense of satisfaction.”

“We’ve participated in a variety of farm events over the years, from straight-up music festivals and barn parties to educational weekends and conferences,” Hoots said. For several years, the band also has played at the opening night ceremonies of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture annual conferences in State College, Pa.

“PASA has been incredibly welcoming to us and our desire to be involved in the (Pennsylvania) farm scene,” Hoots said. He noted that partly due to the conference exposure, the band has played concerts at other southeastern Pennsylvania farms, such as Charlestown Farm, Dickinson College Farm, Spiral Path Farm, Maysie’s Farm and others. Outside the state, the Philadelphia-based band has played at Sunnyside in Virginia and for the Buy Fresh, Buy Local chapter in Berkley Springs, W.V.

“We’re real folks making real music that we care about,” Hoots said. “Farmers are doing the same with their meats and veggies.”

“Ultimately, expectations are different at farm shows,” Hoots said. “Folks come out to socialize and celebrate their community which makes them far more open and receptive as an audience.”

The band enjoys touring and has gone on “Harvest Tours” which, said Hoots, “basically means we approach the farms about playing in their barns, and they invite their CSA/community members and friends out for a celebration. So, it’s basically using the farm/barn as a venue for a show.”

“Farms feed. That’s the bottom line. It gets neither simpler nor more necessary than that. How could I not care?” Hoots said.

“We’re all about collaboration,” Hank Frecon said, noting that his family’s nano-brewery has been up and running for a few months. He pointed out that a Manatawny Creek Ramblers show at The Other Farm Brewing Company in early March served as a fundraiser for the band’s next album. The collaboration also involved releasing the well-named Manatawny Creek Ramblers’ Kickstomper IPA (a beer style made from hops grown by Frecon Farms) at the March show which boasted a full audience toe-tapping across the room.

“We share the same community and fit the same demographic,” said Hank’s brother, Steve Frecon, 34, the president of Frecon Farms, in reflecting on the ties between the family farm and the Manatawny Creek Ramblers. “Their fans are our customers, and our fans are their customers. And this marketing choice adds such an interesting dynamic to the farm.”

Steve said that the band Frog Holler may potentially have a beer of its own launched through The Other Farm Brewing Company someday, too.

“A world without music is very empty,” Steve said. “Just think of how empty your life would be without music and farming.”

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