Farm Aid Brings 'Family Farm' Message, but Invites Criticism

9/28/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Joel Morton helps thousands of farmers in the U.S. each year with all kinds of financial, technical and legal issues.

That’s his main responsibility as Farm Aid’s farmer advocate.

When the organization’s huge benefit concert approaches, he takes on another role by organizing the event’s Homegrown Village, with 50 food and farm-related exhibits on hand. A sellout crowd of 25,000 people descended on Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs Sept. 21, where Farm Aid made its first-ever visit to Upstate New York.

The group’s goal is to raise awareness about current agricultural issues and raise money for struggling family farms.

“That’s our job, to keep farmers on the land,” music legend and Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson said in a preconcert press conference. “We think about saving the family farm. I believe the family farm will save us.”

He was joined by fellow board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, who also headlined the music marathon.

But it was more than fun and entertainment.

“Farm Aid tries very hard to leave behind something to help the farmers and food network in the area, as well as consumers, wherever we do our concert,” Morton said. “It’s a great pleasure to do this work every year. We get to bring in our regional and national partners and meet so many people. Plus, it’s a great celebration of family farming.”

While musicians performed on SPAC’s main stage, the Homegrown Village hosted several thought-provoking discussions with topics such as “Food Safety,” “Community and Agriculture,” and “Cultivating the Good Food Movement.”

Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner James Hightower led a talk about the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major overhaul of America’s food safety practices since 1938. The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration, which is writing the rules, broad new powers to prevent food safety problems, detect and respond to food safety issues, and improve the safety of imported foods.

A public comment period ends Nov. 15.

However, Hightower said the measure puts small- and medium-size growers at a competitive disadvantage. He said it’s unfair to make small 30-acre farms comply with the same rules as a 10,000-acre farm.

“This regulation just kind of overreaches to say the least,” Hightower said. “We’re going after the very people who are at farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants who are doing the most good. One size doesn’t fit all. A large farm can absorb costs more easily. We have got to take agriculture policy back from agribusiness and CAFOs who are running roughshod over family farms.”

He was joined by Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Roger Noonan, New England Farmers Union president, who said that good public policy starts with creating public demand for fresh, local produce instead of processed food.

“Folks have to change their buying habits and demand a different product because farmers are going to raise what the public demands,” Noonan said. “Everybody in this country eats and everybody has a choice about what they eat. The important thing is markets. We’ve got to get folks to buy the right kind of food.”

However, not everyone agrees with Farm Aid’s heavy emphasis on organic and sustainable farming. Ned Chapman owns Sunnyside Gardens in Saratoga Springs and is president of New York Flower Power, representing the state’s $400 million greenhouse and garden center industry. He is also a New York State Christmas Tree Growers Association board member and helped coordinate five local farmers who donated items for the event.

“The Farm Aid people seemed to have a separate agenda for growing organic and anti-big farm,” Chapman said. “It’s definitely not what New York farming is all about. Most New York farmers aren’t organic.”

John Vincek, owner of Vincek Farm in nearby Wilton, N.Y., attended the concert but was unimpressed by the message.

“They really should have promoted all the farmers, not just organic farms. Imagine trying to feed the whole country with early 1800s farming methods? There are too many people on the planet. You’ve got to embrace modern technology,” he said.

Vincek said he tries to avoid the use of chemical fertilizer and insecticides whenever he can. But an infestation of army worms on the farm last year left him no choice.

“They would have ruined my corn crop. As much as you hate to use chemicals, you have to sometimes,” he said.

There was little doubt that everyone on hand was united in having a good time. Despite early predictions for rain, Mother Nature cooperated by providing summer-like temperatures during the daytime. Poor weather didn’t arrive until evening, when heavy showers descended on those outside the venue’s 5,000-seat amphitheater.

But most people stayed anyway to hear Nelson, who wrapped up the concert with a medley of tunes capped off by the gospel song, “I Saw the Light.”

“This is a perfect setting, one of the best I’ve ever been to,” said Kathy Hurxthal, a fan who’s been to four previous Farm Aid events. “I’d rate it a perfect 10.”

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