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Farm Aid celebration reveals rifts
Serious questions raised about family farms

This photo of cows grazing lush pasture, taken by Sherry Bunting at sundown in July 2011, was selected and enlarged to serve as a backdrop at the Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. on Saturday, Sept. 21. The scene is at the farm of Dale and Laura Covert and family, near West Winfield, Herkimer County, N.Y. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By SHERRY BUNTING
Special for Farmshine

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Pa. -- Farm Aid in Saratoga Springs on September 21 turned out to be that rare combination of farmers, farm business folks, food-interested people, and just-plain-fans of the big four: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews. They invited other artists – most notably Jack Johnson – who is loved by the younger generation for his folk style songs that make the pop charts.

It was Jack Johnson -- in fact -- who tossed his celebrity status and donned a cow outfit to welcome concert goers (incognito) to this effort to help (and see) family farms.

Instead of seeing farms be simply used as the backdrop for advertising messages, Lorraine Lewandrowski, attorney by day and dairy farmer by night, would like to see more effort put on digging into what is behind that image in regard to the economics that are needed to actually sustain that image as reality.

“We’ve been farming on Honey Hill since my grandparents came here from Poland in the early 1900s. We are not organic, but our farm is host to threatened bird species on our land. We milk 65 cows, make good quality milk and are part of thousands of acres (12 farms) of uninterrupted land,” she relates. “Our dairy farms are part of the Upstate New York ecosystems, and yet we also help fuel the economy. I wanted to get that message across.”

As both a farmer and an attorney, Lewandrowski sees the darker side of the image. Beneath the beauty of the farm, she sees the struggle. She and other New York dairywomen have developed an informal group called New York Farmers and Friends, with the purpose of connecting with food movement thought-leaders to dispell myths and bring forward truths about dairy farm families Upstate. They communicated with the Farm Aid organizers to broaden the image of family farms to help people understand that family farms come in all shapes and sizes, and they are not all certified organic in their practices.

What gets lost in the production method bickering about organic vs. conventional is a central question to the survival of the family farm as the backbone of America: the pricing structure.

“What is the price structure that will benefit farmers,” Lewandrowski asks. “That needs to be examined.”

Yes, Lorraine Lewandrowski is a facebook and twitter machine. I cannot even think as fast as she tweets. She has close to 10,000 followers now and reaches many of the food movement’s thought leaders. She’s their go-to farmer connection. They ask her questions, which she promptly answers and she actually answers questions for them that aren’t even asked because she is fast – so fast – at getting into virtual conversations with facts, truth, and her message about New York’s dairy farmers.

She, and others, are concerned that marketing firms today are using advertising concepts that pit farmer against farmer and turn the discussion of farming methods into a war zone in front of consumers. Between the “Save the World” and “Feed the World” messages of each side lay the very important middle. I would describe them as the silent majority of hard working conventional family farms -- of all shapes and sizes -- doing the best they can in caring for the land and their animals.

I recall my years as a junior staffer for the Lancaster Livestock Reporter and still milking on the dairy farm in the 1980s when Farm Aid got its start. Our morning office manager, the late Millie Rineer, absolutely loved Willie Nelson and John Block. What a combination, right? But in the old days, you could vouch for a company like Monsanto and go to a Farm Aid concert and no one thought twice about it.

Today, farming has become increasingly political and polarized even within the farming community itself. But, no matter the politics, one has to admire an 80-year old country music legend, who – together with his cohorts – put on quite a concert and brought national and international attention to the importance of farm families. While it wasn’t televised, it was video streamed online to viewers, worldwide.

“We’re here to save the family farm, but it is the family farm that will save us,” said founder Willie Nelson in the pre-concert press conference.

Farm Aid officially describes its mission as “encouraging a family-farm centered system of agriculture in the U.S., connecting farmers to resources, promoting food from family farms, and strengthening the voices of family farmers who work the land.” The actual board members are the big four performers -- Willie, Neil, John and Dave. According to the organization’s tax forms, the annual concert nets 17 cents on every gross dollar generated, and most of that goes to farm programs.

SeriousGivers.org, a group that rates charities and gives details, ranks Farm Aid quite high with good scores and notes that 76% of its net proceeds go directly to the farm programs they support, including but not limited to the National Family Farm Coalition and the Farmers Legal Defense Fund.

“At a time when I keep reading stories about whether family farms, FFA, or even Farm Aid are relevant, I see these guys -- these top-flight musicians and performing artists -- willing to put their names on the line for family farmers when so many others are simply not interested,” observes Lewandrowski. “Their willingness to use some of our photos showed that a small group can accomplish something creative.”

She also said it was nice to see the folks from Cabot giving away cheese and seeing a group of dairy farmers who ship to Stewarts in the crowd. “We missed seeing a strong dairy promotion presence along with the industry at this event," said Lewandrowski. " It would have been so great to see a dozen dairy princesses and helpers in full sash and crown strolling the grounds (this would have been free). Roving cows in cow costumes greeting the public (this would also have been free).”

Lewandrowski wonders why such things did not happen during this event: “Are we so divided that we can't or won't participate in these kinds of things? Even if we don't agree with everything said, these are the venues to reach the food movement thought-leaders with our broader message about family dairy farms and their importance to eaters and the economy.”

Fortunately, singer/song-writer Jack Johnson had the “roving cow thing” covered. As the unofficial welcoming committee for Farm Aid's HomeGrown Village, he dressed up like a cow greeting folks before taking the stage in jeans and a T-shirt singing “So much better when we’re together” in front of a larger-than-life image of cows grazing lush pasture as photographed near West Winfield, Herkimer County, N.Y.

Lewandrowski said a high point of the evening was when 94-year-old music icon Pete Seeger took the Farm Aid stage with his banjo with Willie, Neil, John and Dave as his backup singers asking the crowd to sing along “This Land is Your Land.” And the crowd went crazy.

“Seeger was great. He awoke some national pride in the audience,” Lewandrowski observed. “We can’t just reject something because we don’t agree with it all. If we are truly out here to help rural America, we have to work together -- from our differing points of view -- and stop running each other’s production methods into the ground.”