Farmers, Farm Groups See Opportunity With Farm Aid Concert

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

HERSHEY, Pa. — About 30,000 people are expected to attend the annual Farm Aid concert at Hersheypark Stadium later today, the first time in 10 years the concert will be held in Pennsylvania.

And while most will be there to see their favorite musical acts — John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Dave Matthews just to name a few — a number of farmers and farm organizations are banking on the event to share their viewpoints on agriculture to a wider audience.

“This is just a huge weekend for agriculture in Pennsylvania,” said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), who sees the concert as a way to get more PASA members and to promote small farming and “sustainability” to the masses.

“We’ll be talking to them about not how to farm, but about how farmers farm — talking about local food, how they can be engaged in the local food system,” he said.

PASA will have a big presence at the concert with several booths set up inside the Homegrown Village, an educational area next to the concert grounds complete with displays and interactive booths on issues pertaining not only to farming but also to environmental issues such as the state of the Chesapeake Bay and the impact natural gas drilling has on farms and rural communities.

Snyder, who has been to the last five Farm Aid concerts, said he encouraged the group to come to Pennsylvania after meeting with Farm Aid’s executive director, Carolyn Mugar, during last year’s concert in Kansas City, Kansas.

“I was encouraging they look in the middle of the state and Hershey was the natural selection,” he said.

The group also helped organize two Farm Aid-sponsored farm tours Friday, one at Spiral Path Farm in Loysville, Perry County, and another at the Rodale Institute in northern Berks County.

Snyder said he’s seen the group evolve from an organization initially focused on raising funds to help Midwest farmers affected by the 1980s farm crisis to a more proactive group promoting locally grown food and food systems, and “family farmers.”

“It actually fits quite well with us. Maintaining a food system for local and regional farmers, it’s a very good fit,” he said.

Farm Aid has raised more than $40 million to promote a “strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture” since it was started in 1985, according to the group’s website.

It does this through several initiatives, including keeping a database and hotline designed to help farmers connect with farm support organizations, doling out grants to partner organizations around the country to promote what it calls the “Good Food Movement,” and through government advocacy initiatives.

The group raises money through its annual concert along with contributions from donors and other sources.

A 2011 audit by the Han Group, an independent auditing firm, showed that Farm Aid actually spent more money in 2011 than it took in. The organization took in a total of $1.4 million, including $1.59 million from its concert in Kansas City. But it only netted $274,213 from the concert, which was held in a new soccer stadium that had never had a concert before. There was also a drop in attendance, according to Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid spokeswoman, with only 15,000 people showing up.

“It was definitely an off year for us,” Fahy said.

None the less, the group received $985,627 in contributions in 2011 along with money from merchandise sales and investments.

Farm Aid spent $1.57 million in 2011, with $1.24 million going to programs it supports and $316,185 in grants to 42 different farm and farm-related organizations.

Several independent charity evaluators have given Farm Aid fairly high marks.

The American Institute of Philanthropy, which runs a website called Charity Watch, gave Farm Aid an A-, based on an A to F scale in which it evaluates charities on the percentage of money it spends on its charitable purpose.

Charity Navigator gave the organization three out of four stars.

The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, which evaluated the organization in 2009, said the group failed to meet standards for charitable accountability in six categories, mostly having to do with board oversight, policy making and policy reporting.

But it gave the group high marks for the amount of money going to support its charitable purpose.

Fahy said the Hershey concert could break records for attendance at the stadium. The concert’s been sold out for three weeks.

She said that though the organization has evolved over time to focus more on promoting locally grown food and trying to educate people on where their food comes from, its overall mission is still helping farmers working in the field.

“The organization has gone through a real transition form a crisis reaction to standing up and saying there is a movement and we are making progress, while realizing there is a still a lot of work to do,” she said. “Family farmers have a long way to go. We are celebrating on Saturday, but we are calling attention to the issues that still exist.”

PASA gets about $5,000 in grants from Farm Aid each year.

Althought the money it receives from Farm Aid isn’t much, Snyder hopes the organization’s purpose of promoting farming through drawing as many people as it can to its annual concert will at least start a conversation with people who might be unaware of what farming is and where their food comes from.

“Wherever they go, they really are representing a minority in terms of farming, there is nothing unusual about that. They are often in urban areas and this is one that is more unusual. But it’s not all about you have to farm this way or that way. It’s all about everybody needs to care about farms,” he said.

Andy Batdorf, who farms 250 acres and milks 50 cows organically just outside McVeytown, Pa., said he hopes to promote organic farming at the concert. He attended last year’s concert and stood on stage with Willie Nelson to receive an award from Horizon Organic.

Batdorf will receive the same award this year and hopes to get on stage again.

“Ultimately, it’s about promoting organic. Organic is more than just no chemicals, no pesticide. It’s kind of a way of life,” Batdorf said. “Along with that is conservation work. It’s just kind of a whole package. When it rains, my water is clean coming off my farm.”

Sara Runkel, director of the independent nonprofit Seed Farm in Lehigh County, an organization that trains perspective new farmers, said she and three farmer apprentices will be at the concert armed with hand tools and equipment videos, all with the purpose of showing people the kinds of tools they need to run a farm.

“We’re hoping to get the word out about the Seed Farm and the work we are doing to train new farmers and get farmers started in the Lehigh Valley,” Runkel said.

The Lancaster Farmland Trust will also be at the event, promoting Lancaster County agriculture, in particular how Plain Sect farmers live and work.

Karen Dickerson, director of communications and marketing at Lancaster Farmland Trust, said there will be an authentic Amish buggy on display along with an old-fashioned ice cream churner and information on farming and farmland preservation.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to educate the broader community about traditional farming methods in Lancaster County,” she said.

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