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Fertile Grounds, Friendly Songs

In its 28th year, the Farm Aid agricultural benefit concert arrives at SPAC to tell the story of upstate family farmers

by Ali Hibbs on September 18, 2013


“This year, at this point, we don’t need anything,” says Justine Denison with more than a little relief in her voice. She, her husband Brian and two daughters have been farming 16 acres in Schaghticoke since 2005 as an organic farm and CSA. She’s grateful because she’s endured worse in recent years and seen plenty of farmers require agricultural aid. “We lost about 30 percent of our business with [hurricane] Irene,” she says. “It was quite traumatic here. Really reshaped the landscape.”

The sentiment is common among upstate New York farmers, who have suffered a couple of seasons of erratic weather, as well as formidable challenges in the marketplace. And on some level, this seemingly uphill battle to produce a commodity as basic and necessary as food is common to all American farmers—and has been for some time. The first Farm Aid benefit concert was held in 1985 in Champaign, Ill., and raised $9 million to help family farmers struggling to save their land from foreclosure. Thanks to the efforts of founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 followed shortly thereafter.

“[Nelson] had no idea it would be an effort that would require such an ongoing sweep,” says Glenda Yoder, a representative for the annual benefit concert, scheduled for Saturday (Sept. 21) at SPAC. For 28 years, Nelson and company have toured the event around the country in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the family farmer, stressing natural-disaster relief, fair price issues and land rights, and targeting their message to the needs of the community to which they bring the show. “It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times,” Yoder says of both the major advances American agriculture has made in that time, as well as the ongoing setbacks.

The Denisons’ experience working the land has touched on both. For 17 years, the couple farmed 110 acres in Maine in a conventional wholesale manner. “We all became quite ill, but Brian became the most ill,” she says of her husband, who did the work of spraying crops with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “We made a vow to buy our own farm and become a small retail organic farm.” That’s when they moved to Schaghticoke, where they took the reigns of one of the oldest running community supported agriculture farms in New York. Now they grow for 500 members, sell retail at the Saratoga and Troy farmers markets and wholesale to the Honest Weight Food Coop and Healthy Living markets.

Yoder highlights the trend: “We have an incredible resurgence of fresh and local food, with farmers markets, grocery stores including local food and the growth of organic. We’re for all that. Farm Aid has been an enormous instigator in shifting things in that direction.” But the work is far from over. “We’re seeing some farmers really struggling. Dairy is in constant struggle, particularly with the federal pricing policy. It’s an issue that’s front of mind for us.”

In this way, little has changed since the mid ’80s when, as Yoder says, Nelson started picking up on these struggles as he crisscrossed the country, stopping in at truck stops to talk with farmers. Having grown up picking cotton in Texas, he’s admitted that “playing the guitar is a hell of a lot easier” than working the land, and has remained committed to doing what he can to help. Although the concert has become a once-a-year occasion, Farm Aid remains active year-round, offering a variety of services. The organization’s legal status prevents it from making direct grants and donations to for-profit farms, so much of the financial aid goes toward farming organizations that work on target issues. Family farmers can use the organization’s Farmer Resource Network to find the aid they need and can call the 1-800-FARMAID hotline for disaster assitance and crisis support.

The Denisons recently were granted a conservation easement for the land on which they farm, meaning that the land will never be developed for another purpose. This was facilitated by the Agricultural Stewardship Association in Greenwich, a partner organization with Farm Aid. Part of Denison Farm’s involvement with Farm Aid this year will be to represent the ASA at the organization’s table in order to tell their story.

“We want to tell the story of local farmers, and concert day is becoming an opportunity to do so,” says Yoder. Beyond the concert itself, Farm Aid is hosting tours of area farms the day before the event (Friday) and offering many local growers a chance to display their wares in the SPAC concessions area. The venue worked with Aramark foods to source all of the concessions, front-of-house and back-of-house catering according to strict criteria stressing local, organic and non-GMO. In addition to the standard crop of burgers, fries, pizza and popcorn, there will be a Homegrown Youth Market, run by Grow NYC, selling fresh produce and cider donuts, and special subvendors like Sarchioto’s (featuring local maple syrup cotton candy) and Esperanto (featuring veggie burritos and garden wraps).

“Esperanto will be there sourcing all of their produce from us,” Denison says. “That gives me tremendous pleasure. I love it when chefs use our stuff.” There is, however, one additional way Denison would like to take part in Saturday’s event. “I would love if they would ask me to sing harmony with Willie Nelson on ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ I’m not sure why they haven’t offered.”

Farm Aid comes to SPAC (Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs) on Saturday (Sept. 21) at noon. Tickets are sold out, but you can listen in to Willie Nelson’s SiriusXM channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, at 2 PM. Performers include Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Amos Lee, Jack Johnson and Toad the Wet Sprocket. For more information on the show and Farm Aid programs, visit farmaid.org.