Dairy farmers at FarmAid: many ways to advocate

CNM-MR-4-Farm aid 4by Lorraine H. Lewandrowski
Remembering back to Farm Aid concerts that have been held around the country, I was surprised to hear that Saratoga, NY, was selected for Farm Aid 2013. Initial public relations materials didn’t seem to mention that dairy is New York’s top agricultural product. So, a group of farm women reached out to Farm Aid staff in Cambridge, MA, offering high resolution photos of dairy farms and farmers for use during the concert. We were fortunate to have a pool of photos not only from professional ag photographers, but also from Michael Femia, a volunteer who has been traveling New York’s country roads to capture images of dairy farmers and our support people.
The Farm Aid concert was fully sold out to 25,000 ticket holders.  I was delighted to see Cabot Coop farmers who were tailgating with a red truck and signs saying “Our Farmers Thank You”.  Ruth McCuin, an Agrimark Field Rep, and Kiley Merecki of Action Acres Farm in Cambridge, NY, greeted concert goes with a big smile, giving out free cheese and Cabot stickers to other tailgaters who relaxed before heading in.
A Home Grown Village was set aside by Farm Aid for not-for-profits and organizations with a message. Concert attendees strolled through diverse displays. Young FFA members earnestly explained FFA to non-farmers. Cooperative Extension of Essex County showcased the “Adirondack Harvest” label and allowed visiting farmers to pinpoint their farms on a map. Numerous displays showed the crowds organic crops, farmland preservation, farm safety, farmer services and more. In a vendor display, Organic Valley promoted “grass milk” as “the best milk from the best pastures.” Interspersed in between traditional farmer organizations were groups such as “anti-fracking” organizations and urban organizations talking about food and agriculture and the environment. Taste of NY sponsored a tent serving NY beers, flying banners showing NY dairy, maple and produce. However, other than grilled cheese sandwich vendor, I didn’t see any milk, milkshakes, ice cream or other dairy foods sold to the public at the vendor food booths.
I spotted dairy farmers, Gretchen Maine and Robin Fitch of Herkimer County, working alongside family fishermen who had also come to tell their story. Gretchen and Robin worked the National Family Farm Coalition booth with a display showing farmer percentages of the retail dollar for eggs, milk, cereal and meat. Working side by side with the dairy farmers was another New Yorker, Nancy Romer, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Food Coalition. The fishermen’s theme of “Fishing in the Red” paralleled the farmers’ theme as fishermen explained the costs and constraints of New England and Long Island family fishermen. It was fascinating to hear the fishermen speak of selling fish into UK commodity markets for 14 cents a pound, prices they receive and their costs of boat operation. They emphasized sustainability of a family fishing fleet based upon the concepts of “Economical, Equitable and Environmental.” I was told that some 90 percent of all fish consumed by Americans is now imported. The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance offers more information at www.NamaNet.org.
Youthful enthusiasm and an “ice cream parlor” theme struck me at yet another variation on dairy at the “Milk Not Jails” display. This NYC based group promotes the idea of dairy farms for economic development of rural NY, rather than jails. This group told me that they hope to develop a NY brand milk and push for more fluid milk sales in NYC as a way of helping dairy farmers’ price, while explaining that they oppose jails in remote rural locations. Their fresh smiles, soda-fountain “Milk” hats and pink ice cream theme generated much interaction with the public.
A very tall person in a cow costume cheerfully met and greeted the public in the Home Grown Village, talking with children, entertaining by playing a drum at a Native America display and “high fiving” people thanking them “for coming out for the family farmer.” I followed him for a while, hoping to find out who he was and what organization he was with until he disappeared into the VIP tent. Later, I was astounded to learn that the “cow” was actually singer Jack Johnson who decided to meet and greet “inCowgnito” (A You Tube video captures this fun).
Settling in for the concert itself, the other farmers and I were so proud to see our submitted photos of farm scenes used as backdrops for the performers. As 25,000 people looked on, grazing cows of Dale and Laura Covert of West Winfield, NY, provided a bucolic setting on the jumbo screens onstage and scattered throughout the Performing Arts Center. Dale and Deb Windecker’s big red dairy barn in Schuyler, NY, provided another backdrop, showing the concertgoers images of the rural NY setting for this event. Farm Aid creative staff used more of our barn photos to stunning effect, lifesize enlargements, that gave the illusion of the performers standing in the barnyard of a typical Northeast farm scene. Text messages flew as we farmers realized that we, together with the Farm Aid creative people, had succeeded in our mission to bring the image of rural NY farms into vision before 25,000 visitors. A surprise appearance by 94 year old folk singer Pete Seeger brought the house down as 25,000 people sang “This Land is Your Land” before scenes of Northeast farms.
Visitors from NYC and the Mohawk Valley, spoke enthusiastically to me of Farmaid sponsored tours, including dairy farmers, Chuck and Darlene Curtiss, of Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston Spa who opened their 25 cow farm to the public. Repeatedly, people told me how they or someone in their family “knew” a farmer or had a friend of a friend who was a farmer. So many people were very curious about dairy products, wondering if fluid milk has “antibiotics and hormones” in it. It seemed that the Farm Aid concert had drawn so many consumers who showed tremendous goodwill towards farmers in general. The concert is Farm Aid’s primary fund raising effort, with a list of organizations who benefit from Farm Aid funding available online.
Trudging out in the pouring rain at midnight, I was thankful that we had all, each in our own way, put forth our best effort to promote dairy farming as an integral part of the rural Northeast at this venue. Willie Nelson summed it up best for me on Farm Aid day: “We’re here to save the family farm, but it is the family farm that will save us.”
Lorraine H. Lewandrowski is a dairy farmer and lawyer practicing in Herkimer, NY. The network of farmers who work informally to promote dairy farming for rural NY and the Northeast is NYFarmersAndFriends@gmail.com

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