Hartford Courant: As Farm Aid Comes To Hartford, John Knows There's Still Work To Do

Connecticut farmers are facing a multitude of difficulties. They are losing their land to housing and solar plant developments and milk prices are low. Not to mention, the fluctuating federal trade agreements and international competition. Though these problems can't all be solved with a music festival, John Mellencamp, along with Willie Nelson, Neil Young and others, are helping the cause by raising awareness and monetary donations.

John Mellencamp, one of the three founding members of the long-running Farm Aid charity concert series, says he doesn’t think he or Willie Nelson or Neil Young really understood in 1985 how tough it would be to help small farmers.

“I think… we are proud and surprised and happy to be coming to Connecticut 33 years later,” Mellencamp said in a telephone interview this week in advance of Saturday’s Hartford concert. “But we’re not proud of the fact that this problem is ongoing.”

Mellencamp says small farmers in the U.S. are no better off now than they were when Farm Aid began, and that he is worried about the potential impact trade wars will have on farming as a result of President Donald Trump’s new tariff policy. “Who knows how crazy this thing could get?” Mellencamp said.

Everything You Need To Know About Going To Farm Aid, Including How To Get A Ticket“I’ve seen times when things seemed to be going their way a little better,” he said. “But with this current administration, I don’t see anybody really on their side here.”

The difficulties facing Connecticut’s dwindling agricultural community include everything from extremely low milk prices that are driving out dairy farmers, high costs of feed and transportation, loss of prime cropland to housing and solar developments, inadequate federal funding, shifting federal policies and international competition.

This state’s small farmers are not suffering alone. Net farm income across the U.S. is expected to be 53 percent lower than it was just five years ago, according to Farm Aid officials. A 2016 federal study found that people working in farming, fishing and forestry have the highest risk for suicide of any occupational group.

“You have to remember that, when this thing started, we basically were all kids, and I don’t think we had a full understanding of what was going on,” the 66-year-old Mellencamp said. “But as time goes on and we’ve become more mature, we see this problem is not going to go away.”

Connecticut, however, does have some good news when it comes to farming, Mellencamp said, which is one of the reasons Farm Aid decided to come to the state for the first time.

The number of Connecticut farms increased by about 20 percent between 2007 and 2015, according to federal census figures, raising the number to close to 6,000 farms. Most of those are small farms, often only a few acres, growing vegetables or raising goats or sheep for milk and cheese.

“It’s one of the bright spots of the East Coast,” Mellencamp said of Connecticut’s rising number of small farmers.

Organizers of the concert at Hartford’s Xfinity Theatre say they hope the charity event will raise $1.5 million to provide aid, education and lobbying efforts for small farmers in Connecticut and across the U.S.

The event will not only include performances by Mellencamp, Nelson and Young, but also appearances by Dave Mathews and Chris Stapleton along with a slew of other performers and groups. Tickets sold out within four hours of going on sale, according to Farm Aid officials.

Several Connecticut farmers and different types of farm operations will also be featured in videos at the event detailing the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture in this small, highly urbanized state.

One of those featured farmers is William Dellacamera, who is co-owner of 130-acre Cecarelli Farms in North Branford. Dellacamera is a huge fan of both the founders of Farm Aid and the work the charity organization is doing.

“I think it helps farming everywhere,” Dellacamera said when asked what the Farm Aid concert would do for farmers in this state. “People ask me what I’m getting out of it,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m getting anything from it. But it’s not just what’s good for me, it’s what’s good for everybody.”

Money raised by the concert and related fundraising efforts – which are expected to bring in an additional $500,000 – can’t be handed out directly to farmers in financial trouble, according to Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s communications director.

As a nonprofit charity, Farm Aid isn’t allowed to give money to a for-profit farming business. But the group does provide farmers aid for household expenses, in disaster situations, and grants for farmer education and conferences, Fahy said.

“If you look at any charity, there isn’t a placebo that solves the problem immediately,” Mellencamp said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

“Farm Aid approaches a lot of different farming problems and has from the beginning,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer said. “The idea that we can solve all farming problems, we all understand is not a doable task.”

The Connecticut farming stories Saturday’s Farm Aid event will feature include both the sad side of small family farms that haven’t survived and some indications that offer hope for the future.

More Than 200 Animals Sold As Farm Family Tradition Ends With An Auction, And TearsIn June, Durham’s Greenbacker family sold almost all of its herd of 300 milk cows, ending generations of dairy farming. Joe and David Greenbacker, both in their late 60s, felt they could no longer go on losing money every day. Years of rock-bottom milk prices and soaring production costs finally forced their hands.

One of the good-news videos to be featured at the concert was shot in Hartford and is a look at the 26 community gardens and urban farms that the nonprofit group KNOX Inc. has helped start in Connecticut’s capital in recent years.

Those urban farms and gardens are now producing 200 tons of fresh produce every year, said Ron Pitz, executive director for KNOX Inc.

Pitz said he was surprised but delighted when he heard Farm Aid was coming to highly urbanized Connecticut and to a central city like Hartford. “I can’t wait – I’m really excited,” he said of the prospect of seeing some of his musical heroes at a concert dedicated to helping small farmers.

“They appeal to a wide assortment of people,” Pitz said, including younger people who probably don’t think a lot about agriculture.

“I think we’ve lost our connection to where our food comes from,” Pitz said. “Farm Aid does a good job bringing awareness of that.”

Kristin Orr, whose family’s Fort Hill Farm in the northeastern town of Thompson is another of the Connecticut farms filmed for the concert videos, is hoping Farm Aid will help people understand what farmers are all about.

Orr said the family has been able to keep operating their 500-cow dairy operation only by diversifying into things like growing lavender, producing and selling ice cream and offering a corn maze.

“This is our life, it’s not just a job,” she said of the farm that’s been in her family now for four generations.

Mellencamp doesn’t need anyone to explain how farmers feel. “I grew up in a farming community,” he said. “I would say of all the people involved [in Farm Aid], I’ve lived the farming life.”

“I live in Indiana, my brother-in-law is a hog farmer… and I live in the middle of a corn field,” he said with a laugh. “Farming is not a 9-5 job. It’s a life, it’s a lifestyle. It’s very important that we just don’t allow the huge corporations to take over and become our food source,” he said.

Mellencamp said his continuing participation in Farm Aid is all about helping small family farmers survive in an era when “everything is changing all the time.”