Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Season of Giving: Reflections on Farm Aid's 2009 Grant Season

AliciaAmong my responsibilities here at Farm Aid is managing our grant program—one piece of the work we do to keep family farmers on the land, producing good food for all.

Much of the money we raise from our annual concert, held this year in St Louis, Missouri, is distributed through our grants program to family farm and rural service organizations throughout the country.

To manage this program is a bit daunting. Each year, an increasing number of applications flood our mailbox, all from worthy organizations that share our commitment to keeping family farms thriving. If maintaining communication with close to 150 applicants wasn’t hard enough, shepherding our enthusiastic grant review committee here at Farm Aid through days of discussions, budget sheets, project workplans, and endless spreadsheets in order to make final granting decisions was no easy task. The following were just a few of the things going through my mind as we sat around our conference table with stacks of files before us:
  • So many emails!
  • So many competing priorities!
  • So few funds and so much need!
  • So much good work going on out there!
  • So many delicious snacks to restrain myself from eating...
Add to the mix the extra responsibility we had this year of addressing the extreme financial pressures facing so many family farmers, as well as the unprecedented policy opportunities at both the federal and state levels to make some solid changes in food and farm policy, and you can see what a difficult ship it can be to steer.

Reflecting on the process I can say the following: I am thoroughly impressed with the incredible work going on in this country and feel an increasing commitment to family farmers. All of the dedicated work that goes into our grant review process here at the Farm Aid office pales in comparison to the collective efforts of our applicants.

And I have to say: the sweat and turmoil from the process was more than compensated for when I received the picture below in my email inbox. What a great sense of completion to see the boss sign those checks!

Thanks to all who applied. While I am so excited to announce our fantastic list of grantees, I am equally humbled by the group of applicants we were not able to fund this year. Please read more about our list of grantees and our 2009 grant program by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Help Speck Mellencamp Reach His Goal

JenSpeck Mellencamp, the 14-year-old son of Farm Aid founder John Mellencamp, has started a campaign to make his dad healthier. John eats farm fresh food and he exercises, but he smokes too—and not just on the Farm Aid stage. In order to pressure his dad to quit, Speck has started a facebook group called "1,000,000 to join, my dad John Mellencamp will quit smoking." In the past couple weeks, more than 230,000 people have joined and John has already cut back on his smoking.

Join the group and help Speck reach his goal and make sure that Farm Aid has a healthy Mellencamp on our Board of Directors for years to come!

To hear more about Speck's strategy, check out his interview on NPR's Weekend Edition.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Gifts that Support Family Farmers

ChristinaStill trying to figure out what to give family and friends? Still want to help out family farmers this holiday season? Then check out the options below for where to find great holiday gift ideas that not only will have your friends wondering where you got them, but will also help family farmers have a joyous end of year.

Many communities—including for the first time this year, Boston, where Farm Aid is headquartered—have holiday markets offering farm-fresh produce, locally made treats, and handmade gifts. If you're a fellow Bostonian, head down to Summer Street but instead of hitting all of the brand name stores, visit the first annual Downtown Crossing Holiday Market. The market, which is running until December 24th, not only features crafts such as jewelry and ornaments, it also has local winter vegetables, wonderful fresh baked breads, local cider for mulling and locally grown flowers.

Not in the Boston area? Here are some other great winter and holiday markets to check out. If you know others, please let us know in the comments.Trying to find that perfect ham to grace the table for your holiday festivities? Well hurry and order your sustainably-raised ham from Patchwork Family Farms in Missouri by December 14th to ensure delivery. Patchwork is a cooperative of family farmers who believe in raising quality meat in a sustainable and humane way. The animals are given no growth hormones, are not continually fed antibiotics, and enjoy sunshine and fresh air.

Trying to find the perfect gift for your boss, your child's teacher or a little holiday treat for yourself? Family Farm Defenders have the perfect treat for you. Their fair trade and rBGH-free cheese not only supports 34 family farmers in Wisconsin, it is also tasty. They also offer many flavors of organic cheese.

More of a do-it-yourself type than one to buy Christmas gifts? Click on over to and check out the latest blog on making cutting boards, handing over seeds and a garden plan, or even buying a CSA share to give the gift of fresh and delicious food while helping out a local farmer.

And don't forget about the great things available right here on the Farm Aid website. T-shirts, hats and even tree ornaments are the perfect gifts for those who love the music and the cause. This Sunday, December 13, is the last day to order to guarantee delivery by Christmas.

Monday, December 07, 2009

USDA Issues New Regulations Protecting Contract Farmers

JenThe USDA released regulations (PDF link) this week that will provide new, much-needed protections for contract poultry farmers.

Contract farming generally refers to a system in which a farmer raises or grows an agricultural product for a larger company. Contract poultry farmers invest their own money to build poultry barns to company specifications. Under contract, a company delivers the chicks to the grower who uses company feed and medicine to raise the chicks. The company retains ownership of the birds and dictates how the chicks are to be raised. The grown birds then go back to be processed by the poultry company for a previously agreed-upon price based on the birds' weight.

A typical chicken house costs about $300,000 to build, and most companies encourage growers to build at least four houses, for an investment in excess of $1 million. Frequently, growers take out loans covering that entire expense, only to find themselves dropped by the company, often with little or no notice. While there exists the potential for fair contracts in this agricultural system, that has not been the case historically. Contract growers have typically been extremely vulnerable, the contracts tilted against the grower who is subject to the whims of the poultry company. These new regulations issued by the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration will help change that system.

Under the new rules:
  • Companies must provide farmers with a written copy of the contract before the farmer makes an initial investment in his or her poultry houses;
  • Contracts with confidentiality clauses must allow farmers to discuss contract offers with federal or state agencies, immediate family members, business associates, farmers who contract with the same company, accounting services hired by the farmer, a lawyer or financial advisor before signing;
  • Contracts must state that if a farmer is put on a performance improvement plan (in other words, if they've received a warning that could potentially lead to their contract being terminated), they must be told why, what steps will be taken to help them improve, how they can regain good standing, and the factors that will be used to determine when or if the contract will be terminated;
  • Farmers must be notified in writing within 90 days before a contract is terminated, expired, not renewed or not replaced.
"I'm glad that USDA is taking action to protect growers," said Kevin Hux, a farmer in El Dorado, Arkansas, who raised chickens for Pilgrim's Pride until April, when the company closed its El Dorado processing plant and terminated 170 growers.

"When the company terminated my contract, the company representative left a message on my answering machine saying that the flock of chickens that we had would be our last," Kevin said. "We had no warning. No one should be in that situation."

Mickey Box, a farmer in Berryville, Arkansas, agreed. "Growers have been left in the dark," Mickey said. "When I was put on a performance improvement plan, I knew I could lose my contract. It would have helped to know how I could get back in good standing."

Becky Ceartas, director of the contract agriculture reform program at Farm Aid-funded group Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI), said these rules increase fairness, transparency and good business practices.

"Before farmers make the financial commitment to build poultry facilities on their farms, they need to know exactly what's expected and what the terms of that arrangement will be," said Ceartas. "An informed farmer can make better decisions, and that benefits everyone."

Farmers and concerned consumers can get more information about these rules by calling Ceartas at (919) 542-1396 x209 or by visiting

The Administration will release additional proposed regulations in early 2010 that will deal with other competition and fairness issues in poultry and livestock agriculture—stay tuned!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dairy Farmers Travel to D.C. With Urgent Call for Congress, USDA

ChristinaWhile the dairy crisis has been overshadowed in the media by other news, the problem facing dairy farmers has not gone away. In fact, as they get ready to enter 2010, dairy farmers are carrying tremendous debt loads from a year that has been the worst since the Great Depression. The nation's 60,000 dairy farmers struggle to survive another month on prices that do not even cover their costs. And forecasts for 2010—while a bit better—still do not show farmers turning a profit. In essence, dairy farmers are paying to go to work everyday, instead of being paid for their hard work and dedication.

Yesterday in Washington, D.C. more than 100 dairy farmers from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee met with congressional and USDA representatives to present solutions and urge immediate action. They also held a press conference—with only one reporter in attendance to cover their story. To read Farm Aid's press release, click here.

The farmers had traveled overnight by bus to ask Congress to restore fairness in the dairy pricing system, enforce anti-trust laws and ensure that dairy farmers receive a fair price for their product. As Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid's executive director explains, "Dairy farmers don't want a bailout." They are proud, hardworking people, who put in the time and the effort, and they just want their fair shake at making a living.

So now you're wondering why only 100 dairy farmers showed up if this is such a pressing issue? While they are losing money everyday, many farmers were supportive of this day of action but couldn't afford to take a trip to D.C., which means not only paying for transportation, but also hiring someone to come and milk the cows for the time they are gone.

For the farmers who could not make it to D.C., there is a part two to this action: those farmers will meet with their representatives in their home districts once Congress adjourns later this month. To get active and do your part for dairy farmers and a safe, US milk supply, check out this Ask Hilde article on activism.

Farm Aid has been working for dairy farmers in crisis since the start of 2009 and has met with Secretary Vilsack to pass on 13,000 signatures calling for the USDA to establish a floor price that covers farmers' production costs. While we're still waiting for that, we're also waiting on the emergency funds Congress authorized in the 2010 Agriculture Appropriations Bill in October that will put a small amount (probably about equal to one month of a small farmer's loss over the last year) in the pockets of dairy farmers. While the USDA promised to distribute those funds as soon as possible, dairy farmers are still waiting. This emergency money is merely a stop-gap measure and not the total solution dairy farmers need, but regardless Secretary Vilsack needs to quickly distribute the emergency assistance aid so that we can stop losing dairy farmers and start correcting the system.