Friday, November 26, 2010

Native American Discrimination Settlement

JoelAs we celebrate Thanksgiving, now is an appropriate time to highlight the recent $760 million settlement in the class action lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, which claimed the USDA discriminated against Native Americans who tried to get farm loans or loan servicing in the period between January 1, 1981 and November 24, 1999.

As with many class action lawsuits, especially those affecting rural populations, those who may qualify for compensation may not know that a settlement has finally been reached, or even that the lawsuit has been in progress for years. A notification program using Native American media, mainstream radio and internet will occur over the next couple of months. Thereafter, once the Court grants final approval to the Settlement, meetings will be set up across the country to help people file claims.

You can give new meaning to your own Thanksgiving this year by helping to notify Native American farmers and ranchers who may be eligible for a claim. To learn more, please visit or call toll-free at 1-888-233-5506. Or simply call or email the Farm Aid hotline at 1-800-FARM-AID or and we’ll share the relevant info and put you in touch with help.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don’t forget the Lame Duck this Turkey Day! (Updates on Food Safety and Child Nutrition Legislation)

HildeAs we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, there is much to be thankful for. At the top of our list here at Farm Aid, and we hope yours too: America’s hardworking family farmers who care for our land and bring good food to our tables every day of the year.

While there are many ways we can honor family farmers this holiday season, there is one important measure that may not come immediately to mind as you busy yourself with menu planning and last minute dusting – picking up the phone and calling your Congressional Reps.

After a short recess for Thanksgiving, Congress will reconvene in D.C. for what’s called a “lame duck” session. (Not sure who came up with that name, but I’d sure like to shake their hand for adding a little levity to a tenuous time of year). The lame duck comes around after an election year as Congress prepares to say farewell to its outgoing members, but before their successors have taken office in January. This year, as you may have heard, marks a major shift in both the House and Senate. With that shift comes some urgency to get certain legislation through the door that may lose momentum or key champions with the changes in Congress. And regardless of who’s coming and going, the lame duck also represents the last chance for some bills to see the light of day. Once the new year begins, so must the process of consideration and debate, and for most bills – that means starting from scratch.

There are two legislative efforts we’ve been covering over the past year that have huge implications for family farmers--and eaters alike--and are critical to push through the finish line during the lame duck session. We need all of your added muscle to get them there!

The first is Food Safety legislation, the source of much heartburn over the past year (some deserved and some unnecessary) and so crucial for consumer health and the future of our farm and food system. This legislation is intended to enact some long overdue measures to safeguard consumers from food-borne illness. The bill seems to have the commitment of Congress to move forward; the key issue is whether it will do so with the Manager’s Amendment, which is critical to ensuring the legislation supports a diversity of farmers and production types, as well as the growing demand for local and regional markets, rather than a one-size fits all approach catered to the largest and most industrial operations. Our partners in DC, who have years of experience speaking for family farmers and sustainable agriculture organizations, have been working long and hard for the past 18 months to ensure there is decent language to prevent the bill from damaging small and diversified farms and direct markets. The bill goes to vote on Monday, November 29th, and there’s still time to call your Senators (1-877-481-9966) and let them know that it needs to pass with the Manager’s Amendment.

The second, Child Nutrition legislation, is a long overdue reauthorization of federally supported feeding programs geared toward our nation’s 31 million school children. As the obesity epidemic continues to take hold of even our youngest generations, this bill couldn’t be more timely or critical as it will improve school meals and feed even more hungry children. What we like most about the bill is that it includes new measures that would support Farm to School programs, benefiting farmers, communities and children alike, while supporting infrastructure for local and regional markets to continue to grow and strengthen. This important reauthorization has already been delayed once, and must pass in the coming days if it is to have a chance. While you’re calling your Reps about Food Safety legislation, let Congress know that passing the Child Nutrition bill with the Farm to School funding is a national priority too.

We know it can be tough trying to keep up with all the “sausage making” going on in DC these days, especially with all the corporate interests and partisan bickering muddying the waters – but the outcomes can have significant impacts on family farmers and the future of our food system for years to come. Each and every one of us has a stake in ensuring that the policies and regulations coming out of Washington support our vision for a vibrant system of family-farm agriculture in this country, and good food for all.

And once you’ve called your Congressional Reps, if you’d like to take a crack at sausage making yourself, here’s a link to a sausage-making pictorial on!

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Be thankful for good music! Farm Aid 25 replays on Sirius XM Radio this week!

JenThis Thanksgiving weekend, SIRIUS XM Willie’s Place gives “thanks” to America’s family farmers who put good food on our tables, with a special rebroadcast of the 25th annual Farm Aid concert Farm Aid 25: Growing Hope for America, held last month at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI.

This seven-hour holiday special will feature complete sets from Farm Aid board artists Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews (with Tim Reynolds) -- as well as performances from Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones, Jeff Tweedy, Band of Horses, Jason Mraz, Amos Lee, Randy Rogers and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. The broadcast also includes exclusive backstage interviews with the artists by Willie’s Place DJ Dallas Wayne.

Tune in while you enjoy the feast brought to you by America's family farmers! And tune in again with some leftovers on Sunday!

SIRIUS XM Willie’s Place (Sirius 64, XM 13)

Thanksgiving Day noon-7 pm ET
Sunday, November 28, 1-8 pm ET

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Farm Aid gets ready to grant!

JenEach year after the Farm Aid concert, we begin the process of combing through the grant applications we receive and making our recommendations to board president Willie Nelson as to which family farm, community and food organizations Farm Aid will fund.

While the program department heads up this process, many other staff members take part so that they too can learn about all the great efforts to keep family farmers on the land and thriving, expand markets for farmers and make healthy food accessible to all, and work against industrial agriculture and corporate control of farming. It's a great way to keep in touch with all the good stuff that is happening in local communities all over the country. But it's a painful process, due to the sheer number of applications we receive and the finite money that we have available to distribute to farm and food organizations all over the country.

This year, like every year, we have more requests than we'll be able to fulfill. Unlike foundations which exist solely to give away money to other organizations, Farm Aid balances our own work with the work of other organizations we'd like to support. In other words, we've got to hold back enough money to do our day-to-day work, which includes answering the 1-800-FARM-AID hotline for farmers in need, keeping up the Farmer Resource Network, bringing attention to the issues family farmers face and informing folks about the value of family farmers and why it is so important that we support them. It's a nice balance, I think, focusing attention nationally but also helping to provide the resources local and regional groups need to keep family farmers thriving.

Once we've narrowed down our recommendations we let Willie know and once he's approved the grants he'll sign the checks and we'll get them out in the mail to the groups on the ground who are helping to move the Good Food Movement forward. It's a happy coincidence that our grant season falls at the same time as Thanksgiving... reading about the hard work and creative ideas of these groups makes you thankful that there are so many good people out there working to create positive change.

For more information about Farm Aid's grant program and the work it funds, check out this column. Click here for information about applying for Farm Aid's next grant cycle.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Call your Senators Today! Ask them to ensure food safety legislation works for family farmers.

HildeDebate and voting on The Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is set to begin on the Senate floor tomorrow, November 17th. The bill takes important steps to improve corporate food safety rules but it is not appropriate for small farms and processors that sell to restaurants, food coops, groceries, schools, wholesalers and at farm stands and farmers markets.

These family farms should have food safety plans appropriate to their size and processing practices. It is critical that as we ramp up food safety protections we don’t inadvertently do harm to family farm value-added processing and the growing investments in local and regional food systems by imposing expensive, one-size-fits-all rules catered to the biggest and most industrial farms.

Two amendments will be offered when S. 510 comes to the floor and both are essential to protecting family farmers of all sizes and the local and regional food systems they serve.

Please call your Senators and ask them to:
• Vote for the Manager’s Amendment
• Vote for the Tester-Hagan Amendment

It’s easy to call: Go to and type in your zip code. Click on your Senator’s name, and then on the contact tab for their phone number.

You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Senator’s office: 202-224-3121.

The message is simple: “I am a constituent of Senator___________ and I am calling to ask him/her to vote for the Manager’s Amendment and the Tester–Hagan Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act. We need a food safety bill that cracks down on corporate bad actors without erecting new barriers to more local and regional food sourcing. Size and practice appropriate food safety regulation for small and mid-sized farms and processors is vital to economic recovery, public health, and nutritional well-being.”

Please make your calls today in order to ensure that our family farmers can continue to bring us the good food we all want!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bye-Bye Birdie: My adventure in mobile poultry processing

AliciaWarning: This could get gory.
Over the summer I visited lovely Martha’s Vineyard to tour the island’s new mobile poultry processing trailer—a project launched by the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) to increase the viability of local food production on the island.

Mobile Poultry Processing Units like IGI’s trailer are growing in popularity as local and regional food advocates hammer out the nuts and bolts of new food systems nationwide. In our increasingly industrial and consolidated food system, slaughtering and processing is one of the biggest bottlenecks for small-scale poultry producers interested in selling their goods locally. Producers often must truck or ship their animals hundreds of miles away for slaughter, and then bring the meat back for local distribution—an investment that is rarely cost-effective for small herds and a scenario that belies the promise of fewer food miles, which consumers look for when they buy local meat and poultry products.

IGI is among the innovators finding low-cost solutions to this obstacle, often after tirelessly working through state departments of agriculture and local public health officials. But it’s well worth the effort: mobile processing units decrease the prohibitive transport costs and slaughtering fees that come with the few remaining USDA-certified slaughterhouses nationwide. Producers also benefit from a more intimate view of how their animals are treated and processed after they’ve raised them. And consumers can trust that their local meat and poultry products really have traveled the fewest number of miles possible to reach their plates.

Chickens processed by IGI’s trailer can be marketed openly at farmers markets, restaurants, boarding houses and farm stands as well as directly to consumers on the island. IGI is in the process of partnering with local and state Boards of Health so farmers can sell their birds to certain retail outlets too. IGI's director Ali Berlow explains, “The purpose of the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit has always been to provide safe, clean, on-farm, fair wage, size-appropriate (scalable), affordable, humane slaughter and processing of poultry. We anticipate that with this Pilot Program in place for the season, IGI will support the humane processing of 5,000 chickens for sale this year, up from 3,000 last year.”

Having never been up-close-and-personal with animal slaughter of any kind before, I was a little nervous to embark on this adventure. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

The Chicken Crew’s slaughter man, Jefferson Munroe, showed me the ropes of their trailer (see pictures below), which started with the hens waiting in crates. Jeff was careful with each hen, holding their bodies upside down gently in one arm to calm them before slaughter (the blood-rush to their head calms them considerably and is a humane way to care for them). After he cut their throats, their bodies were drained in metal cones that could cleanly collect their blood. Once finished, he moved the hens through a hot water cycle that removed their top layer of skin. This, I was told, made plucking much easier when they are placed in the “plucker," a big metal cylinder with plastic “fingers” that rotates rapidly to remove the bulk of the chickens' feathers. Jeff then hand-plucked the straggling feathers from their bodies. The birds sat in cold water until the cutting crew, made up of Emily Palmer and Taz Armstrong, was ready to remove their feet, head and innards and finish the process. Voila! Oven-ready birds were ready and waiting.

Jeff noted the almost magical process he witnesses each time his poultry processing unit has a job: how the hens transform from being animals in a yard to meat ready for a rotisserie in a matter of minutes. It’s a process most eaters would prefer remain a mystery. But I challenge each of us to think more carefully about where our poultry (and meat, fish, veggies, fruits and all food for that matter!) comes from, and what kind of care we consider appropriate before it sits on our plate, feeds our families and fuels our bodies. In my opinion, we’d all benefit from being more familiar with how our food is produced and more supportive of local food system infrastructure, like mobile poultry processing units.

An update from Jeff:
It's always great to get the word out about what we're trying to do concerning local, affordable and humane slaughter. After your post went up, I received an email from another farmer who was concerned that the article doesn't specify that we chill birds down to 40 degrees in ice baths prior to packaging. This is a practice that we do; documentation is only required at our licensed processings, so you didn't see us checking the birds during your visit. If there's an easy way to add this in it might help avoid having other farmers think that we don't chill our birds down to 40 degrees.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Telling Willie the Story of a Farm That Survived

JenLast week I had the opportunity to meet Anita and Dave Schroeder, dairy farmers in Coal Valley, Illinois, just outside of Moline. I first came to know Anita Schroeder when she called the Farm Aid office nearly two years ago to try to get a message to Willie Nelson. Over the phone, she told me her story: She and her husband had almost lost their farm in the farm crisis of the mid-1980s, but they managed to survive and wanted to thank Willie for starting Farm Aid and speaking up for farmers when it seemed no one else would. After the first Farm Aid concert, Anita and Dave received a small grant from Farm Aid. Later, after being turned away multiple times, the Schroeders finally received the loan that would allow them to restructure their debt and save their farm. Anita wanted to tell Willie that her family had not just survived, but had put nine kids through college and they were still producing quality Grade A milk twenty-five years later. Since that initial call, Anita and I have kept in touch and I have followed Willie’s schedule in the hopes that he would eventually play close enough to the farm so that we could arrange a meeting.

Last week on November 1, the timing finally worked. I flew to Moline and drove out to the farm to meet Anita and Dave. Anita showed me the family photo albums and through those photos I met their nine successful children and their 22 wonderful grandchildren. Dave told me a bit about the farm in the kitchen and more on the two-hour drive to Joliet, where Willie would play that night. On the ride we covered a lot of ground conversationally--from the price of corn (up, but most farmers, the Schroeders included, had contracted their corn earlier in the year and were therefore not getting the top price) to politics to how difficult it is for new farmers to get up and running (one of the Schroeders’ nine kids is a farmer).

Unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to stay for Willie’s concert, since Anita and Dave had to get back to the farm to milk their herd of about 60 cows that night. So we met up with Willie before the show on his bus. As always, Willie was happy to meet with farmers, but I think meeting Anita and Dave was a real treat for him. They brought photos of their family, and Anita and Willie flipped through the pages together. They also played for him a dvd of news coverage from 1985, just before the first Farm Aid. Bob Schieffer, the CBS Evening News anchor (and a Texan like Willie), had been out to the Schroeders' farm to interview Anita and Dave about the farm crisis and whether they thought that Willie Nelson’s concert would help. The coverage showed a younger Anita and Dave, somewhat doubtful that Farm Aid would help them, but thankful that someone was speaking up for farmers. Willie was visibly excited to watch the piece, which documented what he saw all those years ago, riding the roads of this country and talking to farmers in crisis. After the segment ended, the Schroeders thanked Willie for his work, which helped make it possible for them to stay on the land for all these years.

Dave asked Willie about his upbringing in Texas and he and Willie talked about picking cotton and raising cattle. Before we knew it, it was time for Willie to get ready for his show, and for me, Anita and Dave to get back on the road so that we could milk the cows. We stopped for a quick dinner, made it back to the house for a slice of Anita’s delicious apple pie, and then went to the milking parlor. It was a late night for Anita and Dave, which they laughingly told me is not uncommon. With their large family they are often busy in the evenings and they always have work to come home to--work that cannot wait until tomorrow. Nonetheless, Dave can’t imagine doing anything else. He and Willie had talked about that... Willie has famously said he won’t retire and Dave told him he feels the same. He loves his job and doesn’t want to ever stop doing it. Anita has so many talents and interests, but she's an integral part of the operation with her husband, working with him even as they milk until midnight. They have tremendous faith and a work ethic that rivals Willie’s, which keeps him on the road and playing so many nights of the year.

I know it was a special day for Dave and Anita to meet Willie and tell their story at long last. I have a feeling it was a special day for Willie too. It certainly was for me -- to be part of this work to keep good people on the land makes me thankful to have a job, like Dave and Willie, that I love. I was truly honored and humbled to meet the Schroeders in person and I plan to keep up my friendship with them. I hope that someday I can convince them to take one night off and stay for Willie’s concert!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Let USDA know that monopoly is a kid’s game -- farmers deserve a fair shake!

HildeI think that monopoly is only fun in the form of a board game; and, even then, only really if you’re winning. Otherwise it’s a pretty long and slow demise, ending with no cash, no property, and just a pewter wheelbarrow to show for all your hard work.

In the real world, too much power in the hands of too few is no fun at all. Especially if you are on the losing side of the power equation – which is where America’s family livestock producers have been relegated for decades now.

Fortunately, for the first time in a long while (almost a century, believe it or not), the US Department of Agriculture is doing something about it. Although they’ve had a law on the books (the Packers and Stockyards Act) since the early 1920s to protect livestock producers against unfair, preferential and deceptive treatment by giant meatpackers and processors, they are just now getting around to defining some critical language that will actually give the law some teeth and practical importance when it comes to cracking down on corporate concentration and abuse. This is a mammoth step forward for the livelihoods of America’s livestock producers. It also is a pretty big deal for those of us who like the idea of local meat, rolling pastures, thriving local economies and free-roaming animals and ranchers.

It may not surprise you to learn that the giant meatpackers and processors in the drivers seat who find themselves doing just fine (thank you very much) controlling the market as they please, are not very happy about all this recent attention on fairness and transparency. Lucky for them, they have heaps of power and money on their side, which has translated into some pretty intense lobbying and spreading of misinformation to keep business operating as usual.

Which is exactly why we need each and every one of you (yes YOU!) to take a few minutes and let the USDA know that you support the proposed livestock rule released by USDA’s Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) in June 2010. Tell them that you want good quality, affordable food; that local and pasture raised meat is important to you; and that our country needs independent livestock producers on the land, producing good food on family farms, not factory farms, and keeping our communities and economies strong. Tell them family farmers deserve a fair shake, plain and simple.

This is the biggest opportunity in decades to make a difference in the lives of America's livestock producers and to ensure a future of good food. Every comment counts. Make yours now!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A New Farm Aid Staff Member Checks In!

MatthewHello readers!

Let me take a minute to introduce myself. My name is Matthew Kochka. I am the newest member of the Farm Aid team. My job is to develop and manage our Farmer Resource Network. Some of you may know that we have more than 500 resource providers that we refer hundreds of farmers to annually. We do this through our website and through our hotline, 1-800-FARMAID. My duty is to help the Network grow and to make it more accessible to farmers and resource providers.

I came to Farm Aid “straight from the fields. ” I was working on both research-based as well as community-based vegetable farms for the last 10 years. I held positions from laborer to farm manager. I have always held farmers in the highest regard because my family has been involved with farming on the same land in New Jersey for over 200 years. For the last three generations, however, my family has relied on the farm less and less for income.

Through working on community farms, I came to know many farmers and resource providers all over the country. As a research farm worker, I got to know the breadth of innovation that occurs on farms. Through living on and working with my ancestral land, I know the depth of importance that farmers have when they are working to save their family’s farm.

When I saw that there was an opportunity for me to use my knowledge and skills to expand the work of Farm Aid, I had to jump on it. I have known of Farm Aid all my life, because my family loves Willie and I grew up in a farming county of “the Garden State.” When I moved to the Boston area, I realized that Farm Aid was right down the street from my apartment and I said to my wife, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I someday got a job at Farm Aid.” Six years of farming later, here I am writing this blog at my desk in the Farm Aid offices.

Now that I am not spending most of my waking hours in the field, I spend much of my free time hunting, fishing, playing the guitar and cooking delicious, locally grown foods that are very abundant in the Boston area. And I look forward to meeting and talking to you all!

Yours in the soil,
Matthew Kochka

That's me on one of the farms I've worked at, with one of the farm interns, Rachel Corey.