When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Farm Aid

photo by Leslie Hatfield

Note: Barn Aid has been postponed. Please visit the websitefor current updates, and we will post the new event date here as soon as it is rescheduled.

In 1985, when Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp formed Farm Aid, they did it out of a deep love and respect for not only the family farms they valued so highly, but also for the communities they knew would rally behind them. Their goal was to bring relief to the small farms they saw suffering and to protest the industrial farming practices that threatened them. They brought their musical talents and fame to the fight, organizing an annual concert, held each year in a different American city. This year, the benefit will celebrate its 25th anniversary on October 2nd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Since 1985, the number of factory farms continues to increase and industry consolidation continues to push small farms out of the market at a staggering rate. Between 1910 and 2010 the number of farms in the U.S. has decreased by approximately 4 million. Over the years, agriculture and trade policies have catered overwhelmingly to large corporations, driving down the price of commodities and increasing the debt of small farmers. In the face of adversity, however, the local farmer has always been able to rely on community—and Farm Aid and other fundraisers have been there to facilitate that support. Since its beginning, Farm Aid has donated eighty-one cents out of every dollar it has spent towards assisting family farms, amounting to an impressive $37 million. The organization uses this money to promote family farms through consumer education campaigns and media outlets, to expand the good food movement and to encourage change in the system through grants, programs and research.

The same spirit behind Farm Aid has encouraged many communities to form farm-friendly fundraisers of their own. One such event is Barn Aid, an event aimed at raising money to pay the legal bills of Springfield Farm in Sparks, Maryland. Springfield Farm has been in a zoning battle with their neighbors for nearly four years. In November 2006, farm owners David and Lilly Smith decided to replace their basement farm store with a new “bank” barn for their retail operations on the site where an old barn, built by David’s Great-Great-Grandfather, had existed for over 100 years. Their plan was to build the new barn using “post and beam” construction, making it as close to the original as possible.  They followed all the required steps under government regulations, including applying for a Use Permit to operate a Farmers Roadside Stand and posting a notice. Several of their neighbors requested a hearing, which turned into a series of hearings that went on for 12 months. Despite unfounded complaints that the barn would be an eyesore and confused concerns over the zoning definition, Baltimore Zoning Commissioner William Wiseman approved David and Lilly’s request, but the neighbors filed an appeal.  Two years of hearings later, the Board of Appeals will render their decision on September 28th. While the Smiths are optimistic about the Board’s decision, they've been saddled with an oppressive $100,000 in legal fees.

Springfield Farm is a staple in their Maryland community. The farm has been in David Smith’s family for 17 generations, and today three generations live and work on its sprawling 67 acres. The farm went commercial in 1999 by providing goods to the Golden West Cafe and in under a decade, the Smiths became pioneers of the farm-to-table movement. They formed Local Food Connections, a network of over 40 farms, hosting sustainably-conscious shoppers from all over the state each week and running a very popular CSA. David, former president of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), now supplies food to over 35 restaurants in Baltimore and Annapolis, plus farmers markets and institutions such as Whole Foods and Goucher College.

When Samantha Juengel of Golden West Café heard that David and his family was struggling, she knew she had to support the man who had done so much to support her local food system and educate her community about sustainable food. With the help of other restaurant owners and musicians, Samantha organized Barn Aid. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Sunday, September 19th at Springfield Farm in Sparks. The day includes musicians playing on two stages, tours of the farm, local beer and wine, as well as food prepared by Baltimore chefs including Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen; Gino Troia of Grano; and Tom Campbell and Jackie Butterfield of Patchwork Catering.

Visit the Barn Aidwebsite to learn more about Springfield Farm and what you can do to help. If you can’t make it to the Farm Aid Concert in Milwaukee, you can still support the cause through their organization by donating or volunteering through their website.

The family farm may not have the support of large corporations, but as long as communities continue to rally around them – and have a good time in the process – there’s hope for the future of family farms.

Other communities have come together to join in Farm Aid’s footsteps, too. There are a slew of Barn Aids around the country (Eden’s Community Gardens, Bubbling Springs Farm) and many more that have held similar events. Please write to us and let us know of any other farm-friendly fundraisers!