Harmony at Farm Aid: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Pittsburgh farms band together




Farming has never been an easy profession, but it was particularly rough during the great farm crisis of the 1980s.

Soaring interest rates coupled with low prices and growing debt led to the dislocation of thousands of farmers moving off land that they had worked for generations. The crisis left an especially deep mark on the Midwest where not only farmers faced financial ruin but also the communities that had built up around them. 

In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms across the United States. In 1985, only about a third — 2.2 million — remained.

To raise awareness about the loss of family farms along with dollars to keep farm families on the land, musicians Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young that year organized an all-day concert in Champaign, Ill. It proved so successful, Farm Aid is now an annual event. 

In the years since, the nonprofit has raised more than $50 million, most of which has gone straight back to farmers in the form of counseling, relief aid and assistance for those in need of legal help and job placements. Farm Aid also runs a farmer hotline (1-800-FARM-AID and farmhelp@farmaid.org) and gives grants to farm and rural service organizations through the Farmer Resource Network, which has more than 750 family farm organizations across the country and advises them on a variety of issues.

Western Pennsylvania will play host to the annual concert for the second time since 2002 — the sold-out festival takes place Saturday at KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown. 

The state still has a strong family farm network, with a “very interesting and dynamic” supply of farms, says Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder. It has managed to avoid the vast depopulations of rural areas that the Midwest suffered. Home to about 57,000 farms, Pennsylvania’s leading economic enterprise is agriculture, and production agriculture and agribusiness contribute nearly $75 billion each year to the state’s economy. 

Unlike states that rely on commodity crops such as soybeans and corn, Pennsylvania is fairly well positioned when it comes to addressing the risks inherent with agriculture, says Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture executive director, Hannah Smith-Brubaker.

That’s because the state has the highest number of direct sales farms, or farms that sell directly to restaurants and consumers through farm stands, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture or CSAs. 

In addition, Pennsylvania has younger farmers (age 25 to 45) making a living off the land, along with a growing number of women and veteran farmers. Organic farming also is increasingly popular, with an expanding number of third- and fourth-generation organic farms still in business. 

More than anything else, says Ms. Smith-Brubaker, Farm Aid is important because it reminds people of who grows their food. “People are so removed, and as a culture we don’t really value food,” she says, or understand the actual cost of producing it. 

Here are three local farms that provide Pittsburghers sustainably produced fruits, vegetables and herbs —  two of which that will help feed festivalgoers’ on Saturday. Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem will supply local vendors with produce that will be made into juice for the concert’s Homegrown Concessions stand. And Bitter Ends Garden will be among the local  vendors providing festivalgoers with family farm-identified, local and organic foods. Co-owner Becca Hegarty says they’ll be dishing up beet sandwiches, homemade bars, caramel apples and “peach jam things.”

CHURCHVIEW FARM, Baldwin Borough

Tara Rockacy considers herself an “accidental” farmer.

While she grew up on her Hungarian grandparents’ 13-acre homestead farm in Baldwin Borough, and inherited their love for growing food and raising animals, she never considered a career in agriculture; her passion as a young adult was for reading and writing, not soil.

After earning a degree in narrative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh, she got a job with Carnegie Library as an audio-visual procurer. She only gardened as a hobby, growing tomatoes and other veggies in containers and her Squirrel Hill frontyard.

After Grandma Hilda died in 2007, Ms. Rockacy ended up buying the hilltop farm from her family.

It turned out she had not just a green thumb but an emerald one: In the year that followed, she grew more produce than she could eat or preserve — so much that she even had trouble giving it all away. “One day my friend Jen asked for basil, and I gave her a trashbag full,” she recalls.

That sparked an idea among friends: why not start a community-supported agriculture program?

She did in 2009, with 17 subscribers. By 2014, the suburban farm surrounded on three sides by woods was doing well enough that she quit her job at the library and became a 24/7 farmer. 

In addition to tearing down and rehabbing the farm’s old buildings, she’s hauled in tons of compost to nourish the soil and planted countless cover crops, berries, fruit trees and other perennials. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, she and ex-partner Kate Romane of Black Radish also constructed an outdoor dining space for Churchview’s farm dinner series and educational programming, along with a handsome greenhouse that allows her to start all seedlings on site. She has been mentored in this effort by Barb Kline of Mildreds’ Daughters Urban Farm

On slightly less than six acres, she grows more than 260 crops without chemicals, pesticides or herbicides, along with bushels of herbs. Last week, she harvested around 800 pounds of tomatoes. She sells wholesale to restaurants. Everything is started from seed, and production is very much a community effort, with volunteers, graduate student interns, family (her parents, Bill and Marjean Rockacy, still live next door) and friends playing an integral role in production.

“This is harder work than  you can imagine,” she says. “But there’s also joy and satisfaction.”

BITTER ENDS GARDEN, Verona

Becca Hegarty and Jason Oddo are not your typical  farmers.

For one thing, the organic produce they sell on Saturdays at the Bloomfield Farmers Market is grown on just a quarter acre. For another, their focus is not so much on productivity as growing vegetables that are beautiful, even if they take a little more patience and require an acquired taste.

Among the specialty vegetables are leafy chicory and peppery radishes, along with French fingerling potatoes, a hard-to-find tuber with rose-red skin and a deep yellow flesh. And crisp, buttery lettuces. Lots and lots of lettuce.

“We probably grow 10 or 12 different varieties,” Ms. Hegarty says.

Raised in Lancaster, Ms. Hegarty was one of Pittsburgh’s emerging chefs when she decided to partner with Mr. Oddo, a former art student-turned-farmer who grew up in Irwin. Nominated as a Rising Star Chef of the Year for the 27th annual James Beard Foundation Awards in February, she also was named one of 60 semifinalists in Zagat's national “30 Under 30” program.

Mr. Oddo grew tomatoes as a kid, and after briefly studying visual arts at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he decided to turn his hobby into a profession. Stints at Knotweed Urban Farm in Stanton Heights and Kretschman Organic Farm near Zelienople led to him “accidentally” finding a job with Who Cooks For You Farm, while  foraging for autumn olive berries.

During the two years he worked there, “I developed ideas about what to grow and how I wanted to grow it,” he says. When the property in Verona became available for lease, he seized the opportunity.

Ms. Hegarty did, too, in May. She left her job as chef de cuisine at The Cafe Carnegie at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland to join Mr. Oddo in starting the Bitter Ends Garden Project, an urban farm focusing on open-pollinated heirloom vegetables. 

They chose to call the property a garden rather than a farm, Mr. Oddo says, because they’re producing food while creating a space “that has value in itself.” Part of the challenge is figuring out what crops will have a high yield on a small amount of land. But even tiny farms, if they’re efficient and managed well, can be extremely productive, he says.

The pair also do pop-ups across the city and hope to open a sandwich shop in Bloomfield later this fall.

Although it’s the inaugural year for Bitter Ends Garden, Ms Hegarty says it is going better than expected despite a lack of infrastructure and an abundance of groundhogs and deer. In fact, they’ll be making beet sandwiches for the masses at Farm Aid, and will provide produce for juicing.

“There wouldn’t be restaurants without farms,” she says. 

WHO COOKS FOR YOU FARM, New Bethlehem

Even before they first set eyes on each other almost a decade ago, Aeros Lillstrom and Chris Brittenburg were soulmates: both were most comfortable with their hands deep in the soil. After a short career as an installation artist after college, Ms. Lillstrom worked on organic and biodynamic farms in California and Europe before moving back to Pennsylvania to do freelance landscaping; Mr. Brittenburg decided to pursue agriculture after learning to grow crops on organic farms in eastern Pennsylvania, where he’d grown up and gone to college to study biology.

They’d fall in love after meeting at a conference for sustainable agriculture in State College in 2008. Almost immediately, they decided to start a farm together. 

As luck would have it, the one-and-a-half-acre farm in rural New Bethlehem where Ms. Lillstrom’s family once grazed sheep was ripe for the picking. The soil would take some work to make it conducive to vegetable production, but the couple had plenty of know-how, and even more passion. In 2009, they opened Who Cooks For You Farm as a community-supported agriculture program and farmstand offering organically grown produce. 

As demand for their pesticide- and herbicide-free veggies steadily grew to include attendance at three farmers markets and wholesale sales to 30 area restaurants and the East End Food Co-op, so too did their production acreage on neighboring farms and the number of crops they grow. They now grow 50-plus different vegetables and hundreds of varieties — everything from arugula and beets to watermelon and zucchini.

“It’s thrilling to see what can come out of the land,” Ms. Lillstrom says, “and how we can expand our reach to the community.”

This is the couple’s first season at a new, much larger farm just over the hill from where they started. Sixty of the property’s 130 acres are tillable with active or cover crops, so this year they were able to add corn and beans to their inventory.

“A lot of people romanticize farming, but don’t fool yourself. It’s to the wall,” Mr. Brittenburg said.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.





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