COLUMBIA — Two strangers struck up more than conversation on a train bound for Champagne, Ill., more than 20 years ago.
Carolyn Mugar, newly appointed executive director of Farm Aid, and Roger Allison, the founder of a budding grassroots organization known as the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, met on a train bound for the first Farm Aid concert in September 1985. While conversing, they learned they shared similar beliefs about the direction the agricultural industry should be heading.
Their friendship led to a lasting relationship between the crisis center and Farm Aid. More than 20 years and $140,000 worth of Farm Aid grants later, the Columbia-based Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Farm Aid still share the same ideals.
“I have worked with those folks for ages, and I’m more than proud,” Mugar said.
Farm Aid granted $486,650 to 71 family farm organizations including $7,500 to Missouri Rural Crisis Center, according to Farm Aid’s Web site. Since its first concert, Farm Aid has distributed nearly $36 million to grassroots organizations, Mugar said. Willie Nelson, a Farm Aid organizer and country music performer, has highlighted issues facing rural communities and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center during his trips to Columbia.
On Oct. 4, the Farm Aid concert is stopping in Missouri for the first time and rural crisis center is helping get ready for the big event. This year's concert line-up includes: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Gretchen Wilson, Jason Mraz and more. Supporters of the crisis center are excited because not only will big-name entertainment be taking the stage, but farm policy issues and sandwiches made by the center's Patchwork Family Farms will share the limelight.
“They use the stage and an incredible array of artists to highlight the issues we care about,” Rhonda Perry, a crisis center employee, said.
At the Farm Aid concert in St. Louis on Sunday , the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and supporters plan to sell 3,000 pounds of Patchwork Family Farms pork raised by local producers.
“It really creates great opportunities for Farm Aid to highlight not only Patchwork Family Farms but also family farmers,” Perry said
Together it takes more than 25 volunteers to prepare and serve “the best pork sandwiches people have ever put in their mouths,” Allison, the crisis center founder, said.
While the Farm Aid concerts serve as a fund-raiser for organizations such as the crisis center, but Allison said it's also a good opportunity to get the crisis center's message out.
The Missouri Rural Crisis Center has five main programs, which have been helped by funding by Farm Aid grants. The programs include a factory farm organizing project, a farm and food policy project, a food cooperative program, a local food initiative and Patchwork Family Farms.
Patchwork Family Farms is composed of 15 Missouri family hog farms, according to the group's Web site.
The crisis center’s factory farm organizing project is responsible for passing legislation in Missouri that would make it harder for concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs to be built. According to the center’s Web site, the objective is to challenge the industrialization of the livestock industry and promote independent family farms.
Perry said the farm and food policy project uses the democratic process to help independent producers voice their views and concerns.
The crisis center and Farm Aid have similar stands on farm policy, she said. These include supporting “fair prices” where the producer is paid the cost of production, speaking out against genetically modified organisms and fighting for competition policies that ensure a fair, open and competitive market place.
Farm Aid encourages local food and an environmentally friendly way of farming.
The crisis center has taken a much different stance on farm policy compared to commodity groups, such as the state corn growers association or cattleman's association. Don Nikodim of the Missouri Pork Association said his group supports international trade and large-scale feeding operations that the crisis center calls factory farms.
“They want to call them factory farms to put them in a negative light,” Nikodim said. “I grew up raising pigs subject to the whims of Mother Nature and she can be pretty cruel."
He said that while not all farmers are “independent” — meaning that they own their entire operation rather than operating on contracts — they have families regardless of the business model.
Mary Hendrickson, assistant professor of rural sociology at MU Extension, said the different views in farm policy come from different focuses.
“The Missouri Rural Crisis Center is focused on farmers and not commodity specific policies,” she said. “They are not representing the pork industry or the corn industry – they are representing independent family farmers; it’s just a different focus.”
Hendrickson said the crisis center has “fought for better credit terms, counseled farmers facing financial problems and translated those issues into policy wins at the federal level. The Missouri Rural Crisis Center worked on making sure environmental programs and subsidies benefit independent family farmers."
The center’s food cooperative program reaches 400 to 500 low-income families per month in 21 rural counties and provides locally grown food to them, Perry said.
The local food initiative is the crisis center’s newest program. In collaboration with MU, the center is helping to bring locally grown food to Kansas City, mid-Missouri and St. Louis. Hendrickson has collaborated with the center on various locally grown food projects throughout the last decade.
“They do great work and are very knowledgeable about the opportunities in the local food arena as well as the challenges for farmers,” she said.
Perry said Patchwork Family Farms rewards pork producers with a "fair price" for raising their hogs free of hormones, growth promoters, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, which are low continuous doses of antibiotics to keep animals healthy. The pigs must also have access to sunshine and fresh air.
Matt Beach, a fifth-generation farmer from Leonard, markets some of his pigs using the Patchwork Family Farms label. He said that presently Patchwork Family Farms pays about a $25 per head more than market price for hogs raised outside, the way his family always has. While raising hogs outdoors can be labor intensive, Beach said, there is a cheaper overhead and the Patchwork Family Farms premium helps him break even during tough times.
“They understand the problems with raising hogs outdoors,” Beach said. “I wish everyone in the swine industry was so easy to work with.”