We don’t have vast thousand-acre farms in New England, but of the farms that we do have, 85 percent are family-owned. New England is home to vibrant farmers markets. There's an active localvore community. And our small farms grow everything from tomatoes, sweet corn, apples and cranberries, to a budding viniculture segment.
So it was gratifying that Farm Aid, which is actually based here in Massachusetts, held its first concert in New England in its 23-year history this weekend. I was a guest blogger for the folks at Farm Aid, offering my impressions of the event here and here.
But on Saturday, right about the time Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was rocking the sold-out crowd of 20,000 concert-goers, a farm tragedy was unfolding nearby. Thick clouds of black smoke enveloped the farm stand, offices and kitchen of one the area’s most vital farms – Verrill Farms - and it took local firemen nearly four hours to extinguish the blaze, leaving only the building’s blackened ribs.
Steve Verrill and his family have been on their land in Concord since 1918. The farm was started by Steve’s father. Verrill himself was a dairy farmer for years, but traded that in for vegetable farming when the dairy industry got downright unprofitable. He was one of the first local farmers to connect directly with Boston’s best chefs, and his produce is regularly listed on menus by name. His name. I hear he’s even got a hefty waiting list of chefs with produce-envy.
The Verrill family likes a party. They hold a strawberry festival, an asparagus festival, a blueberry pancake breakfast and pie eating contest; a tomato and corn festival and half-a-dozen more events every year. Thanks to them, this farm is where thousands of children and their parents very likely connected with their food for the first time, and have continued to doing so for generations. And that tomato contest I judged last month? Steve was the one that got the state to include heirlooms as a category. Before that, there wasn’t one.
I feel confident Verrill will rebuild and thrive. His impact on people in the region is huge, and his customers understand that it is crucial that Verrill and his farm survive. He’s fortunate, despite the fire.
While I applaud Farm Aid’s longevity and efforts to raise awareness of the critical role farmers play in our country, I can’t help but feel discouraged that there have been 23 years of Farm Aid concerts and fundraising, and yet things are still dire for so many of our nation’s farms. Still, at least one in-tune group is fighting the fires -- as well as the floods and failures of our farmers.
– Clare Leschin-Hoar
Image: Willie Nelson at Farm Aid, photo by Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve Inc. 2008