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Farm Aid concert set for urban core of New Jersey

September 26, 2006|From the Associated Press

CAMDEN, N.J. — It's hard to find enough green space here for a soccer field, let alone a farm.

So why is Farm Aid coming to this concrete-covered city known for crime, poverty and political corruption rather than a place known for corn, beans and hogs?

Camden, recently named the nation's poorest and most crime-ridden city, is at the center of a region full of small family-owned farms, strong farmland preservation efforts and people who care deeply about where the stuff they eat comes from.

"Our campaign is for farmers, whether they're living on a 500-acre corn farm in Iowa or a 1/2 -acre sustainable farm in the heart of Philadelphia," said Ted Quaday, Farm Aid's program director.

In 1985, when Willie Nelson and other musicians organized the first Farm Aid concert, farm values were plummeting, interest rates were rising and it was hard for many family farmers to keep their land. That crisis has passed, and Farm Aid has turned its attention to less immediate, more esoteric causes, such as enhancing food safety, preserving the environment and connecting consumers with farmers.

This year's Farm Aid concert is scheduled for Saturday at the Tweeter Center, an amphitheater on the Camden waterfront. The concerts have helped the organization raise more than $29 million. They've been held in the Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh areas before, but never this deep into the Northeast.

Among those scheduled to perform are Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Shelby Lynne, Dave Matthews, Steve Earle, Los Lonely Boys, Arlo Guthrie, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steel Pulse and Jerry Lee Lewis. The concert will be webcast at www.farmaid.org beginning at 12:30 p.m.

The farms in this region are mostly relatively small operations. Years ago, farmers in the Philadelphia area lost some of their big corporate buyers, such as Campbell Soup, which still has its headquarters in Camden but no longer makes soup here -- and, thus, no longer buys so many New Jersey tomatoes by the ton. As a result, more farmers started selling directly to consumers.

"The more they can sell directly to consumers, the more of the food dollar they get to retain," said Mark Smith, campaign director for Farm Aid, which is based in Somerville, Mass. Smith said that when farmers sell their crops as a wholesale commodity, they end up getting an average of 9 cents out of every dollar, while stores, transportation companies, processors and others get the rest.

When farmers sell what they grow to consumers, he said, they get 70% to 80% of the food dollar.

Shortening the supply chain from farmers to consumers is the main goal of New Jersey's Agriculture Department, which promotes a "Jersey Fresh" campaign for produce grown in the Garden State.

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