The small cooperative, a project of Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC), is one of the few vendors to come to every Farm Aid since 2000. For many of us in the “Farm Aid family” – the farmers and farmer advocates from around the country who converge annually for meetings and camaraderie around the festival – a shift or two serving up chops in the Patchwork tent is a highlight of the year, even for those of us who are usually meatless.
So what is it about this Missouri pork that makes this vegetarian go carnivore for the day?
In short, it’s trust in where it comes from – not something that can be said about most meat on Americans’ plates. Most meat is produced in so-called factory farms, which raise thousands of animals confined in large barns, fed an unnatural diet and drugs to speed growth. Vast quantities of animal waste, stored in ponds and spread at excessive rates on fields, pollute the water and air, and factory farms suck money out of the local economy. In most rural areas, where there used to be thriving communities of small farms, Main Street businesses, and locally-owned meat processing facilities; farms and businesses have consolidated or been taken over by outside entities, leaving profits in the hands of ever-fewer people.
Patchwork Family Farms offers an alternative. Established by MRCC farmers in 1993, the cooperative’s 15 members raise their hogs outdoors, with environmentally sustainable practices and without growth promoters or antibiotics. MRCC manages logistics, arranging processing, finding buyers, and guaranteeing the farmers get a fair price. The brand is found in over 50 establishments in mid-Missouri, from diners to high-end restaurants, and sticks to affordable prices. Most importantly, Patchwork is just one piece of MRCC’s work to strengthen rural communities across the state. The 34-year-old organization is active at the state house and supports its members to organize against new factory farms and for healthcare access and local control of resources.
MRCC Communications Director Tim Gibbons calls Patchwork Family Farms “a product with a message,” which is, he says: “support for farmers staying on the land, rural vibrancy, local food, environmental protection, and democracy based on people, not corporations.” It’s a big message for a pork chop.
A truly exceptional aspect of Farm Aid is that this message now extends to the rest of the festival’s food offerings. When Patchwork began selling at the event in 2000, very few vendors sold food from family farmers – average concert-venue hamburgers and hot dogs were the order of the day. In 2007, inspired by the success of Patchwork and by the burgeoning good food movement, Farm Aid launched HOMEGROWN Concessions. The brand, unique in the industry, requires that ingredients for all food items at the festival be sustainably produced by family farmers who received a fair price for their product.
Today, all concessions at the Farm Aid festival, including those sold by the venue (operated by Legends Hospitality) fit the HOMEGROWN criteria. These concessions showcase regional specialties, and this year will include Wisconsin cheese curds, pretzels made with locally grown and milled flour, and Lake Superior walleye fish and chips. In addition to Missouri pork, the festival will feature Wisconsin vendors such as Wild Bearies, Wisconsin Style Barbeque, and Better Together Mobile Café. HOMEGROWN also promotes zero-waste; all serviceware is compostable and Alpine Valley Music Theater will be composting for the first time at the event.
Farm Aid Associate Director Glenda Yoder told me that Patchwork Family Farms was key to the development and success of HOMEGROWN Concessions. “Patchwork has been a guidestar for what it means to serve family farm food at an event,” she said. “They’ve been a wonderful example to other vendors of enthusiasm, inclusion, and consistency. And we know festival-goers look forward to Patchwork – we’ve seen their lines!”
I quit meat in my teens for environmental reasons. Today, as a writer and farmer advocate who has worked with rural communities for 15 years, I’m vegetarian because I know far too much about factory farms to have anything to do with them. But eating pork raised sustainably by small farmers that support strong rural communities? I’m all in – especially when it’s so delicious.
If you’ll be at Farm Aid tomorrow, you can feel good about enjoying any of the excellent concessions, knowing that you’re supporting good environmental practices and a fair price for farmers. And be sure to come by the Patchwork Family Farms tent and say hello to the vegetarians serving up your pork chop sandwiches.
Siena Chrisman is a writer, researcher, and farmer advocate. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, and her writing has also appeared in venues including Modern Farmer and Edible Brooklyn. She is working on a book about the progressive farmer activists who fought back against the 1980s farm crisis.