Mugar Mixes Music, Humanitarianism

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Activist Balances Environment, Farms And Armenia

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — For many, the thought of Hirair Hovnanian or Virginia Ohanian and Willy Nelson or John Mellencamp can in no way be connected. However, all of the above are linked by one woman: Carolyn Mugar.

Mugar is able to navigate the world of Armenian-Amer ican activism with true, blue liberal causes with aplomb.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different people and cultures in my life. It’s not hard to exist with different people,” she said. “I find is fascinating.”

“The experience of working with non-profits has been helpful,” Mugar said. “One helps the other.”

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In addition to her many duties as the president of the Board of Trustees of the Armenian Assembly of America and founder of the Armenia Tree Project, Mugar is the executive director of Farm Aid, a foundation to help farmers both in the region and across the nation.

The founding of the organization dates back to the mid- 1980s, when farmers were losing their lands because of the low prices for farm products, as well as rising interest rates and skyrocketing production costs. The small family farm was becoming a thing of the past. Around that time, singer Willy Nelson heard Bob Dylan’s remarks from the Live Aid stage, which had been organized for the victims of African famine. Dylan, in his comments, noted that American farmers needed help, like their African counterparts.

The idea was one that resonated with Nelson. In only a few weeks’ time, he contacted close friends Neil Young and John Mellencamp, for a concert, bringing together over 60 artists before 80,000 fans in Champaign, Ill. to raise funds for struggling American farmers. The concert raised over $7 million and drew attention to the economic problems faced by the country’s family farmers and their communities.

Farm Aid began to fund efforts to stop the expansion of factory farms. Farm Aid worked with farm organizations from a number of states to form the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment (CFFE), a grassroots initiative to unite family farmers and rural communities against the giant and powerful factory farms.

Nelson turned to Mugar to disburse the funds raised at the concert and that is how she became the group’s executive director.

Mugar, in an interview this week, quoted Nelson about why everyone should support Farm Aid and similar efforts to help small farms: “If you eat, you’re part of agriculture.”

She is again hard at work on the latest Farm Aid concert, which will take place on September 20 at the Comcast Center, Mansfield, Mass.

“We’re able to get money out to the countryside,” Mugar noted. The organization creates a network to help them deal with a variety of things, including Hurricane Katrina. “We work with church groups and are able to identify farmers who have emergency needs.”

“We encourage people to donate and have a look at what we need,” she said.

She added, “We are there helping people in a lot of structural ways. There is unbelievably good use for the money donated.”

She was thrilled with the group’s work on the ground, which she called “terrific.”

In many ways, Farm Aid, she explained, acts as an umbrella group, bringing together needy people and organizations that offer services which are needed.

Mugar said that more and more consumers are interested in buying more locally-grown, organic produce. Farm Aid, she explained, has been very active in getting the word out about demanding better produce and helping farmers who do grow that produce to thrive.

“We have very much supported organic standards,” Mugar said about the group’s board, including Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Dave Matthews.

“It has been a lot of fun,” Mugar said. “These people are some of the best communicators in this country. I am very, very lucky to be working with them.”

One does not typically associate farms with New England, but Farm Aid has conducted extensive work here, helping local farmers across the region.

Throughout its 23 years of service, Farm Aid has built a rich history in New England and has worked closely with food and farm activist groups to strengthen family farm agriculture across the region. In addition, Farm Aid has granted more than $418,000 to groups across New England since 1985.

In Deerfield, Mass., the group helps Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture on a program to support the development of local food markets benefiting family farmers and consumers.

In Athol, the Farm School is supported to train new farmers in food production.

The Rural Vermont, based in Montpelier, gets support on a program to help family farmers have opportunities to market Vermont-raised, grass-fed livestock from their farms or through other direct market opportunities.

In Boston, the Boston Public Market Association gets help from Farm Aid to establish public farmers’ markets in the city.

Similarly, education programs for farmers are helped in Maine and rural Massachusetts.

In Cambridge, City Sprouts is a program to encourage growth of a school garden and food awareness initiative in grade school classrooms (www.citysprouts.org).

Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised over $30 million to promote a vibrant family farm centered system of agriculture in America.

Farm Aid 2008, presented by Whole Foods Market and Horizon Organic, this year features Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews, in addition to Kenny Chesney, the Pretenders, moe., Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Steve Earle, Nation Beat, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels, Danielle Evin, Jamey Johnson, Jesse Lenat, Will Dailey, One Flew South and the Elms will also perform.

If you haven’t bought tickets for the concert on September 20, the bad news is that the concert is sold out. Donations, however, can be made online.

On Friday, September 19, Farm Aid will hold a reception at the Charles Hotel to thank major donors. Tickets, for $100 each, are still available. Those attending need not be donors nor ticketholders.

The concert will be shown live on DirecTV Channel 10, 4 to 11 p.m. It can also be seen on the group’s webside, www.farmaid.org