“Unsung Heroes” celebrates elder farmers with original songs to benefit RVGA at Rondout High School

Come and enjoy an afternoon celebration of our farming heritage with songs written by local singer/songwriters collaborating with local elder farmers.  The " Unsung Heroes" concert will be held on April 24 at Rondout Valley High School. Pictured are the Wilklows of Wilklow Orchards in Highland -- Bill, Joyce and Fred -- with local singer/songwriter Vickie Russell. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Come and enjoy an afternoon celebration of our farming heritage with songs written by local singer/songwriters collaborating with local elder farmers. The ” Unsung Heroes” concert will be held on April 24 at Rondout Valley High School. Pictured are the Wilklows of Wilklow Orchards in Highland — Bill, Joyce and Fred — with local singer/songwriter Vickie Russell. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Here in the mostly rural mid-Hudson Valley, it’s an exciting transitional time for agriculture. Just when we were all lamenting the apparent imminent demise of the family farm, the Great Recession came along and eased development pressures quite a bit. With incomes stagnant and oil prices high, people started looking for vacation options close to home, spurring an increase in popularity for agritourism attractions like pick-your-own operations, farmstands, corn mazes and the like. Meanwhile, more and more consumers began to take an active interest in where their food is sourced (preferably locally) and how it’s grown (preferably sustainably, with minimal chemical intervention). To top things off, new legislation was passed in Albany making farm-based brewing, distilling and cidering legal again for the first time since Prohibition.

Among the happy results of this fortuitous convergence of factors for the breadbasket of the Tri-State Metro Area are burgeoning markets for local farm products and opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurs to use time-honored methods to grow niche crops to meet these expanding demands. A young generation who might never have considered farming as a career is now taking it seriously as a financially viable option. Microbreweries, craft distilleries and hard-cider operations are popping up everywhere you look. And with farmers new and old figuring out innovative ways to diversify their income streams, pressures on younger scions of farm families to find some other way of making a living have lightened somewhat. Monocropping is out; experimentation is in.


But even with new blood and fresh ideas entering the agricultural community, the wisdom accumulated over decades and even centuries of experience in working the land hereabouts is a treasure still there for the mining. Startup farmers would be well-advised to seek guidance from the old guard, who know the soil and the climate and the pests that can and often do make the difference between a season of profit or a season of loss.

Honoring that wisdom, along with the lifelong dedication and sacrifice that make a successful small farm possible, is the theme of a concert coming up this Sunday afternoon at the Rondout Valley High School Auditorium. It’s called “Unsung Heroes: Celebrating Our Local Farmers,” and it’s the product of an intensive collaboration between the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association (RVGA) and SageArts.

“We’re all about giving elders a voice. We want to bring our communities together to celebrate their life experience,” says Colette Ruoff of Rosendale, who founded the not-for-profit SageArts organization in 2013. She was inspired by a business trip to Santa Fe in 2012, where she discovered the work of a local project called Lifesongs, developed by the Academy for the Love of Learning, which paired songwriters with community elders to preserve their oral histories in musical form. “The melody, the rhythm captures the essence,” according to Ruoff. “Music has the capacity to penetrate the heart.”

With her return to New York delayed by the Hurricane Sandy airport closures, Ruoff had an unexpected opportunity to “hang out” with the women who run the Lifesongs program, and found herself immediately wishing to replicate their approach in the Hudson Valley: “They wanted to see how it could be seeded in other areas, and I had a vision to bring it here.” One of Lifesongs’ founders, Molly Sturges, accepted Ruoff’s invitation to come to New Paltz, train her in the Lifesongs methodology and give a workshop at Woodland Pond. Ruoff then began networking with local singer/songwriters and passing along the training that she had received. The result of SageArts’ first efforts was a concert in May 2015 at the Marbletown Community Center, where the focus was on honoring elders in a more general sort of way.

More recently, Ruoff began discussing the possibility of a collaborative project with Maria Reidelbach, a member of the RVGA’s Board of Directors. “We thought it was worth exploring — that it would be more compelling to have a theme, about how farmers have contributed to our quality of life.” It was a good enough idea to attract some funding from an anonymous donor to the Rudolf Steiner Foundation, as well as small grants from Arts Mid-Hudson, the Ulster County Department of Tourism, I Love NY and Ulster Savings Bank. As a result, SageArts was able to offer stipends to the songwriters this time around and sustain their collaborations with local elder farmers over a three-month period.

The Lifesongs process consists of more than just interviewing. To get melody ideas, songwriters and elders listen to music together and discuss what kinds of songs have resonated in their lives. They go on walks together, do sense-memory exercises, work with smells, visual imagery and kinesthetics, according to Ruoff. Eventually the songwriter hits on a phrase or concept from the farmers’ reminiscences that seems like it could be the central theme of a song, and the lyrics develop from there.

Vickie Russell, a New Paltz-based songwriter who has been working with Bill and Joyce Wilklow of Wilklow Orchards in Highland, kept hearing the octogenarian fourth-generation farmers say, “The farm comes first,” as they related the ups and downs of life on the land. Luxuries like vacations weren’t part of that life, but the Wilklows stuck it out through thick and thin until their son Fred was ready to take over the farm. “This was the life they chose,” Russell relates. “What matters most to them is their family…. Because farming is so hard, they figured out ways to keep going.” She calls the Wilklows “very creative,” noting that they founded the very first pick-your-own-apples operation in this region.

When Russell finished her slightly sad, lovely song titled “The Farm Comes First,” she sang it — nervously — to her new friends the Wilklows. As reserved as the popular stereotype of the stoic, taciturn farmer, they responded, “Yup. That’s about it,” she says, noting that “Most farmers are quiet. They’re deep thinkers, very strong…They seemed grateful and moved by my telling of their story, as truthfully and sensitively as I possibly could.”

The gratitude goes both ways, with Russell feeling happy to have had the opportunity to form a connection with some local elder farmers. “I wanted to pay tribute to them,” she says. “In our society, old people are just put away — and they have so much to offer.” For her, music is an effective way to forge such connections. “My grandmother had Alzheimer’s,” she recounts. “I pulled her out of a coma by singing her favorite song to her.”

You can share the magic that grew out of these collaborations this Sunday, April 23 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Rondout Valley High School Auditorium, located at 122 Kyserike Road in Accord. Participating songwriters, in addition to Russell, include Heather Masse, Tom Holland, Mark Brown and Kelleigh McKenzie. Elder farmers to be honored at this concert include Jack Schoonmaker, Wayne Kelder, Frank Coddington, Abe Waruch, Jackie Brooks and Rima Nickell. Special guest performers will be Jay Ungar and Molly Mason and the Rondout Valley High School Chorus, with a cameo appearance by Happy Traum also expected. The concert director is Ralph Legnini.

The suggested  donation for general admission to “Unsung Heroes” is $15 in advance, $20 at the door; for children under age 18 and elders over age 70, the suggested donation is $5. Half of the profits will be donated to fund RVGA’s programming supporting local farmers. To purchase tickets in advance, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2532285. For more information, call (800) 838-3006 or (845) 688-1546 or visit www.sagearts.org.