The backstory behind my $150,000 50lb bag of onions on eBay

The following is another brief excerpt from my yet unpublished memoir, “Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life.” This small section of my memoir deals with the backstory behind my $150,000 50lb bag of onions on eBay stunt. It took place a couple of months after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee decimated our crops. The following is just one media piece that detailed that destruction. Below the excerpt are links for media pieces that dealt with my eBay ad.

That Sunday the Warwick Farm Aid concert was held. Though many of our elected officials worked very hard trying to help us, persons like Senators Schumer and  Gillibrand, Representatives  Gibson and Owens amongst others, the bottom line we received virtually no help overall from the federal government, apart from token assistance and the promise of more loans being made available. I was bitterly disappointed.

I then said to Eve that we needed to do something different, something unique to draw attention to our plight. So, I thought about it for a few days and was then struck with a very unique idea, to put up for auction on eBay a 50 lb. bag of onions for $150,000.

Talk about a long shot idea, but, the primary purpose wasn’t to sell the bag of onions. It would have been nice if someone bought it obviously, but, the primary reason for it was to shame the Congress, specifically House leadership, and hopefully motivate them to change course and support the vitally needed crop loss program.

Yes, I realize that notion was probably a greater long shot than someone actually buying my onion bag, but, I had to do something.

The first step was to convince Eve. Once again the poor woman was going to be mortified. She never did like the idea of putting our finances and personal situation out there in the public eye. But, she understood the reason why I did it. It wasn’t simply because I was a press hound. It was the dozens upon dozens of stories that detailed our personal situation, which personalized the weather disasters and plight we were in, is what sold our cause. Humanizing our narrative with a tangible example is what primarily led to the passage of the $10 million dollar earmark years earlier. If you talk in the abstract, detailing factoids on how many acres of crops were lost, or how many overall dollars were lost, people may raise an eyebrow and pause for a moment to think about it. But lay out a narrative of a struggling family, it personalizes it and makes it so much more relatable, both to the public and to the politicos that can help you. I recognize it was and still is humiliating to Eve, and I wish there was another way. But no other farmer was willing to do it. And Eve has always recognized this and has always tried, to the best of her ability, to put the cause ahead of our own needs. Despite the personal humiliation and pain. It’s one of the reasons why she is such a wonderful wife and partner.

So, I sold Eve on the idea. I then found a generic onion bag and had her take a picture of the boys and me in front of our farm sign. I then placed the ad on eBay on September 26th  for a 10 day listing. I wrote up the text for the ad, which stated in part:

Buy this 50lb bag of yellow onions and save this 4th generation family farm! And a free 5lb bucket of genuine black dirt soil! Bidding starts at $150,000!

Hurricane Irene struck the Black Dirt region of the lower Hudson Valley, 1 hour north of New York City, devastating thousands of acres of farmland including our farm. The storm hit at the worst possible time, when we had 90% to 95% of our expenses into our crops. We lost 48 out of 51 acres of onions. My farm has lost over $150,000 this year alone and coupled with past disasters we are over $200,000 in the hole with no hope in sight. Below are a few media pieces about our losses:

FEMA does not cover agricultural losses. Farmers instead are covered by the USDA. The problem is that the USDA programs, mainly the crop insurance program, is virtually worthless, paying only pennies on the dollar on our losses. The other USDA program, the SURE program, won’t even start the application process until the fall of 2012 and probably won’t pay out until January of 2013 at the earliest. And the SURE program will only pay pennies on the dollar on our losses as well.

For many years my wife and I have fought to help the farmers in our valley. We have volunteered our time and our energies and our efforts to represent our fellow growers and to help change public policies that have been difficult, problematic or harmful to us. But we can’t do that any longer if we can no longer farm. And if we are so far in debt we simply can no longer farm. Our situation is beyond bleak, it is grim and without hope. So, if you can afford it, and you want to support a 4th generation family farm, please buy this single bag of onions.

Bidding starts at $150,000. It is one bag, but it represents my ability to continue to farm. It represents my continuing my family’s legacy. The federal government is currently unable to help us. Can you?

This isn’t just about saving a farm, and the seeds, and dirt, and wood, and plastic, and metal, and machinery, and sweat, and gears, and tractors, and barns, and tools, and crops and tears … it’s about hope and it’s about our future, ours and yours, help us feed you.

My mentor Bob Thompson, now with Syracuse University, thought the free 5 gallon bucket of dirt was a fantastic touch. That initial listing, which ran until October 6th, was eventually viewed by 2,278 people. A number of their views were due to my fantastic Facebook friends. I posted a link for the ad on my Facebook page and many of my friends shared it on their Walls. This spread the word of the ad very quickly. No one bid, not that I was surprised by that, but it had enough views for me to warrant re-listing it. I also started getting response from people via eBay expressing their support and desire to help. Eve and I were genuinely touched. Again, these are people that are just like us, suffering from the effects of the terrible economy, and yet they were expressing a heartfelt desire to help us despite their own personal circumstances. I, quite frankly, didn’t know how to respond except to thank them. A couple of people sent $5.00 or more via PayPal.

In the midst of the 2nd  listing I started getting phone calls from the press, both locally and regionally. One of the first to contact me, on the morning of October 14th, was WABC Channel 7 out of New York City. The reporter who called was Darla Miles. I had been plastering the eBay listing all over the internet and somehow her station had stumbled across it. She asked if she could come out and do a story and I of course happily obliged. So within a few hours she along with her camera operator arrived.

My dad was in rare form. Ah, another female reporter he could try to hug. I briefly explained to Darla my dad and his desire to hug some of the local reporters. I think I also went into briefly the story of “Candy & Andy.” I had her laughing. My dad also had her laughing as well. I then detailed the story of our disaster. She had seen Marcus Solis’ piece from September and was moved by our situation. She did an interview with me but as my dad was still hanging around she turned to him and said he had to go on too. Now, over the years I had been interviewed by various TV outlets but my dad never had. He did appear in the background at times but never on camera. After a bit of prodding he finally agreed. And he hit a homerun. The piece proper opens with my dad saying:

“It’s a strong onion has a lot of flavor. It’s not an onion you eat like an apple. If you do you’re pretty darn good.”

Miles in her voiceover then said “Good and strong, but is a fifty- pound bag of onions worth $150,000?” And my dad is then heard saying:

Well, it’s like a shot in the dark. Who knows? Oprah gives away twenty, thirty cars at a time or $30,000 and doesn’t blink a eye. What’s a bag of onions?”

Talk about a homerun! Dad actually topped me in the piece. And the piece was outstanding Darla Miles fully detailed how screwed we were in the piece and how our backs were against the wall (http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/northern_suburbs&id=8392522).

After that piece aired I was contacted by WCBS News Radio 880 reporter Paul Murnane. He interviewed me the morning of October 20th  and his story aired throughout the day. It too was a fantastic piece that though was short pointed out how poor the crop insurance program was and how desperate a situation we were in (http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/10/20/orange-county-farmer-selling-bag-of-onions-for-150k-to-save-farm/). Both the WABC Channel 7 and WCBS News Radio 880 stories were seen and heard by millions of people in the New York City media market. Further, Darla’s story was syndicated out to TV stations all across the country and I started getting e-mails and Facebook messages from friends all across the country telling me they had seen it. I also started getting more and more messages on eBay from people who didn’t have $150,000 but wanted to help. Many reported seeing the local WABC Channel 7 story on their local stations.

A day or so after the WABC Channel 7 story aired I was contacted by a wonderful woman by the name of Cindy Colby. Cindy was a certified eBay advisor. She too was moved by our situation and offered to help any way she could. And she did, on multiple levels. The first thing she did was she talked me through instructions on how to improve my eBay ad. She knew the ins and outs of adding pictures, formatting text, etc …, and Cindy cleaned up and improved my ad. I also told Cindy about all of the people that were contacting me on eBay, looking to help in some way. Cindy came up with the alternate listing, of 5 heirloom seeds for a small donation We ended up creating multiple listings for a number of different small donation levels. Numerous people responded and bought the 5 token seeds so as to contribute to helping us. Again, Eve and I were not comfortable with it. We knew how bad the economy was, but people kept insisting they wanted to do something to help. To this day Eve and I are overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all of those people, as well as Cindy. She really extended herself to help us and spent a great deal of time, energy and effort. Eve and I hope that one day we can somehow get a few hundred pounds of onions to her, as well as give her a big hug.

After the WABC Channel 7 and WCBS News Radio 880 stories aired all of the major local media outlets did video and print pieces. My old friend Tracy Baxter at the Times Herald-Record as well as YNN and News 12 all did fantastic pieces. I was also contacted by a producer with ABC Network News. We spoke back and forth a few times and it appeared he was all set to do a story, but, it never materialized.

Days went by, then weeks, then months. I kept re-listing both eBay ads but the view counts continued to drop. And there was little movement on Capitol Hill. I then met with Mike Oates at the Hudson valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC) and we jointly worked on an op-ed calling for the need for an ad- hoc crop loss program. Our piece ran in the February 2nd 2012 edition of the Times Herald-Record and it was entitled “Our View: Crop loss program urgently needed by Black Dirt farmers.”

End of excerpt.

Links:

http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111025/NEWS/110250335

Image

As I have mentioned multiple times previously my campaign to raise funds for an editor will be featured in an upcoming episode of the new Crowd Funder Show.

https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/1efvb/ab/72OxNc

What is the Crowd Funder Show and what does it mean to appear on the show? According to their website:

The Crowd Funder TV Show highlights various ideas that have been selected based on their merit for creativity, social relevance, and commercial viability. Each episode focuses the spotlight on six or seven inspiring projects and personal goals that give the viewing audience insight into the campaign, its principal, and the reason(s) why it should come to fruition. The Crowd Funder TV Show highlights various ideas that have been selected based on their merit for creativity, social relevance, and commercial viability.

What is so neat about their crowd funding method, versus Kickstarter’s, is that it is not “all or nothing.” Further, the rewards are much more exciting. Again, from their website:

Viewers can choose to support the projects they watch by contributing directly to the campaign website or by calling a toll-free number. The Crowd Funder Show rewards contributors with sponsored gift cards for the same amount of money they contribute, up to $100. Supporting people and their projects has never been easier so it’s no wonder you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of something special. The Crowd Funder TV Show is an interesting, inspiring program that highlights human ingenuity and co-operation.

When you go to my page you will see locations once can choose from for the gift card include: Sears, Best Buy, Home Depot and Toys R Us. So, if you plan on doing any shopping at any of these locations anyway you are essentially donating to my cause for free. A total win-win!

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