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Benefits package 

Musicians are always asked to support charities. As this year's Musicians for Farmers comes up, we ask musicians, how do they pick?

If you're a musician in this town, then you've either been asked to play a benefit show or you're about to be. Musicians and bands were contributing their talents to causes long before Bob Geldof globalized the practice in the mid-'80s. But in a city bursting with events and causes, how do musicians decide where to lend their talents?

"I try to do as many of them as I can," says Halifax songsmith Erin Costelo. "Especially when they are in my community." Costelo is performing at North Street Church this weekend as part of Musicians for Farmers, Halifax's very own micro-version of Farm Aid. The M4F show, which includes a meal prepared from 100-percent locally sourced food, raises money to benefit Heliotrust, a farmland conservation and educational organization based just outside the city, at Red Bank Farm in Centre Burlington.

"It's tough to say no, because they are usually worthy causes," says Zac Crouse of indie-rock outfit Caledonia, which is also playing. "A few years ago we decided to only do two or three each year. We figured that way we could still support causes that really matter to us."

"The people associated with the cause play into the decision as well," says Crouse, who has only kind words for M4F organizer Jeff Torbert, also a musician.

"Anything Jeff Torbert is associated with is a no-brainer," says Crouse. "I trust his judgement. He makes it easy for us to just show up and play---a smooth experience."

Torbert joined the Ecology Action Centre's food action committee after an experience on a friend's farm. He decided to merge his musical career with his work at the EAC and came up with Musicians for Farmers.

"This event is very personal for me," says Torbert, "because I'm a musician and I love food. And knowing where it comes from is important. This is a way of giving something back to those people who grow it."

Louise Hanavan is no stranger to food issues. Last year, the banjo player for Grand Sass Parilla, also performing at the event, was in the news for speaking out against a bylaw forcing her to get rid of a few egg-laying hens she kept in her west end backyard. The M4F cause is close to her heart. "I'm interested in farming and I may end up being a farmer someday," says Hanavan. "This is an exciting way to make a connection between rural farm life and city life."

M4F's beneficiary, Heliotrust, was formed in 2003 with a mandate to "explore, develop, conserve and share ecological farming systems." The organization has obtained conservation easements on two Nova Scotia farms and runs a farmer mentor program to create connections between experienced farmers and new would-be growers.

"I think everything Heliotrust does is really important," says Hanavan. "Preserving farmland is really crucial right now. If we want to be able to have food sovereignty in Nova Scotia, then we need to make sure our farmland is taken care of and the knowledge of our older farmers is preserved."

Bill Travis agrees. "Protecting independent farms against corporate takeover is one of the major fronts in the real war that's going on in our era," says Travis, AKA Mushkat, AKA the songwriting force behind The Alamo Defenders, also performing. 

Politics aside, there's another reason for playing at the M4F benefit. All said and done, says Costelo, "it's gonna be a fun time."

Saturday's M4F also features Zumbini Circus, Mary-Grace Koile and guest speaker Norbert Kungl of Selwood Green Farms, who, rumour has it, may be backed up by the Ukeladies.

"There will probably be some more artists," says Torbert. "One amazing thing is there always seems to be more artists that want to play this benefit than I have room for, so I just try to squeeze them all in so they can come and get some free food and show their support."

Musicians for Farmers, Saturday, February 21 at North Street Church, 5657 North, 6pm-midnight, $15.


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