Farm Aid 2007

New York City’s homegrown festival

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When I first heard that Farm Aid was going to New York I was less than thrilled. The “Big Apple” seemed to be an unlikely setting for a family-farmer-awareness event. I headed off for my ninth concert wondering how the message would be received by people whose kitchen windows are more likely to provide a view of concrete than corn fields. What I found there was as much country fair as concert.

Farm Aid began in 1985 when Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp held the first Farm Aid concert to save family farms. The event has changed a lot over the years but the most important change can be seen in the audience’s increased understanding of the impact that their daily choices have on farm policy, our health and the environment. A Homegrown Festival was a celebration of this awareness.

Farm Aid stands for a democratic, decentralized, and sustainable food system based on thriving family farms. For over 20 years, they have spread their message to confront factory farming and corporate agriculture in the US and to create and promote alternatives. Farm Aid wants Americans to recognize and embrace the local food movement as a powerful means of maintaining our American heritage. By supporting those who provide us with sustenance—our family farmers—we protect our natural resources and a local, humanely raised, organic and sustainably produced food supply.

Pre-concert activities

Before the concert, Farm Aid organized a five day “Upstate/Downstate Caravan” that set out across New York visiting certified organic operations and community supported agriculture (CSAs) which produce vegetables, fruit, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, culinary herbs, beef, dairy products, baked goods, and more. The caravan showcased New York food and farms. The caravan picked up fresh food from 14 farms along its route and delivered it to the concert to feed the 1000 or so people who work backstage. The food was wonderful and according to the Farm Aid web site, folks on the caravan happily ate their way across the state

The day of the concert began with a press conference to offer introductions and statements from Farm Aid staff, the stars, VIPs, and local organizers. New York’s Governor Spitzer was on hand with a proclamation announcing September 9 as Farm Aid Day and inviting “people from all over to experience the excellent music, the delicious pride of New York produce, and the magnificence of the late summer in the Empire State, in support of this heroic cause.” Neil Young thanked the governor and promised that Farm Aid would return, requesting that next time there be a “Farm Aid Week.” Governor Spitzman agreed.

The gates opened at noon to a crowd that was as diverse as the music. This year’s lineup included Jesse Lenat, Pauline Reese, 40 Points, Jimmy Sturr, the Ditty Bops, Danielle Evin, Billy Joe Shaver, Montgomery Gentry, Matisyahu, the Derek Trucks Band, Guster, Warren Haynes and Counting Crows, Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band. Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson entertained the crowd into the evening with favorites like “Grave Digger,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Whiskey River” and, of course, “Homegrown.”

Local, family farmed, and organic food

Is Farm Aid’s message getting across? Today, more and more often, consumers are asking for organic, family farmed, and locally produced foods. In 2007 for the first time, such food options were offered at Farm Aid—a monumental task which resulted in the best food I have ever eaten at a concert. In addition to the food catered for the artists, every vendor was required to meet this food criteria as well. This accomplishment should serve as inspiration for other events—music, sports, drama, art—to follow Farm Aid’s example. If a huge, day-long concert in the middle of one of America’s largest urban centers can pull this off, then it can be done in other venues across the country.

Long time Farm Aid supporter Patchwork Family Farms (a project of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center), was there working hard to serve up bratwurst, ham steaks, and pork chop sandwiches, made from pork raised by independent Missouri family farmers. While standing in line at their booth I was happy to overhear the following conversation: A young man was adamant about buying from Patchwork and his companion wanted to know why he chose their booth as opposed to others who also offered organic and local foods. His response was that at Patchwork he knew he was buying food directly from the farmers—keeping the money in their hands. It is conversations like that which show us that Farm Aid’s message is getting through to consumers—changing the way people think about and chose their food, sometimes one sandwich at a time.

In addition to the food and music, the venue included an area called the Homegrown Village. The booths there invited concert goers to learn about soil, recycling, water quality, gardening, alternative energy, healthy cooking, and the Farm Bill. The Homegrown Village made Farm Aid 2007, in the middle of New York City, feel much like a country fair with its interactive exhibits and demonstrations and lots of things to see and taste.

Environmental consciousness was stressed all around. Recycling bins were set up throughout the concert grounds. Farm Aid implemented its first recycling and composting program at the concert, recycling four tons of materials and composting over 700 pounds of food and utensil waste. The compost waste was transported to McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, N.Y., where it will be turned into compost to sustain future crops. Concert goers were encouraged to bring nonperishable food to give to City Harvest volunteers, who collected 2,000 pounds of canned food and an additional 5,000 pounds of food from backstage caterers, which was then distributed to shelters in the five New York boroughs.

As always, Farm Aid encourages us to take an active role in farm policy and politics. We should demand democracy in our food system by holding our elected leaders accountable to our demands for safe and healthful food. It\‘s the best way to prevent agribusiness from determining our farm and food policies. This year, voter’s registration was offered at the concert through HeadCount for the second year in a row.

For those who could not make it to this year’s concert, there will be another. Farm Aid won’t stop until it is no longer needed. Meanwhile there is no reason not to join the movement. Farm Aid’s suggestions on how to “Create Your Own Concert” include:

  • Go to a local farmers market or buy local food at the store. Support family farmers—ask where your food comes from.
  • Enjoy the performers—link to the performers’ Myspace pages.
  • Donate to Farm Aid.
  • Listen to Farm Aid 2007 on the webcast, find link at the Farm Aid FarmYard.

Farm Aid assists family farmers as well. If you are a farmer or if you know one who needs help, contact the Farm Aid Hotline at 1-800-FarmAid or email [email protected]. Help is available via their nationwide Resource Network, which can connect farms in need with direct services such as financial and credit counseling, legal advice, sustainable and organic transition support, new farmer support, disaster and emergency services, and more.

For more information on Farm Aid and other resources to help you make conscious choices in your food supply, visit the Farm Aid website at www.farmaid.org or call 1-800-FARM-AID.

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Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or [email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #133 November - December - 2007