Mainer Blooms at Farm Aid
The marathon concert plays up the future of small family farming.
MANSFIELD, Mass. - On a day when all eyes focused on Willie Nelson, Neil Young and their Farm Aid brethren, a shy farmer from Brunswick reluctantly stole a small sliver of spotlight.
At a press briefing prior to the first Farm Aid concert in New England on Saturday, Brenna Chase found herself seated somewhat uncomfortably alongside Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and just a few chairs down from some of the biggest music stars in the world.
Not that she wasn't thrilled to be there, but Chase, 29, is far more comfortable digging in the dirt, raising animals and selling flowers at farmers' markets in Brunswick.
"I'm a little out of my element," she told an assembled group of media representatives and Farm Aid friends. "I was just feeding hogs this morning. Thank you for making me feel like the work I do is important."
Farm Aid put her on stage to address the media because she and her farming partner, Susan Meredith, run Little Creek Farm in Brunswick and represent both the success of Farm Aid and the hopeful future of small family farming in America.
Through grants provided by Farm Aid to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Chase has received training to become a farmer.
She and Meredith lease about 30 acres and raise hogs, chickens, hens, turkeys and ducks, and grow flowers. They sell everything locally. They've had their farm for a year, after working for other farmers from California to Connecticut for the past decade.
In addition to Nelson and Young, Saturday's concert included performances by John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Kenny Chesney, Steve Earle, moe., the Pretenders, Arlo Guthrie and many others.
Among the highlights early in the day was a performance by rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, who received a sustained standing ovation after a performance that included "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
At Farm Aid, the cause is never far from the music.
The 11-hour marathon event at the Comcast Center included testimonials, displays and recognition for model farmers. It also featured organic and locally grown food in its concession stands, which organizers said was a major accomplishment given the volume of food needed to serve the 20,000 or so people who showed up.
One of the concessionaires was Peak Organic Brewing Co., a Portland-based brewery that specializes in hand-crafted ales.
Peak Organic founder and president Jon Cadoux spent much of his day keeping the taps flowing. He accepted the invitation to sell beer at Farm Aid because he shares Farm Aid's belief in family farming.
"We have a passion for sustainable agriculture and supporting family farmers, and that's what Farm Aid is all about," he said. "This is a mind-boggling event in terms of its size and scope, and it's great to be a part of it. Whenever possible, we try to partner with organizations that are like-minded, and this is a perfect example of it."
Farm Aid has shifted its focus over the years from saving family farmers to helping those who survived the farm crisis thrive. Since 1999, the organization has issued $29,500 in grants to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Regionally, Farm Aid has granted more than $418,000 to New England farm groups since 1985.
Mellencamp, a Farm Aid co-founder, said it was "disheartening" that people continue to ask him why Farm Aid is still in business. "Isn't that problem solved?" they ask him.
Not even close, he tells them.
Corporate farming still dominates U.S. agriculture, and small family farmers are still in crisis, he said. The issues affecting farmers have changed since Farm Aid began in 1985, but the bottom line remains that farmers are still in peril, he said.
"That's why we're still doing Farm Aid," he said.
At the press briefing, Nelson made the case that a healthy farm economy is good for the overall economy, calling it the bottom rung of the country's economic ladder. When it fails, he said, the rest of the ladder comes crumbling down.
Young struck a hopeful tone. Noting the growth and popularity of farmers' markets across America, he said Farm Aid can help by promoting awareness of local-food campaigns.
He suggested that instead of Farm Aid, in the future the group might consider calling itself Farm Made.
"What we're trying to do now is just help," he said.