As blowout benefit concerts with megawatt star power go, it doesn't get much folksier than Farm Aid. All right, so maybe there was nothing down-home about the $1,500 VIP ticket package, which got you a front-row perch along with access to an exclusive club area stocked with "New York wines" and "delectable gourmet items prepared by celebrity chefs." But from the vantage point of the cheap seats, the annual fundraiser--whose board of directors includes headliners Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews--was a refreshingly humble alternative to the bombastic affairs these celebrity-driven concerts-for-a-cause often become.
Take, for example, the recent Live Earth extravaganza, broadcast simultaneously from eight exotic locales around the world, among them Johannesburg, Tokyo and a beach in Rio. Farm Aid--which in past years has played hot spots like Irving, Texas; Noblesville, Indiana; and Burgettstown, Pennsylvania--finally arrived in the Big Apple for its 2007 concert, though Randall's Island, a spit of land in the East River once home to an inebriate asylum and quarantined smallpox victims, hardly qualifies as New York's most glamorous venue. While Live Earth organizers boasted of that event's "unprecedented global media architecture," Farm Aid decided to keep it closer to home, promising instead to be the first major concert to sell only organic, humanely raised or family-farmed food, produced locally whenever possible.
More than an appealing gimmick to attract New York foodies, the concession policy at Sunday's concert was perfectly in keeping with the latest evolution of the Farm Aid mission. What began as an ambitious attempt to bail out financially strapped farmers in the dark days of the Reagan years has grown into a visionary initiative to bring about fundamental reforms to our profoundly out-of-whack systems of food production and consumption. In its present incarnation, Farm Aid is as much about getting needed support to the country's vulnerable family farms as it is about reminding the country why it needs family farms in the first place. As Farm Aid program director Ted Quaday put it during a recent radio appearance, "We see lots of people all across the spectrum, all across the country, coming together for a variety of different reasons" in support of what Farm Aid calls the "Good Food movement"; or, in the words of the always-colorful Jim Hightower, "the Upchuck Rebellion." It's about farmers, sure, but it's about all the rest of us, too.
That thinking was reflected throughout this year's Homegrown Festival, as Farm Aid organizers dubbed the event, and especially in the Homegrown Village that stretched along the northwest side of the lawn. Providing ample distraction during slow moments in the musical lineup (I'm a New Yorker born and raised; I don't care if Jimmy Sturr has won virtually every Grammy for Best Polka Album ever awarded), the Village was a paradise for the amateur agronomist, eco-activist and farmers' market crowd alike.
Baskets of fresh produce sat next to stalls selling organic pizza, local microbrews and even special Farm Aid-approved funnel cake, made from a mix hailing from a small mill just outside Lexington, Kentucky, run by the same family for six generations. Nearby was an exhibit manned by Jonah Braverman of East New York Farms, a group that seeks to address food access issues in the low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. At the stall run by the Waterkeeper Alliance, a grassroots advocacy organization that takes aim at major water polluters like industrial pork producers, Eddie Scher bemoaned lax enforcement of the Clean Water Act, noting that "if it was enforced, family farms would kick their ass." Aliza, an outgoing summer intern at the Community Food Security Coalition, which does advocacy work around Farm Bill issues, said the main lesson she wants people to take away from Sunday's concert is that it's time to "take an active role" in shaping our food policy. "Everyone who eats," Aliza implored, "needs to be involved."
One concertgoer who most certainly is involved was Carroll Wade, who owns a farm in Jasper, New York, thirty miles west of Corning. It was Wade's third Farm Aid (he chuckled reminiscing about driving a tractor through downtown Chicago during a tractor parade organized for the twentieth-anniversary concert), and he felt it was high time the concert came to New York. "There are a lot of people out there who don't realize how big a deal agriculture is in New York State," Wade told me, "and I hope the people here will listen to the message about why homegrown is better."
For better or worse, that message was largely confined to the Homegrown Village and to press conferences in the media tent, where artists like The Ditty Bops entertained with stories about working at New York's great Hawthorne Valley Farm and once performing for an audience of goats. Thirty-minute sets left little time for onstage politicking; but celebrities are rarely the most eloquent spokespeople anyway, and the spirit of the day--the perfect late summer weather, the Good Food, the farmers, the activists and, yes, the music--spoke for itself.
Besides, to some extent the idea behind Farm Aid is not twenty-two years young but as old as the country itself. After all, Jefferson was so enamored with the virtuous farmer that he once claimed, "Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example." "We are tillers of the earth," wrote J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in Letters From An American Farmer at the dawn of the Republic, "we are a people of cultivators...we have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed; we are the most perfect society now existing in the world." As the old folk song goes, "The farmer is the man who feeds 'em all"--an effectively straightforward refrain that dates to the Farmers' Alliance period of the late nineteenth century, not long before William Jennings Bryan famously harangued Eastern bankers and railroad men for crucifying the Populist farmers of the West upon a "cross of gold."
If we are at such a moment again, when the very survival of our nation's independent food producers is in question, then we would do well to listen once more to Jefferson and Bryan, and to farmers like Carroll Wade, whose cynical assessment of the current political environment--"Multinational corporations that control the food industry have all the money and write all the rules"--bespeaks a social anxiety stemming from something that runs much deeper than economic self-interest. And, finally, we should listen to the musicians who have been giving us Farm Aid and fair warning for more than two decades now. As the show moved into its tenth and final hour, Neil Young, who's been with Farm Aid every step of way, summed up the mood well: "It's an uphill battle, folks, and it's been a long trip. But it's been a good one."
The battle over the 2007 Farm Bill moves to the Senate in the next couple of weeks. Here's hoping that battle turns out well, too.
Max Fraser, a fall 2006 intern at The Nation, is at work on The Nation Guide to The Nation.
© 2007 The Nation