I remember watching one of the first Farm Aid benefit concerts on TV. Not sure if it was the inaugural event in 1985 or a few years later in ’87 or ’88, but I vividly recall that always-happy guy with two braids and a beard who wasn’t Kenny Rogers. He was jamming with a flannel-shirt-clad dude with massive sideburns and harmonica strapped to his face, just like the headgear some of my schoolmates wore to score straight teeth. I remember the phone number splashed across the bottom of the TV screen and remember the artists imploring America to donate money to family farmers.
Not having grown up in a farming community or ever having circled a silo, I knew next to nothing about farmers’ plights or struggles. Gazing out the car window along our semiannual drives to visit family in North Dakota, the corn seemed to be growing just fine and the haystacks looked neat and tidy, so all was good, right? Clearly, Farm Aid’s message carried little weight with me back then (I’ll guess I’ll cut myself a break, since I was only 6, 7, 8 or 9)—but I did think the concert was “cool.” And I never forgot it.
When I got a little older, say junior high age, and somehow got way more into 1960s and ’70s rock and folk than is normal for a 12-year-old girl, those two grungy crooners morphed into icons I knew well: Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Willie I liked, Neil I loved, and 20 years later, I gotta say my musical penchants have changed very little, if at all. I could sing you the entire After the Gold Rush album on a dime (though I wouldn’t recommend it for your ears’ sake) and I still hang tight to my parents’ worn-out Zuma record, even though I own no means of playing it.
Anyway, the point is, as these two artists cemented themselves into my life’s soundtrack, their passions and missions and ideals and opinions snagged a permanent position on my radar. And as two of the three artist-founders of Farm Aid (I think the third, John Mellencamp, was still running around as “Cougar” in those days and therefore didn’t quite register on my personal cool meter), Neil and Willie championed the causes of independent and family farmers, along with environmental responsibility and caring for your neighbor. So, sure enough, I listened.
Although Farm Aid’s mission may have first started to resonate with me because I hung on its musicians’ every word, nowadays it hits home much harder. I still can’t count too many family farmers in my inner circle, and I don’t have any idea what it’d be like to till a field or feed a chicken, but I can see quite clearly the troubles brought about by factory farming and agribusiness.
Our food system is whacked, the farm subsidy program is askew, pesticides are pervasive, water’s running dry, and chubby children are waddling through gas stations clutching Big Gulps and Blow-Pops. I feel like Americans have to be buried pretty deeply under rocks to not have some awareness of these troubles. But, luckily, it does seems to me like more people are starting to connect the dots and see that a big catalyst for many of these issues is indeed the fallout from giant factory farms having swept across America. Which brings me back to the beauty of Farm Aid …
Music so deeply touches so many people across so many demographics, and if that connection incites awareness of the need to protect family farmers, then fantastic. As I admitted above, I glommed onto Farm Aid because I thought Neil and Willie were awesome, and if they felt so strongly about something, then I maybe I should too. So what’s the harm in that? Absolutely nothing.
Now I’m stoked to say that this August, I’m blessed to finally attend my first Farm Aid concert, at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. I’m pumped to see Neil, Willie, Mellencamp (I dig him now), and Dave Matthews, who joined the board in 2001, along with Neil’s wife Pegi Young, Jakob Dylan, Jamey Johnson and a whole slew of other artists I’ve not yet heard but am eager to check out. But I’m equally enthused to cruise the Homegrown Concessions, at which all food sold is family farmer identified and local, to talk to these venders, and hopefully get some scoop on how bringing healthy, natural foods to a monster music venue really is possible. I can’t wait to survey the crowd, to feel the spirit, to commune with the music and message.
Hey, if you can steal away to KC for a weekend, come join me. If not, I get it, but when you’re in Baltimore for Natural Products Expo East, be sure to hit up Celebrating Family Farmers with Farm Aid at the Pratt Street Ale House on Friday, Sept. 23, for great eats and live music, all in support of Farm Aid.
Now, excuse me, I need to go figure out what I’m gonna say to Neil if given the opportunity.
Photo credit: Ebet Roberts