by Andrew Stern
After 28 years, Farm Aid is finally coming to North Carolina. What is Farm Aid you ask? A benefit concert with all time legends like Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews. The crowd hopes the music sounds as good as the locally grown food tastes. Andrew Stern reports.
Gary Clark, Jr. is one of the hottest up-and-coming guitarists around. And today, he will be donating his riffs to a good cause: Farm Aid.
According to Jen Fahy, communications director for Farm Aid, the annual concert was the brainchild of Willie Nelson. He was touring the country during the eighties farm crisis, in which thousands of farmers lost their land to foreclosure, when he came up with the idea.
“Willie had the idea to do a concert,” Rahy said. “He travels the country, stops at diners and truck stops and he was talking to farmers in the early eighties and they were telling him what was going on and he thought, ‘Well, what can I do? I can have a concert. I can play music. That’s what I’ll do.”
It was then that nelson called John Mellencamp and Neil Young to join him, and together they founded Farm Aid in 1985. In 2001, Dave Matthews joined on as a board member and annual performer as well.
Fahy said that initially, some farmers were skeptical about the idea, but Nelson worked with them and with farm advocacy groups to show it was about more than just music.
“We’re not just a concert,” Fahy said. “We’re an organization that works 365 days out of the year to provide resources to family farmers and to provide resources to eaters as well so that they can be involved in the moment to help support family farmers.”
Farm Aid raises awareness of issues affecting family farmers, helps farmers find new markets, staffs a hotline and hosts a website to connect farmers to local advocacy and support groups.
Scott Marlow, is the executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, or RAFI, in Pittsboro. This is the first time Farm Aid has been to North Carolina, but RAFI has worked with it to help local farmers for years.
“If a farmer calls the Farm Aid hotline and syas they’re coming for my equipment on Friday or I just got a notice of foreclosure, and they’re from this area, they’ll get our phone number,” Marlow said.
RAFI and Farm Aid also work together to campaign for new government policies favoring family farmers.
“One of the questions that we ask together is, ‘What is it about regulations, about laws, about markets, about whatever that is either helping farmers stay in business in a way that is sustainable, in a way that is good for their communities and the planet, or is it not doing that… is pushing them out of business?’” Marlow said.
While RAFI works with Farm Aid on a regular basis, Marlow is excited about the opportunities Farm Aid brings to North Carolina with the concert being in Raleigh.
“One of the greates things about Farm Aid is that when they come to town, is that they work very hard to make their presence in a community benefit that community, and use it to open up doors in a lot of different ways,” Marlow said.
“So, for instance, when folks go out to the show in Walnut Creek on Saturday, they will see lots of local food being sold through the concessions that probably wouldn’t be sold if you went to a concert last month or the month before.”
Despite the positive impact that Farm Aid can have in local communities like Raleigh, Fahey — the Farm Aid spokeswoman — says family farms still face an uphill battle.
“Making people aware of the roots of the challenges in our food system that affect farmers, that affect al of us in our health and our communities and our natural resources, that’s really crucial to building the base that can hopefully make a systemic change in our food system,” Fahey said.
If you want to hear some great tunes from legends Neil Young and Willie Nelson or up-and-comers Jack White and Gary Clark, Jr., the festival begins today at noon at the Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh. And, Farm Aid and RAFI are hoping you sample some of the locally-sourced food and meet some of our North Carolina farmers.