This past weekend marked the twenty ninth anniversary of Farm Aid. With what promised to be a spectacular line up and a wonderful cause, of course I made the trip, along with my boyfriend and trusty road trip companion Ryan, down to Raleigh, North Carolina. It did not disappoint.
In 1985, Willie Nelson founded Farm Aid and brought Neil Young and John Mellencamp on as fellow board members. Together they put on an unforgettable festival that still happens every year and draws in millions of dollars. In 2001, Dave Matthews was also made part of the board member roster. The purpose is to promote family farming and The Good Food Movement through music and bringing people together. From all over, musicians and fans come to listen to music, learn new farming skills (fishing 101, flower crowns anyone?), discuss farming techniques and hear a great lineup. Before this year, Farm Aid had already raised over forty five million dollars for the cause.
Although every Farm Aid is incredible, this one promised to be particularly special because it hosted my two favourite artists- Neil Young and Jack White. Additionally, there lay ahead opportunities to learn more about tobacco, a new historical interest of mine. This blog will discuss my experience at Farm Aid 2014 and what I learned. Feel free to use the subheadings to selectively read this post.
The day before the festival, Ryan and I (okay, Ryan) drove from Tillsonburg, the tobacco capital of Ontario, to North Carolina, another tobacco Mecca. It was a total of about twelve and a half hours, stopping for gas included and we had finally made it. Rather than go to the hotel right away, we checked out the venue to see what was happening.
This is when I realized how much work really goes into this festival. By acting like we had authority, Ryan and I snuck to the back stage area which was lively with volunteers and executive getting ready for the big day. Farmers were setting up vending booths with fresh, local food, roadies were setting up sound equipment and tour buses littered the lot. After overhearing a few sound checks and getting as far as we could without being caught, Ryan and I started to leave. That is, until we saw Neil Young’s Zuma tour bus pull in! We quickly returned, watched Neil get off the bus and busy himself getting ready for the next day. It was pretty cool being that close. Finally, we went to the hotel (to find we’d been upgraded for free- yay!) and fell asleep like babies.
The festival itself was awesome. There was loads of free and not free food- all from North and South Carolina. In fact everything at the festival was made within the area, including concert t-shirts, posters and anything you can think of. The one thing I really admire about this festival is its commitment to the cause.
The First Acts
The first few acts we saw included Willie Nelson’s granddaughter Raelyn Nelson, who dazzled the audience on her ukelele, Jamey Johnson and Gary Clark Junior, who I definitely recommend downloading! Here’s a video of Jamey Johnson singing with Lily Meola, one of my favourite songs of the day.
Transitions 101: From Tobacco to Good Food Panel
Around four o’clock I attended a discussion panel about North Carolina’s transition from tobacco to organic family farming with Chad Ray of Ray Family Farms, Fred Miller and Micah Nelson. I was excited to learn about how Tillsonburg’s change to mostly ginseng and tomatoes differed from the way North Carolina dealt with declining tobacco demands. While I wouldn’t say this is exactly what I learned about, I did learn some pretty good stuff and had fun along the way.
The panel opened with the MC discussing systematic inertia, the idea that even when a family farm wants to change, there is often a governmental or institutional body who is resistant to supporting that change. Similar to the Canadian Government, who urged Canadians not to smoke but still allowed foreign tobacco products (thereby not supporting its own farmers first), North Carolina Farmers also faced very difficult times trying to change over and stay afloat. However, the MC digressed, it is do-able and “those who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.”
First to speak was Chad Ray whose farm has been in his family for over 200 years. His father was the first of the generations to get a second job in addition to his mother’s full time job and at 18 years old, Chad was told that the farm had nothing left to offer him and he should leave. However, he persisted and was able to change ALL of the crops from tobacco to other things like tomatoes. He described the fact that he had to become a marketing genius in order to keep the farm running but now is able to sell good local food to his clients in the freshest and healthiest way possible.
Fred Miller, who was a part of the corporate world, started farming on his wife’s farm fifteen years ago, also changing the crops from tobacco to organic food. Starting from very little knowledge of farming, he used both other local farmers and their expertise as well as The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association to create the only USDA certified organic farm in the area. What a success story!
Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson’s son and also a musician, discussed the symbiosis between musicians and farmers and the usefulness that comes from that. While Farm Aid isn’t the permanent solution, his suggestion is that more “mini Farm Aids” are needed to make organic, family farms happen and survive.
The final lesson of this panel was that we need to be responsible for what we feed ourselves, that is, food that we are aware of in terms of lineage, pesticide and farming technique. Family farms are a culture and a community that needs saving.
Friendship Bracelets 101
While I had my heart set on making my own flower crown, supplies ran out and so I watched the lesson (flower crowns to come) and went to Friendship Bracelets 101 which turned out to be a revival of my past decades spent making hemp bracelets at camp. Fun!
Jack White came ready to rock. While most of the day thus far had been occupied by country artists, Jack White dazzled the crowd with a mix of just about everything. Half way through the set, a gentleman I had been talking to about Jack who had never seen him before leaned over and gave me the thumbs up. Afterwards, he discussed with me the amazing range of styles that Jack exhibited that day. I couldn’t agree more. While we may have started as the only ones standing in our section, we didn’t end that way. I would say the best song in Jack’s set was definitely Hotel Yorba and it seemed the audience thought so too.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds
Dave Matthews was the first of the four Farm Aid board members to perform. He started his set saying “I like fresh tomatoes, I like fresh cucumbers, I like coffee, I like beer”. While it wasn’t all that political, it sent out a good message and great vibes to an audience ready to take in the Farm Aid experience. For about an hour, he and his very talented guitarist played a great set of acoustic music for the audience in front of a changing backdrop of farm scenes (this was the backdrop all day).
Mellencamp’s set was a hit-heavy crowd pleaser. One of the best parts of his set however, was a recollection of his first Farm Aid Press Conference. After the questions had been asked he went back to his trailer and waited for Willie who took a good forty five minutes to join him. When Mellencamp inquired where Willie had been, Willie replied “Doing something you should consider-paying attention to your fans.” For Mellencamp this “gentle” lesson from Nelson resonated in a big way which just shows why Nelson is the grand daddy of Farm Aid!
Finally the set we had waited all day for was upon us. Introduced by Mellencamp as “One of the best songwriters of our time, who is Canadian, and we’ll have to forgive him for that” Neil took a stage decorated only by a candle on his organ and an aboriginal totem pole which follows him from show to show. Young was most definitely the most political of all the artists. Every song discussed ideas of preserving our earth. In between songs he talked to the crowd about natural vs. organic, the problems with North Carolina’s senator and the need to be aware of what we are eating. One of the highlights was Young’s newest song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”. Ryan and I started as the only ones standing in the entire section but by the end of the song, Neil had the entire crowd on their feet shouting out to him. It was an incredible and powerful feeling. The rest of Neil’s set was equally fantastic and included an altered version of Rockin’ in the Free World with Micah and Lucas Nelson. If one person embodied the message all day, it was Neil.
Willie Nelson took the stage after an introduction from Neil Young and the crowd went bazurk. He played a lengthy set of hits, joined on stage by loads of family members including his sons Micah and Lucas, his sister and his granddaughter Raelyn. It was a great, feel-good set that everybody enjoyed. For the last few songs he was also joined by the likes of Gary Clark Junior, Lily Meola, Jamey Johnson, The Preservation Hall Band, Delta Rae, an aboriginal group in full dress and many others. It was a wonderful way to end the night.
Overall it was a FANTASTIC trip. I had so much fun and it was possibly the hippiest of all festivals. The crowd were fun-loving and passionate about the cause, the music was wonderful, the food was tasty and the vibe was awesome. Let’s try to eat local and buy local whenever possible and support family farmers- I know I’ll be thinking twice about what I’m putting into my body! If you want to learn more about Farm Aid and their resources I highly suggest checking out the website.