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 Wasserman, 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,” she implored, “needs to be involved.”