As charity work goes evermore viral, Farm Aid digs for deeper local roots | Music Feature | Indy Week
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As charity work goes evermore viral, Farm Aid digs for deeper local roots 

Someone needs to throw a benefit concert for the large-scale benefit concert. A relic of a bygone era of swollen major-label budgets and old-fashioned superstars, spectacles such as Concert for Bangladesh and the Tibetan Freedom Concert once routed dollars and attention to their particular cri de coeur.

Occasional one-offs, like the 12/12/12 benefit for Hurricane Sandy, still funnel large sums of money to needy charities, but going viral is faster, with less overhead and infrastructure. That's not how Farm Aid started, and with its mission to have an on-the-ground impact with farmers and legislators, it's not where the fundraiser hopes to go, either.

"Dad was watching Live Aid, a concert for Africa," remembers Willie Nelson's son, Lukas Nelson. "And Dylan said there should be a concert like this for farmers in America. Dad took that to heart and started it up."

Farm Aid has become America's most ambitious, longest-running benefit concert. During the last three decades, the organization has raised more than $45 million, all directed toward farmers or groups that support them. They've generated those funds in large part through perennially broad lineups—The Beach Boys and Wilco, Emmylou Harris and Kid Rock, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Last year's show even featured the final public performance by American folk icon Pete Seeger.

"Dad and Neil Young and Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp were all on stage behind him playing backup, singing 'This Land is Your Land,' the song that Woody Guthrie wrote while Pete was with him," Nelson remembers. "It's always some pretty amazing times anytime Farm Aid rolls around."

This year, when Farm Aid comes to Raleigh for the first time, the bill links the usual headliners—Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, Matthews—with blues-soul guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, guitar-slinging provocateur Jack White and traditional country artists such as Jamey Johnson. Sleek Durham band Delta Rae represents the local contingent. Satirical roots-rock songwriter Todd Snider says that being tapped for the event this year is a career highpoint.

"I can't believe it, actually," he says. "It was like standing next to Mount Rushmore a little bit. I didn't mean to be uncool or un-Kristofferson-y, but I wanted to just casually breathe into a paper bag. Is there a way to look nonchalant and aloof while you breathe into a paper bag?"

But the expense of getting enough popular performers to join—not to mention the expenses and logistics of their crews, broadcasters, sponsors, the venue and marketing—makes it a capital-intensive way to raise money. In 2011, for instance, expenses absorbed 82 percent of every dollar Farm Aid raised, even though the acts played for free. That's forced Farm Aid to become more than a concert; they've become an educational experience for both farmers and the people they hope to feed.

"Farm Aid still does it the old school way because we started in 1985, at the time of the huge benefit concert as the awareness raiser," says Jennifer Fahy, who has worked for Farm Aid since 2002. She cites We Are the World and the Concert for Bangladesh as examples. "It's unprecedented that artists of this caliber would stay committed to one single cause for that long and to come back and do it every year."

Indeed, the willingness of Young, Mellencamp, Nelson and, since 2001, Matthews, to commit their time and fame every year has helped sustain the effort. Their example has served to bring in other big-name artists, and the nonprofit makes an obvious attempt to reach a broad cross-section of fans. Of necessity, though, those performances have become only the most visible aspect of the organization's consciousness-raising. For instance, Farm Aid has grown into an ad hoc convention for many farmers.

"What people see is the concert and Willie Nelson and people like that, but Farm Aid represents a whole national network of organizations and people that do lots of stuff with them," explains Scott Marlow. He directs the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a Pittsboro-based nonprofit that works to shape agricultural policy and collaborates with Farm Aid as a first responder for troubled North Carolina farmers.

"I've had lots of strategy meetings about different issues sitting on the lawn at Farm Aid concerts," Marlow continues. "It's a time to catch up and share information. We always do training and workshops."

This exchange of ideas and sharing of victories is a moment of solidarity, Fahy says, a necessary step in the push for policy changes to make not only healthier food, but healthier people and communities.

"They take vacation from their own farms, travel to wherever Farm Aid is and go on the farm tour," says Fahy. The tour prowls among farms in and around the host city of that year's concert, allowing the people who work the land to connect, commiserate and share what they've learned. "They want to be out on the farm, talking to other farmers and seeing how other people are doing it. They all have organizations that they're a part of but farmer organizations tend to meet in the winter, so when they come to Farm Aid it's a family reunion."

When Dylan gave Nelson the Farm Aid idea, farmers were in crisis. High interest rates, tight credit, drought and low commodity prices had driven more than a million from their land. Conditions have improved. Since that first 1985 concert, for instance, grocery store chains dedicated to organic and local food have grown. Farmers markets are in vogue, as are movements like locavore and farm-to-table eating. Consumers have taken an increasing interest in the origins of their food, how it's produced and how far it travels.

Other problems, however, have intensified.

"We're not at the point of crisis we were in 1985," Fahy says, "but we are still talking about the same issues we were then—access to credit, fair prices, corporate control of our food system, which has only increased a hundredfold since the '80s."

While 96 percent of the farms in this country are still family-owned, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the demographics have shifted. The age of the average farmer in the U.S. is 58, according to another USDA report; in Wake County, that number has historically been several years higher. People simply aren't staying on the family farms in the same numbers.

"It's very hard for farmers to make it in that environment," says Marlow. "In the larger-scale markets, where most of agriculture lives, you get into a very different picture with highly concentrated ownership, globalized markets and lopsided contracts."

And because of the capital-intensive nature of starting a farm, those who do go the Green Acres route tend to do it on an incredibly small level, limiting their productivity and market impact. Chris Rumbley, who directs Raleigh City Farm, is familiar with such hurdles of scale.

"Most new farmers trying to come on are in their late 40s and they're coming in with capital from previous careers, probably in the tech industry, and they're really hobby farming at 5 to 10 acres," says Rumbley. "Then you've got new farmers who are young and going through programs and learning to farm, equally often not having farm land. They're starting at 1–5 acres."

The 1-acre Raleigh City Farm not only grows and sells its produce to local restaurants, but they educate children and community members about how to grow produce and what it means to make food local, too. Rumbley says that mission is essential to the success of such backyard farms and area "food sheds."

"We won't be able to source most of our organic products from California and North Carolina. It won't make sense," he says, noting that just 3 percent of the state's farmland produces fruits and vegetables. "So re-localizing our food shed will become a necessity in the future, and that's the emphasis we're tying to take. You're going to see a need to change the model of distribution, marketing and sales."

That's part of the plan for Hobby Properties, the company that helped develop Raleigh City Farm. They're working to create a market and restaurant on the site, too, and are partnering with local farmers to inaugurate dairy and butcher programs.

"We were looking for a use for the land that would engage the community and the neighborhood, reconnecting urban areas with their food sources we've lost in the urban sprawl," says Hobby Properties owner John Holmes Jr.

Holmes was on hand when Farm Aid representatives visited Raleigh City Farm before announcing the capital city as the concert's next host. The week of the Raleigh concert, Farm Aid will throw a fundraiser at the farm featuring area chefs. The next day, they'll route a caravan through the grounds during the farm tour.

"That seems to be a focus of theirs as well," he says, "reconnecting people to where the food comes from."

Farm Aid realized early that just giving farmers money wasn't going to solve many problems. Though they still provide some direct emergency grants to farmers to keep the lights on, they devote more resources to empowering groups like Marlow's RAFI. And, onsite at the concerts, the catering is sourced from neighboring farms. They put the venue's concessions in touch with local farmers, forging relationships that continue long after Farm Aid moves on to its next host city. They introduce new items that reflect the region—this year, locally grown roasted corn, boiled peanuts, grits, and shrimp and tuna from the Pamlico Sound. Slingshot Coffee will serve its cold-brew, made in downtown Raleigh, while the event's T-shirts come from organic cotton grown about an hour east of the concert itself.

"One of the things I'm really excited about is an Italian ice made from native North Carolina fruits including elderberry, blueberry, blackberry and paw-paw," says Fahy.

Since part of its mandate is raising awareness, Farm Aid hosts plenty of organizations and educational installations. But they want to offer more than action-alert email lists, fliers and pamphlets. Their "Homegrown Village" focuses on participatory exhibits, demonstrations and discussions. They've even created a phone application to alert patrons to all the partnering programs, their locations and how to get involved.

"Our mission is to take people that are going to farmers market and say how can we take them deeper," Fahy says. "How can we show them this isn't just about buying our way out of a bad food system but really going deeper and seeing where the root cause is and how we can affect it? That's huge systemic change, but we're working towards it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rows to hoe."

  • Farm Aid realized early that just giving farmers money wasn't going to solve many problems.

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