Since 1985, Farm Aid has been working to raise awareness about the hardships that accompany family farming in the US. Though efforts are year-round, the annual Farm Aid Concert marks the culmination of hard work, dedication, and commitment from non-profit organizers, farmers, musicians, volunteers and more. This star-studded event is not only a celebration of music, but more importantly a grassroots movement for those in attendance to get involved in the cause.
Now in its 29th year, Farm Aid continues to work toward its mission by promoting food from family farms, growing the Good Food movement, helping farmers thrive, and taking local, regional and national action to promote fair policies. To date, Farm Aid has raised over $45 million to support a strong family farm system of agriculture that is built to withstand the test of time and challenge the heavy-hand of government and corporate power that limits so many small family farmers.
This year, Farm Aid chose to focus the attention on the unique struggles of North Carolina farmers. Organizers spent months gathering the facts and stories from family farmers like Kay Doby and Craig Watts who face the hardships of contract poultry, NC’s only African-American dairy farmers Dorthay and Phillip Barker who have experienced blatant discrimination, and The Vollmer family who bravely moved away from traditional tobacco farming to organic production. While these are just a few of the countless stories from across the state, they represent a nationwide struggle that Farm Aid has been trying to dissolve for nearly three decades.
Farm Aid’s board of directors—Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Dave Matthews—serve not only as the musical voices behind the cause, but also work to educate their fans year after year at the Farm Aid Concerts. Last month, Nelson, Mellencamp, Young, and Matthews took to Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater stage, along with acts like Jack White, Gary Clark Jr., Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jamey Johnson, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, and Durham-based Delta Rae, to share their talents and thoughts with a sold-out crowd.
Though scattered thunderstorms threatened the event throughout the day, the late summer weather managed to cooperate for organizers and concert-goers alike. When the gates opened at noon, fans, farmers and supporters found themselves at a venue that had been transformed into an interactive, family-friendly “Homegrown Village,” offering local fare, agricultural workshops, panel discussions, and educational exhibits from more than 35 local and national food and farm groups.
In the Skills Tent, participants learned how to make flower crowns and the best way to save seeds from their backyard harvest. On the Farm Yard Stage, farmers and musicians paired up to discuss important issues like farmer’s market dynamics, concentrated animal feeding operations, and the threat of international fish imports on local fishers. Hands-on demonstrations gave non-farmers opportunities to roll up their sleeves and learn more about the trade.
Farm Aid is likely the only concert where farmers are treated like VIPs. Farmers who registered were invited to pre-concert events, granted early-entry, and given special placards to wear while on-site. The farmers were not only drawn to the event to enjoy the music, but also to network, share ideas, and work toward finding viable solutions to support the family farmer.
Each year Farm Aid stacks the line-up with some of the top names in the music industry. Raleigh’s Farm Aid was no different. Performances that led up to the headliners proved entertaining, but the crowd’s energy really started picking up momentum when Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson took the stage, and it continued to mount until Willie himself closed out the evening with a stage full of friends.
In between Nelsons, Austin-based rocker Gary Clark Jr. drew standing ovations with an impressive 7-song set which included his hit “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round.” The Nashville-by-way-of-Detroit enigma Jack White followed and the crowd collectively went insane the moment he stepped on stage. Donning a new, slicked-back coif and long jaw-line sideburns, White rocked out a 10-song set with favorites like “Lazzaretto,” “We’re Going to Be Friends,” and “Seven Nation Army.” White and his band matched the static electric energy that was projected on the big screen behind them, and were clearly one of the evening’s crowd-favorites.
Matthews, along with longtime musical partner and guitar extraordinaire Tim Reynolds, played a more subdued acoustic set that kept the crowd standing, swaying and smiling, as if transported back to more carefree times. Matthews and Reynolds performed classic ballads like “Crush,” “Oh,” and “Dancing Nancies,” along with more message-driven anthems like “Don’t Drink the Water” “Bartender,” and “Ants Marching.”
Mellencamp kept the crowd happy with popular hits that date back before the beginning of Farm Aid. The engaged audience sang along to songs like “Jack and Diane,” “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Crumblin’ Down.” Mellencamp shared stories between songs, adding in a layer of self-deprecating humor that softened his admitted rough edges.
Young found his way to the stage just after 9 p.m. Staying true to form, he filled the space between songs with sermon, calling out N.C. Senator Richard Burr for his anti-farming voting record and educating the audience about better food choices. His song choices were obvious and deliberate with hits like “Heart of Gold,” “Pocahontas,” “Mother Earth,” and “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth.” After being joined on stage by Lukas and Micah Nelson, Young closed with a rowdy “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
It only seemed fitting that Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, who opened the day-long event, would also close out his 29th Farm Aid Concert. Sporting his trademark, tattered and torn Martin N-20 guitar Trigger and long braids, Nelson performed originals and covers while surrounded by his band, family and special guests. Just over 80 years-old, Nelson continued to delight fans with favorites like “On the Road Again” and country classics like “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” His performance solidified the fact that his gift lies not in the smoothness of voice or nimble finger-picking, but in his down-home charm and ability to connect with everyday people.
This year’s Farm Aid delivered not only an amazing musical experience to fans, but it also gave North Carolina farmers a stronger voice. Concert goers of all ages were called to act in the best interest of the family farmer, both at the dinner table and in the voting booth. While Farm Aid founders and organizers openly wish they did not have to plan this event year after year, their vision remains steady and focused on changing the structure that currently drives agricultural policy in the U.S.
Young may have described the current situation best when he stated, “We love Farm Aid, but we don’t love that we are doing Farm Aid. It’s not a celebration. It’s a mission to change what’s going on.” As Farm Aid organizers move on to begin planning next year’s event, farmers and their supporters will continue to work so that family farms are better equipped to survive and thrive well into the future.
View photos from Farm Aid 2014 here