The volcano that is Neil Young doing “Down By the River” was erupting to the roar of a sold-out FarmAid crowd. Accompanied by Crazy Horse and Willie Nelson, the patron saint of American farming, the stage sagged with a psychedelic constellation of rock stars and native American dancers fully decked in ceremonial garb. Neil was totally in another world. Rock and roll does not get better than this.
Before “Homegrown” and a seismic rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Young had a few words. “We need a Bill of Rights for the farmer,” he said. “Corporate agriculture is killing the family farm. Don’t go to those big stores. Stay away. Buy organic, direct from the farmer.”
Now in its eighteenth year, FarmAid has become a national institution, working to save the family farm. Originating with the ageless Willie Nelson, and with Young and John Mellencamp—“our little band of outlaws,” says Nelson—the annual day-long show has become a treasured icon of vibrant culture and progressive politics for an age in desperate need.
It has not mellowed with age. As George W. Bush babbled on national television, demanding billions more to “rebuild” Iraq, Mellencamp delivered a blistering indictment of an administration defined by death and pillage. Why are we spending all this money over there, he wondered, when our own farms are in such tough shape here. Dressed in his signature blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt, the Indiana-based Mellencamp mixed a ballad to peace and justice into a strong set built around vintage rock classics.
No lasers, no gimmicks, no out-of-control egos, the show cruised through a stellar line-up that balanced a hard-rocking Sheryl Crow with the ethereal Emmylou Harris, who’s lost none of her crystalline beauty through a quarter-century of stardom. An acoustic set from Dave Mathews shone alongside a blast from Hootie and the Blowfish.
But the meaning of this show is its message. At a packed 11am press conference preceding the all-day marathon, Nelson anchored two tiers of high-powered rock stars, farmers, activists and native spiritual leaders. Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland delivered a moving tribute to his own upbringing on a family farm (as did Crow). Cleveland Representative Dennis Kucinich, the progressive Democratic candidate for president, attacked corporate agriculture with a demand for anti-trust action. “Eighty percent of all the beef and sixty percent of all the pork in this country is controlled by four corporations,” he said. “They are crushing the aspirations of the family farmer. This is a fight for freedom.”
Guided by a core staff of long-time executive director Carolyn Mugar and Glenda Yoder, Ted Quaday and Mark Smith, Farm Aid has become the rock on which American small farming relies. Over the weekend in central Ohio, the Farm Aid team highlighted the tangible realities of the issues by helping to organize a tour of local farms, where my kids and I bought some honey, took a hayride and watched a sheep shearing. On the eve of the concert, Quaday helped coordinate a three-hour outdoor gathering of farmers from around the nation, held at a nearby environmental center. One after the other the farmers blasted the Bush Administration’s attempts to water down standards for organic food while subsidizing the march of corporate agribusiness. “We don’t want just the NAME organic,” says Young, “we want the reality.”
A prime target for Farm Aid activism has been the nation’s factory farms, where cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys are crammed en masse under horrific conditions, yielding massive pollution and poisonous drug-laden food. A long Ohio campaign against the mega-polluter Buckeye Egg brought solidarity from the Ohio Environmental Council and other eco-groups, accompanied by a blast from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union against brutal working conditions at Tyson Foods.
Corporate sponsorship did play a role with Silk Soymilk/WhiteWave and Horizon Organics. The hugely successful soy dairy has recently been bought by Dean Foods, but retains its commitment to organic produce and small farming. White Wave founder and president Steve Demos presented a check to FarmAid at center state. Both White Wave and Horizon distributed free organic products throughout the show.
Fittingly, PBS will broadcast two hours of the show from 9-11pm EST, November 27 (check your local listings). As America digests its Thanksgiving dinner, it might contemplate Willie Nelson’s message that this is “more than a struggle about farms, it’s about the little guy v.s the big guy, about the family farm vs. the factory farm, and about the community vs. the corporation.”
Amidst all else it’s doing, the Bush Administration is working hard to turn over the last bit of farmer-owned agriculture to the mega-corporations. From pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer to genetically modified foods and financial pillage, the American family farm is hanging on by a thread. As times get harder and the nature of our food is even more under attack, Farm Aid has become increasingly essential.
“The key to securing healthy food for tomorrow is to keep family farmers on the land today,” says Nelson. “It’s about the very future of our country.”
For Further Information see www.farmaid.org.
HARVEY WASSERMAN is senior editor of www.freepress.org and co-author (with Dan Juhl) of HARVESTING WIND ENERGY AS A CASH CROP: A GUIDE TO LOCALLY OWNED WIND FARMING.