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The "Big Four"--John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, and Neil Young--with Pete Seeger, Saturday night in Saratoga Springs. Photo: © Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc., used with permission
The "Big Four"--John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, and Neil Young--with Pete Seeger, Saturday night in Saratoga Springs. Photo: © Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc., used with permission

Food, politics & The Big Four at Farm Aid

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This week, we're listening back to our favorite stories from 2013.

For the first time in its 28 year history, Farm Aid came to Upstate New York this year. It's the longest running benefit concert in the country, started to help farmers devastated by drought and a credit crunch.

Today it's about much more than good music to help farmers stay in business. It's about buying local, sustaining rural communities, and considering the roles of "Big Agriculture" and "small family farms" in America.

Natasha Haverty and David Sommerstein tagged teamed our coverage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs back in September.

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David Sommerstein
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David: In 1985, the day before Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp took the stage for the first Farm Aid in Illinois, Doug and Barb White – corn and soybean farmers near Oswego - got married.

[singing – ain’t that America]

28 years later – by coincidence - they’re tailgating in the SPAC parking lot, celebrating their anniversary at Farm Aid.

Why not? It’s my first biggest concert, for both of us. We’ve never been. “Wait, this guy has a ‘yes, I was raised in a barn’ and what did you say?” I said, first time I’ve been off the farm. [Laughs]

The Whites love the mission of Farm Aid…

Support your local farmers. There’s more and more farmers markets coming out every year.

But like most of the other tailgaters out here, they’re here to party and they’re psyched to get inside…

Natasha: Inside the gates, people unfold lawn chairs and roll out blankets. Under one of the tents, you can cure your own bacon, or learn about the latest lawsuit against Monsanto, or stick your head through a wooden replica of American Gothic. The line out the men’s bathroom is actually longer than the women’s, and an even longer one snakes out from the beer tent. Then there’s the food.

Jesus: My name is Jesus Diaz, I’m a 17-year-old Puerto Rican, and I’m making corn dogs.

Drew: I’m Drew Hartell and I work for Jalapeño Corndog Inc.

[You have to tip extra for that!]

Jesus: We have veggie corndogs with soy and tofu, classic corndogs, and japapeño corndogs.

Drew: Basically what you do is you put it down in the batter which is comprised mostly of cornmeal wheat flour, and you slowly insert it into the oil, hold it for a few seconds until it starts to swell (sizzle). A properly made corndog will just sit in the grease and roll until it is a golden perfect brown. Grab another dog, rinse lather repeat!

David: I’m in the back of the line, the very end of the line, I think this may be one of the longest lines for getting food. And it’s for the Montreal Poutine Truck. And you are?

Shannon: Shannon Nixon, Albany New York. It’s worth it, it is worth it. Gravy, on top of French fries with squeaky cheese it’s worth it. I felt like, I told him, I have to stand here, I have to, because that’s what at the end. I’m here for farms. And Willie. And Willie; it’s always about Willie. In the end my life is really about Willie. This is the pinnacle of my life. The rest will be all disappointments. When I was growing up my dad, when Willie Nelson came on, everybody had to stop and take their hats off. Everybody. Because it was Willie Nelson. My dad’s an old rodeo cowboy, and he makes spurs for a living now, he’s retired. Yes I danced to Willie Nelson at my wedding, with my dad! Yes, wasn’t it “Mama’s Don’t Let Their Babies Grow—“ or “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”…it was between the two of ‘em.

(Fade up Willie Nelson, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”)

Natasha: Farm Aid is saturated with this kind of hero worship—the Neil Young pins covering people’s vests and sunhats, the long grey hair that fans have grown to look just like Willie’s. The big four are like a Mt. Rushmore looking down on all of us.

David: Speaking of the Big Four, here’s something about Farm Aid 2013 – the politics.

At their annual press conference, the Big Four came out swinging against “Big Ag”, that it’s destroying small family farms, people’s health, and the environment. They spoke against factory farms and fracking, the need to address climate change.

Here’s Neil Young.

If we grow the wrong way like the corporate farms are doing, we’re going to really trash this place.

And Dave Matthews.

We can’t eat well if we eat this giant agricultural corporate food that’s sort of being funneled to us.

And John Mellencamp.

Don’t let the Big Man shove you around. Stand up for yourself.

And Willie Nelson.

The people who don’t agree with us on all this…will be, ‘we’re not happy, until you’re not happy.’

The thing is some of those people…are their fans at this show.

Tailgating outside, I met Mallory Perkins and Alison Wilshere, as psyched as anyone about local foods and small local farmers.

We’re enjoying some snacks from the Argyle cheese farmer in Argyle, New York, so we have some Argyle cheese curds, and also some cheese from locust grove smokehouse.

They had local hot dogs and sausages on the grill, too.

But get this. Perkins and Wilshere both work for Cargill, helping dairy farms feed their herds. Cargill is one of the largest feed companies in the world, and a company Neil Young would specifically criticize later that night. Perkins says it’s a problem with Farm Aid.

I support the concept of what Farm Aid brings to the table, but I would love to see it on a broader scale as well because there are farms that are helping us get through our daily lives.

Wilshere says people like the Big Four are misunderstanding what a family farm means today.

People get corporation as a dirty word, they get factory farm as a dirty word and they don’t exactly know what they’re talking about.

She says many of New York’s biggest dairy farms are family businesses.

Just because a farm has 500 cows doesn’t mean that they’re the enemy, doesn’t mean they have bad practices. In fact, they have the best practices in order to have gotten to that point.

I ask Wilshire what she’d say if Neil Young came walking up right now. She doesn’t miss a beat – she’d say, thanks for the great concert.

Natasha: So what does Farm Aid do with all the money it raises anyway?

It’s the primary fundraising vehicle that allows Farm Aid to do its work year round.

Joel Morton is one of Farm Aid’s core staff. He actually used to teach at St. Lawrence University in Canton. His title is “farm advocate” and he says Farm Aid spends the other 364 days of the year spreading the word about the movement, and most importantly, coming to farmers’ aid. Morton runs a national hotline, that farmers call up every day to talk about whatever difficulty they’re up against.

Everything from serious financial problems, serious difficulty getting a loan in order to farm for the coming season, to technical problems, to disaster, natural disaster like a flood, sometimes suicide, or suicidal farmers who will call in deep crisis? It’s the full gamut of problems and we try very hard to have the kind of resources in place to help people out.

Natasha: But on this day, it’s all about The Big Four.

David: Or at least it was about The Big Four until they were upstaged by a 94 year-old from the Hudson Valley. Pete Seeger showed up with an anti-fracking verse for This Land Is Your Land.

Natasha: People went crazy, and whether it was about the message or the surprise guest or anything else, it didn’t matter. Their heroes were playing for them at Farm Aid, asking them to sing along.

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