Let it be said here that this was the day when we may look back on when the revolution was declared. Or as Neil Young said on the morning of Saturday, September 17, “The Better Food Revolution.”
Young appeared at his 31st Farm Aid like he was Mayor of the Earth, the planet’s five letters all in uppercase emblazoned EARTH on his black t-shirt. Young was decrying big agriculture for selling food that’s been degraded, taking a shot at Barack Obama. “Even your president supports it.”
“It starts with people like you and with all of us,” Young said late Saturday morning at a press conference alongside his fellow board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews. They were surrounded by a slew of entrepreneurial farmers and advocates and fellow performers including Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson.
By the time he hit the stage sometime after 9:00 pm., Young was in stellar form opening with “Heart of Gold” and “Out on The Weekend” from his landmark album Harvest. When he saw the full moon, it prompted a sparkling version of “Harvest Moon.” Young was still using his bully pulpit proselytizing about the need for us to get back to the soil and buy food from local farmers, so we don’t have to take the drugs that the large corporations manufacture.
“We’re glad to be here 31 times,” Nelson said at the morning’s press conference, moments before stepping onstage and singing an acapella version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” to begin a day that culminated in a gospel finale just before the calendar changed. “We’re glad to be anywhere,” he added to much laughter, borrowing a signature phrase from the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards famous mid-show one-liners.
John Mellencamp said it was unimaginable thirty-one years ago that he’d be here today. Dave Matthews noted that he always gets introduced last, but is like state royalty in his adopted Virginia and got a shout-out from the state’s First Lady.
This year’s Farm Aid had a next generation youth infusion. Two of Nelson’s sons – Micah and Lukas – performed, and Mellencamp’s son Ian joined the line-up which included Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and Margo Price. The Alabama Shakes serenaded us and made us feel like we were listening to Otis Redding at times. Sturgill Simpson’s trippy and funky band was like a modern day soul revue.
Simpson, who hails from a family of coal miners, said he wasn’t going to pretend he was an expert on the plight of the farmer. But he knew enough about what it’s like for a family to wonder how they’re going to feed itself.
In the morning Young had seemed almost like an old professor, talking about the videos we’d see on the screen, featuring the warriors beside him who were changing the ways in which food was grown and distributed. As one example, in the historically poor region of Appalachia, food is giving an economy hope, connecting farmers to local markets.
Outside in the village square of Farm Aid, there was a new breed of vendors and interactive displays abounded. Inside the Farm Aid Homegrown tent, I attended a few workshops called “Finding The Egg” and “Food Justice.” Small farmers are creating organic markets with farm-friendly, animal-friendly conditions. Retailers and manufacturers are taking notice. Companies can now get certification from animal rights groups like the ASPCA.
Jamey Johnson, attending his ninth Farm Aid, sat up on the makeshift stage and used an analogy to talk about the food we eat. “Imagine yourself at Thanksgiving. You’re fixing a plate and sitting down to eat. You’ve got your turkey, your fixings and a nice roll. And then some asshole comes around and sprays it with brown duct. Are you still going to eat? I’m gonna fix me another plate. A small family farmer is not going to spray your Thanksgiving dinner brown.”
As Johnson spoke the strains of Margo Price’s “Tennessee” could be heard echoing out of the amphitheater. Two songs into her set Price shared the story of her own family losing its farm during “Hands of Time.” The Illinois-born singer (now in Nashville) later in the set sang very emotionally in a song that dealt with the loss of the farm, referencing Willie Nelson and Neil Young coming to help in a way they have done for so many years since setting up a hotline during the first Farm Aid.
Johnson’s deep and warm voice carried with it the best endorsement a family farmer could want. “I’m from Montgomery, Alabama. I know a lot of small family farmers. They’re good people.”
Onstage with Alison Krauss an hour after his workshop, Johnson provided afternoon comfort with his classic country duet “Make the World Go Away”.
Nathaniel Rateliff, a humble and admitted poor boy from Missouri, sat with Johnson in the “Food Justice Tent.” During the afternoon, he turned Farm Aid into an R&B night club. One minute his band the Night Sweats seem like a reenactment of Sam and Dave and the next you feel like you’re listening to The Band. And when he turns it up and leashes into a frenzy, this is the band you’d most likely take home as a newfound fan.
There was a sense that this being Virginia, Dave Matthews was the big draw. A favored son of his adopted Charlottesville, Matthews spoke about the connection between food and health. He cited the city as being one of the markets that’s created a food hub for growers to sell their foods directly to medical clinics and hospitals.
The role of food as medicine is one of the tenants of a program in Georgia. One of the speakers, a woman named Shirley, has been an advocate since 1965 when her father was killed by a white farmer and the case never went to a grand jury. Now she is gearing up to help launch a food hub for local farmers to sell produce in a building that was once a Winn-Dixie store. With a poverty rate of 40% in her area, she struggles knowing that most of the food grown in her area is shipped out of state and doesn’t get to the people who most need it. The new model of distributing food seems more like the old model. It’s getting back in touch with the land in local communities.
Before the good food revolution, many got to know Neil Young when he stepped on the soil of Max Yasgur’s Farm at another famous festival, Woodstock.
“I like that T-shirt,” he said, pointing to someone in the audience in the middle of his acoustic set with Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. It said “Fuck Monsanto.” The gigantic seed producer was acquired this week by the Bayer pharmaceutical company.
Over breakfast that morning, Nelson talked about signs of progress. His bacon and eggs came from a local organic farmer. It used to come in from 1500 miles away. “Farmers are realizing they can do it.”
Perhaps the day’s most emotional moment was when Johnson began singing “This Land Is Your Land” against Krauss’ rueful violin accompaniment to the timeless and hopeful words of Woody Guthrie.
By the time of Dave Matthews’ set, it was the second time we’d heard Guthrie’s anthem. Matthews wove it into his tapestry of acoustic songs he played with guitarist Tom Reynolds.
Matthews thanked the audience for allowing him to take his weirdness on stage. It reminded me of a line from earlier in the morning when Farm Aid’s executive director quoted Young who coined the phrase, “We’re going to win in a weird way.”
The next morning a houseful of friends traded stories over coffee, taking in the events of the previous day. We found ourselves divvying up seeds in plastic bags that had been handed out at one of the Farm Aid displays. It seemed time to get our hands in the soil.
Maybe that’s how revolutions begin. One seed at a time.