The patchwork quilt of humanity stretched as far as the eye could see, an ocean of cowboy boots, camo, tattoos, tie-dye, overalls, rhinestone jeans, biker graphics, bare feet, skin-tight yoga pants, oversize sweaters, sports bras, sundresses, plaid shirts, flip flops, all black. Even a guy wearing a Day-Glo green t-shirt proclaiming “Put a little South in yer Mouth.” The far ends of the political spectrum and thousands in the middle seemed to agree for a day, coexisting peacefully side-by-side, happily celebrating one of the most red-white-and-blue things of all: outdoor live music, for a cause.
As I sat cross-legged on the Walnut Creek Amphitheater lawn, listening to John Mellencamp belt out these lyrics from a song much older than many of the people in the audience who were singing along at the tops of their lungs, it struck me that Farm Aid is really about as much America as you can get in one place.
It’s not only the musicians from the myriad genres who donated their talents, or the 20,000-some people from all walks of life who spent 12-ish hours enjoying the performances. It’s not just about the freedom to drink a locally crafted draft beer, washing down an NC BBQ pork sandwich with coleslaw and grilled corn on the cob. Mostly, it’s America because the day is really about the farmers just down the road who make that all possible.
Farming truly is the core of America’s history, starting with the Pilgrims who celebrated our first Thanksgiving with their bountiful harvest and continuing with the pilgrimage out west and the settlers who made their own “patchwork quilts” out of farmed land along the way. Of course agriculture isn’t just an American story, it’s an ancient one told as humans found a way to survive without hunting and gathering, but I would argue that we uniquely embrace it as part of our shared history.
My family was a part of that history. My dad and grandfather farmed just over 300 acres in the Midwest, raising pigs, hay, corn and soybeans to sell for what life required that they couldn’t provide for themselves. Cows gave milk and made the barn cats happy with a few drops squirted their way. Chickens were a staple, with eggs always in ample supply. They grew wheat to grind into flour, and my mom and grandmother planted huge gardens for fresh vegetables, canning the rest since freezing it wasn’t an option — they didn’t even have electricity until 1951. The garden harvest included a half-acre of potatoes to stock up for the long, cold winter. Can you imagine just how many potatoes they would have unearthed from a space larger than most Raleigh-sized residential lots? Today it’s a commitment for me to buy a five-pound bag at Harris Teeter.
Farming then was a way of life, simple and straightforward, with 12-14 hour days of hard labor mixed in with fishing and hunting for entertainment and variety on our plates.
Although it wasn’t a financial struggle that ended our family’s farming heritage — it was the 1960s-era dam the Army Corps of Engineers built to manage flooding that flooded our land with its rising lake waters — that struggle was very real for many of our friends and our community.
I still remember Mellencamp’s Rain on the Scarecrow playing on the radio as a hit in the mid-80s. It may be the unofficial theme song for Farm Aid now, but even back then it said it all for the many who didn’t have a say in how the world was changing their lives. Large corporate farms were becoming the norm, with economies of scale and government subsidies I still don’t understand seeming to take their side in an unfair argument.
Life isn’t fair, but Farm Aid tried to level the playing field. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s comment at Live Aid, Willie Nelson, with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, kicked Farm Aid off six weeks later in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. Fifty-four artists — including Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty – came together for that historical day, entertaining a crowd of 80,000 and raising more than $9 million.
The longest-running benefit concert in the country, Farm Aid has kept up its battle on behalf of family farms. The phone number once used to raise funds, 1-800-FarmAid, now links farmers to 700+ local partner organizations to provide answers and resources.
It’s no secret that they have some tough issues to tackle. The Washington Post recently ran an article about the continued decline in family farms; the top 10 percent of U.S. farms in terms of size account for more than 70 percent of cropland and the top 2.2 percent alone takes up more than a third. And it’s not just land that’s the issue. Although the workforce is aging in general due to baby boomers moving up the ladder, the median age of farmers nationwide is climbing faster and now stands at 56.
Although it may be just a small footnote in America’s book on farming, Raleigh’s urban agriculture is making big progress locally. The mostly 20- and 30-somethings behind Raleigh City Farm and its eight associated producers are bucking the national age and farm-ownership trends while creating their own story of farming success.
Raleigh City Farm, awarded the City of Raleigh’s 2013 Environmental Award for Urban Stewardship, is a mostly volunteer-driven effort. Although it’s physically located at the corner of Franklin and Blount streets in downtown Raleigh, and was a prime instigator for the area’s award-winning redevelopment through the Person Street Partnership, its real value lies in its role as a food hub. CEO Chris Rumbley works to “connect urban and rural growers with city markets and urban eaters,” marketing the fresh produce to chefs at restaurants often just blocks away from where it grew.
One of those producers is Endless Sun Produce. Founded by recent North Carolina State University alumni and Raleigh natives Chase Werner and Matt Spitzer on March 31st of this year, Endless Sun supplies lettuce, herbs and microgreens for local restaurants such as Raleigh Times, Gravy, Poole’s Diner, Fiction Kitchen, Capital City Club and Humble Pie.
The hyper-local operation showcases sustainability at its finest, lowering carbon emissions from reduced transportation miles while producing an income for the two who pride themselves on their environmentally sensitive processes. The crops grow organically, their roots bathed hydroponically by rainwater captured from the nearby shopping center’s roof and stored underground in a 1000-gallon cistern and combined with nutrients fed by an automatic system at just the right time. Energy-saving LED lights shine pink through the translucent walls at night, an odd sight but logical since it’s the color that produces the best growth, discovered through experimentation.
“Ninety percent of lettuce is grown in Arizona and California, and right now our farthest customer is Fiction Kitchen just a couple of miles away,” Werner explained. “We’re producing 400 pounds a week year-round on 1/20th of an acre, ten times the amount we could grow in the ground on the same area.”
Some of that lettuce is available to consumers through Raleigh City Farm’s onsite Saturday market and Wednesday afternoons at City Market. The two will also partner with Standard Foods, the new grocery and restaurant just a stone’s throw away from the greenhouse, when it opens later this fall.
Although Endless Sun may not need rich soils to grow their products, onsite seasonal vegetable producer Kailyard Farm does. That’s why Raleigh City Farm first started by amending its corner plot with compost produced from the City of Raleigh’s yard waste pickup operation, and now composts crop detritus and a few food scraps onsite.
One company closing the loop on farm to table to farm is Brooks Contractor, providing commercial composting services that turn organic waste back into nutrient-rich soil amendments. Based in Goldsboro, Amy Brooks and her team were ultimately the reason I was soaking up Farm Aid in the first place. Thanks to her sponsorship, literally tons of Farm Aid organic waste will be headed back to the farm to grow more food instead of taking up space in the Wake County landfill.
I was lucky enough to be one of more than 100 volunteers on the Farm Aid Green Team, tasked with a four-hour shift of standing near the 60+ waste stations throughout the venue to educate concert-goers on what was actually trash vs. recycling vs. compostable. I had some great conversations with people from all around the country, more than a few who were very confused that the “plastic” cup they were ready to toss was actually made from corn starch and would be turned back into soil. Often, a slow grin spread across their face as they realized exactly what that meant, and I can’t count the number of times I heard “Wow, that’s so cool!”
It wasn’t too long ago that taking good care of agricultural land wasn’t really an environmental decision. It was an economic one, and necessary. Alternating crops between clover and corn to add nitrogen back into the soil was a cheap way to make a difference in my dad’s paycheck, and tossing leftovers to decompose in the garden impacted just how much food my parents and grandparents could store for the winter. Raleigh’s Inter-faith Food Shuttle understands this connection, teaching farming and land stewardship as a “hand up” toward economic success.
After my Green Team shift, I sat there enjoying Dave Matthews’ personal acoustic performance with Tim Reynolds (which was somewhat taking the sting out of missing him in July), and felt weirdly like I was listening in on a private performance. Even though thousands of people were having the same experience it was almost like overhearing a private conversation, like he was welcoming me in on a secret.
As I drained the last of my Lonerider Shotgun Betty, that thought continued. It’s kind of how I feel about the urban agriculture scene in Raleigh…lots of semi-private conversations that just need the right stage to let the world in on the performance. A lot of people are putting a lot of effort into making that happen, and together they’re growing a whole new ecosystem of local food and entrepreneurship.
Ain’t that America?