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Toby Barlow Headshot

Farm Aid Reaches Legal Age

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When I mentioned I was going to check out the Farm Aid show down in Camden, a friend said "Farm Aid? Wasn't that in the eighties?" Granted, this is a friend who still worships Madonna, but yes, it was 1985 when Willie Nelson first kicked off Farm Aid with Neil Young and John then-still-Cougar Mellencamp at a concert off in Illinois somewhere. This weekend was their 21st annual show, held this time in Camden, New Jersey. The next question is - of course - "Farm Aid? In New Jersey?" But look at the license plate, it's "The Garden State." That's the first clue that they're smarter than they look.

But still, it does seem almost cute, the fact that they're still plucking and touring and trying. But what if they're doing more than trying, what if they're actually succeeding? And while in the course of the daylong event, they didn't once publicly take credit for any of the changes around us, a whole lot has gone down since The Red Headed Stranger first cooked up this idea. After all, back in 1985 people thought the term "free-range chicken" was some kind of cooking instruction, people who ate "organic" food generally looked and smelled kind of funky, and the only "food" debate people were having was about whether the microwavable burritos at 7-11 were really convenient or just plain disgusting (my vote tended to oscillate, depending on whether I remembered to actually use the microwave.)

Flash forward to today and the refrigerator aisle of Whole Foods is chock full of people clambering to buy their soy milk while I'm waiting in a twenty minute line for my barbacoa burrito at Chipotle, a company whose major investor may be McDonalds but whose pork comes from the antibiotic-free Neiman Ranch. Customers in Starbucks are drinking their Fair Trade coffee while reading "Fast Food Nation" while at home they're watching "Supersize Me" while their kids suck down Stonyfield Farms organic smoothies.

No, it wasn't all because of Farm Aid, but I don't think Emeril just said "Bam!" and made it suddenly happen.

For starters- instead of an attitude of "Great, we held the benefit, now back to the jacuzzi," - the folks at Farm Aid just keep going at it, year after year. John kept singing "Little Pink Houses", Neil kept jamming hard with the band, and Willie kept popping up to harmonize with whoever showed up, all the while raising serious dollars that went towards promoting a sensible food policy.

What these guys figured out right away was that changing something takes real work and commitment. So while Bob Geldof and his gang need a twenty year break between Live Aid shows, this solid troop of players has been consistently touring the nation, hitting different cities every year, bringing attention to the plight of the farmers, the struggle against unhealthy factory farms, and the need for us to each individually understand the environmental and economic implications of our food chain.

If the Farm Aid cause appears a little dusty, it's not from being forgotten up on the shelf. It's more like the honest grit you get from doing your chores. Say what you want about celebrity causes- I'll grant that they often invite parody and their best intentions can be easily mislaid - but these guys have been playing beneath the Farm Aid banner for as many years as it takes a baby get born, grow up, and order a shot of Old Whiskey River liquor.

I suspect it's the magical wizardry of Willie Nelson's outlaw hemp n' tequila honky tonk shaman vibe that somehow keeps them going, but who knows. (After ten hours at the show, I had actually developed a metaphysical theory involving Willie's busted old guitar, his piano player, and the oddly shaped things his percussionist kept pulling out of a box. The theory is too obtuse to go into here, but the French horn player and the snare drummer factored into it too. J.K. Rowling could easily make it her new series.)

In the end, whatever makes Farm Aid work, I left the event reassured - even thankful - that they've kept at it. After all, in the most literal and down-to-earth way, we are what we eat, and a bit of consciousness about where our food comes from, who grows it, and how they're being treated by our society, all helps us evolve toward a more sustainable, healthier future. And evolution is, as far as I know, always a good idea.

So, I'm looking forward to their 22nd show next year. Who knows, maybe Madonna will show up.