Friday, July 28, 2006

Jen talks about Farm Aid's best time of year

Things are starting to heat up here, and I’m not just talking about the weather! Concert season is upon us, coinciding each year with ripening tomatoes and red hot baseball. Life is good -- if only concert season didn’t mean that I don’t get to spend as much time in the garden while listening to Red Sox games. But the long summer hours are worth it come concert day.

This is the time of year it’s not rare to come in to find a voicemail left overnight by Willie saying, “So-and-so’s been invited to Farm Aid.” Sometimes so-and-so is a star I already know something about. Oftentimes so-and-so is a rising star and requires a bit more research. Our other board members make their suggestions and pretty soon we’ve got more artists than hours in the day! But luckily our fans are diehard—they’ll stay to the end so they don’t miss a second of Willie’s set.

While all of the artists donate their time and talent to Farm Aid, as well as all of their travel expenses, we do what we can to make Farm Aid a great experience for them! That’s my job. Leading up to the show, I help the artists with their travel and hotel reservations. Some of the artists like to reserve rooms at the posh hotels downtown; others are happy to “slum it” with the rest of the staff at the closest hotel to the venue. I know when the artists will arrive at the airport so that we can pick them up or greet them as their tour bus arrives at the venue. I also make sure that I have a few tickets in my pocket so that their friends and family can come to the show (yes, they even pay for those too—nothing’s free at Farm Aid!). I make sure all of their band and crew have the right credentials to get them backstage. For some, I make sure their hotel fridge is stocked with their favorite: Soymilk! (Can you guess which artist gets this treatment? Hint: he uses it in his lattes!)

Part of my job means telling the artists no. For instance, when artists normally do a show, they get to tell someone what they’d like in their dressing room. This is called a rider and it can specify anything like, for instance, we want 1 pound of red grapes with the skin removed. We don’t fulfill riders; not because we don’t think artists deserve what they want, but because we have so many artists and, again, we’re “cheap” so as much money as possible goes to fulfill our mission. Instead, we provide a backstage spread that would have any artist coming out of their dressing room: farm fresh food prepared by local folks who believe, like we do, that fresh food is the best!

And that’s one of the coolest things about Farm Aid: in between running around doing things (and I haven’t even begun to describe all the things I do so don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds!), you FINALLY take a break for a meal and you get in line to get some of that delicious food. In front of you is a farmer. Behind you is, say, Dave Matthews, unassumingly standing in line for his meal. As you look for a seat, you spy Willie and Neil enjoying a conversation with one of our longtime farmer friends. In a corner you spy John Mellencamp playing pinochle with some of the volunteer drivers (I kid you not, this happened in 2003 at our Ohio show. John and his mom played a mean game of pinochle and took our volunteers for all they were worth!). You navigate through the crowd of artists, farmers, volunteers, production crew, and Farm Aid staff. And, if you’re a bit soft like me, you tear up a little bit at the spirit of the day… when EVERYONE is equal in this goal to promote good food. Then you scarf your meal down and get back to your work!

That feeling is still off in the distance a bit; in the meantime, there are signs to design, credentials to be printed, vans and cars to be procured, volunteers to be found, tickets to be sold, and artists to welcome to the Farm Aid family. Here at Farm Aid, it’s the best time of year.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Katie the Farm Aid cruise director

Each one of us who works for Farm Aid has different responsibilities at the concert. Laura manages volunteers. Ted & Mark run the press events. Jen oversees artist relations and all ticketing issues. Carolyn and Glenda troubleshoot and work with production folks and visit with each artist as they arrive. Wendy manages the webcast and blog and Jeni manages the website. And I make sure people are having a great time. I guess that makes me sort of like Julie the Cruise Director on The Love Boat, except I rarely tell people about the shuffleboard games on the Lido deck.

If you are a FarmYard member, I will know where you are sitting. I will also know everyone in the 1st and 2nd rows and sometimes I visit to say hello.

I love talking to all the Farm Aid fans, but my favorite place to visit happens to be the front row. I’ve become friends with some of the regulars and the concert is really the only time I get to see them.

There is Lee Ann, who rode her motorcycle from N.C. to Seattle for Farm Aid 2004. There is Rich, who emails me photos of the beautiful Alaskan countryside and his awesome dog, Pandu. There are Edie and Candy who NEVER miss a concert. And there are many more.

Of course, I also love visiting them because seeing Farm Aid from the 1st row is just plain cool! Right in front of you is the photo pit where you can see Paul Natkin, Ebet Roberts and Rick Diamond work their photo magic.

You can almost touch the artists on stage. Now, I’ve worked at Farm Aid for 4 years and I’ve met a lot of famous people, but I’m not above feeling the excitement of seeing these legends up close.

All of the acts that perform at Farm Aid are great, but I especially love our board members and try to see their performances every year. I rarely get to see all of them each year, but I’ve never missed Neil Young or Willie Nelson.

Two years ago, when I was visiting folks in the front row during Willie’s set, he pulled off the Farm Aid trucker hat he was wearing and threw it into the crowd. I wasn’t even trying to catch it, but it somehow landed in my hands. I immediately put it on and wore it proudly for the rest of the night. It’s times like that I know I have the best job in the world.

Side note…If I am the “Julie the Cruise Director” of Farm Aid, does that make Willie “Captain Stubing”?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Laura's family farm

On Sunday mornings, around 9AM my sister rings my doorbell with iced coffee and doughnuts in hand. We pile into my car and head to “The Farm.” The Farm is in Cranston, RI where my aunt Diane runs a dressage school and horse farm. We have been going to The Farm on weekends and vacations since I can remember – in fact for both us this is the place that we have been going to the longest. My family has moved, my grandparents have moved, but The Farm stays on 7 Mile Rd. It stays hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It smells sweetly of horse manure, pointing me to manual labor and promising a good night’s sleep.

To be fair, my sister Alyssa, is a lot closer to this place than I am. She goes up several times a week to ride and spend time with my Aunt. I come on the weekends to remember how it felt to be eleven and free on the back of who ever’s horse I could borrow for a moment – and to visit my grandmother who lives down the street and looks forward to every visit.

Since I started working at Farm Aid, The Farm, otherwise known as Woodwind Farm, stays in the back of my mind. Not because it has a lot in common with a corn farm in Iowa or a veggie patch in Vermont but because it grounds me with an understanding of what it means to love a place – to feel at home picking rocks at noon or hauling buckets of water when it is 20 below.

My aunt is selling The Farm this summer. The stress of running a business that is dependent on weather, unreliable labor and a number of other troubling factors has weighed heavily on her over the years. Her horses and clients will move to another farm and she is looking for a new home. I can’t help but put on my Farm Aid hat to try and come up with a solution. But the truth is, she is looking forward to a change. Her land is valuable and will hopefully help her plan for an eventual retirement. She will be able to enjoy a snowstorm without running to the barn on the hour.

We hope that who ever buys the land will love it just like we do, that future generations will be happy to wake up early on a Sunday to cut grass and shovel manure just because beautiful places deserve to be cared for. Most of all, I hope that The Farm will stay with us all long after 7 Mile Rd. ceases to be our Sunday morning destination.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mark reminds us that "it's time to raise a little less corn and a lot more hell"

This week’s Farm Aid newsletter about farmer diversity made me think about an experience I had this spring. I participated in a training/workshop sponsored by Farm Aid to help Latino farmers of southern Florida cope with the aftermath of last autumn’s hurricanes when farmers in Florida were hit hard by Katrina and Wilma. Fields in south Florida were washed out, crops were lost, and fruit orchards totally destroyed.

About 50 Latino farmers, many arriving directly from their fields, crowded into a room one night to listen and learn about farm disaster programs designed to help farmers like them recover as quickly as possible from the damage they sustained. It was hot and muggy. Many had to stand along the walls because there weren’t enough chairs. It was slow going as the presenters’ words were translated into Spanish.

After thirty minutes into the presentation about USDA disaster programs, several hands shot up in the air. “Why haven’t we ever been told about these programs before?” “How come no one told us that we were eligible for these disaster funds?” “Why hasn’t the local USDA sent us information about these programs?”

As each question got asked, the farmers nodded in agreement and chatter broke out across the room. Clearly, this was information they were hearing for the first time. Finally, one of the presenters from the Federation of Southern Cooperative, an organization of minority farmers that is very aware of the discrimination faced by their members, got up to speak. He spoke directly to the heart of the matter: “There is, and has been for a long time, discrimination in how farm programs get implemented at the local level. You’ve got to organize and demand what’s yours.”

A seed got planted that night in south Florida. The farmers agreed to reach out to more farmers and begin to organize an association that could fight for their rights. It reminded me of the famous saying heard often in farm country: “It’s time to raise a little less corn and a lot more hell.”

Monday, July 17, 2006

Joel goes to a farmer training

Because I hadn’t attended a disaster relief training before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect earlier this week when Ted and I traveled down to Gainesville, Florida. But it made good sense that Farm Aid was sponsoring this training in Florida, where farmers must contend with hurricane season every year. And the best news to come out of the visit was that there are farm advocates there to help farmers figure out how to get help and what kinds of assistance they are eligible for. Disaster trainings are designed to make sure that people who want to help do this work have the best and most up to date information.

This applies even to organic farmers, who have often fallen through the loopholes in federal regulations regarding what kinds of farms can qualify for disaster relief. However, this process can often be complicated and overwhelming to farmers who are also recovering from a major disaster.

The training in Gainesville was sponsored by Farm Aid and hosted the Florida Organic Growers (FOG), so most of the farmers attending were organic growers. Everyone attending got an object lesson in why such training is important when one of the farmer attendees got a phone call telling her she had finally received payment (after two years!) for storm damage to her farm in 2004.

Two veteran disaster relief trainers, Scott Marlow of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) and Jill Krueger of Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG), did a great job of leading attendees through the ins and outs of federal disaster relief programs. Kudos to Marty Mesh and Juan Carlos Rodgriguez of FOG, who organized and hosted the training, which was held at the Farm Bureau office in Gainesville. Marty took several of us on a walk one evening through a swampy conservation area on the edge of Gainesville…and I got as close as I ever want to be to a wild ‘gator, who seemed to be eyeing this corn-fed Iowa boy as a snack before dinner. Yikes!

Friday, July 14, 2006

the staff sells FarmYard tickets

Today we sold tickets to our FarmYard members. At 9am ET the ticketing was turned on and except for a few glitches went smoothly. By 9:30 we were down to 150 tickets from the 1,400 we started with and by noon the tickets were gone.

We never anticipated them going that fast but I guess we should have expected it because we have so many supportive fans.

We can't put up more pavilion tickets, we have to save some for Ticketmastet but we are going to sell lawn tickets to the FarmYard for the next few days. We know it's not as good as being down front but the lawn is a great place to rock out.'s a little known fact that we always give away a few front row seats to the people who are having the most fun on the lawn (especially if they are at the extreme back of the lawn). Who knows? That could be you!

Ted answers, "Why Camden?"

When folks hear about Farm Aid’s annual benefit concert, they typically imagine we’re doing our concert and farmer gathering in a remote rural area where only farmers are likely to attend. Fact is, that’s just not true. Last year we did our show in Chicago, the year before that it was Seattle. Hardly rural settings.

This year, we’ll take our big concert to Camden, New Jersey at the Tweeter Center on the Waterfront. It’s right on the banks of the Delaware River. It’s somewhat bucolic, but definitely not rural, and I’ll guarantee you’re not going to see dairy cows grazing in green pastures on the side of the road as you head for the show. But it is a great spot to hear live music, and there’s a magnificent view of the Philadelphia skyline right across the river, too.

More important to Farm Aid and it’s work, this urban setting opens the door between the people who grow our food and the people who eat it. That’s all of us, right?

In cities, with our big supermarkets and fast food restaurants, it’s easy to forget that a farmer somewhere grew the food we are buying and eating. Most of us are hoping that our food is fresh, healthful and grown with care for the environment. Given the way most of us buy our food, it’s hard to figure out whether or not that’s true. It’s a lot easier to be sure when we buy directly from farmers, and the great thing today is that it’s easier and easier to do just that. There are farmers markets popping up in cities all over the country and there are subscription programs called CSA’s that make it easier to get good food directly from farmers. Many stores are carrying organic foods now, too. And that helps.

At Farm Aid this year, we’ll be spotlighting the great strides being made in the Delaware River Valley to build this exciting new food system that gives us the kind of food we want. We’ll also be talking about some of the challenges urban areas face in getting access to good food. By addressing these concerns together in Camden in September, we’ll take another step forward for the Good Food Movement.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jeni says "Go play Top of the Haystack!"

As Farm Aid's resident webmaster, today is a very exciting day. A few hours ago we launched Top of the Haystack (internal code name: Project Buzz). You may have already seen a link to this from our home page. It is a contest seeking the ultimate Farm Aid fan.

Project Buzz started last September with the question of ‘how can we generate more interest and word of mouth excitement for the web cast and web site in the months leading up to the concert’.

We did a lot of research and looked at the creative ideas other organizations were using online. This research was educational and fun, as we all got to enter in a lot of contests. The staff favorite was the Blue Fly Bag a Day Giveaway (sadly, nobody won a bag). We also had some productive (and fun) brainstorming sessions . The staff’s favorite meeting involved shooting anyone who violated the brainstorming rules (putting down someone else’s idea or being negative) with a play gun that shot foam discs.

We then got down to the real work of building the contest. There are many people who helped make this project a reality on a shoestring budget -- ISITE Design donated all of the creative work and Ning put in a lot of time customizing one of their applications for us at no charge.

That brings us to today, when for the first time in its history Farm Aid is having an online contest to give away front row tickets to the 2006 concert. It just launched a few hours ago, but the response has already been overwhelming. I’d love to tell you more, but my day is completely occupied with approving all of the entries and forwarding the invitation to everyone I know. Are you the ultimate farm aid fan? See if you have what it takes!

Monday, July 10, 2006

How Wendy teaches her kid about farms

Today my daughter is here at Farm Aid. She comes to work with me every once in a while. Usually I sit her in a chair with my IPod and start “NO!” by They Might be Giants while I get down to work. Everyone here takes the time to talk to her—to hang out just a bit—kind of like I used to hang out with our neighbors.

I grew up in the country, a small town called Southbury. In the ‘70’s there were farmers all across our town. There was one farmer down the road (a dirt road) who had cows that always wound up in our front yard. We picked corn at a neighbor’s house and strawberries from the farm across town. I knew the people that grew much of what my family ate.

For my daughter it’s different. She’ll tell you she’s a “city girl” who knows about the subway (or “T” as we call it here in Boston). She knows about traffic and she thinks there are just way too many trees near her cousin’s house in Maine.

This is a problem for me. I want her to know that farmers and food go together. I probably obsess about it more than most Moms but I try to find ways to introduce the connection to her. I know how lucky I am that I am aware of projects that are out there to help urban kids connect to their rural neighbors.

I make sure that in the summer she goes to a farm camp. It’s one action packed week of milking cows, finding eggs, weeding the garden and feeding the pigs. I take her blueberry picking at a diversified, organic farm. I belong to a farm co-op and I take her with me every week to pick up our veggies so she can begin to make the connection that growing foods have a season —that peas and lettuce come before tomatoes.

I try to shop in stores that support local farmers. I am proud of the association this month between Wild Oats and Farm Aid. It’s my local healthy food supermarket so I would shop there anyway but I’m glad they are choosing to support family farmers in a public way.

I am also grateful that I’ve found places where I can find other parents who are wrestling with the same kind of hopes and desires for their kids. The newest location I’ve found is at Sustain360. I heard about it because of my job. Organic Valley, who started it, has been a loyal sponsor of Farm Aid. I’m not 100% organic like they are—sometimes I choose local over organic—but I really value that they thought up the idea of a discussion board dedicated to an organic lifestyle.

Food is such a loaded issue for parents these days anyway. I know I’m not alone in trying to figure out how to help my daughter eat healthy food—but I know that there are fewer city families who try to make farms a part of their weekly life. I welcome finding people and places that support my attempt to do it.

Chico says, "dogs love farmers markets too!"

Mom and I stopped at the farmers market on the way home from work a few nights ago. It was my first trip to a farmers market and boy was it fun! First there were all the smells: grass-fed beef, fresh fruits and veggies, just-baked bread, lots of herbs and flowers for the garden. Then there were the people: Everyone wanted to pet me and know my name. Farmers and the folks who go to farmers markets know how to enjoy the good things in life (like dogs and good food!), that’s for sure. And when mom stopped to buy some lettuce and tomatoes from a farmer, I got to nibble on some lettuce of my own. Most people think that dogs like to eat meat only, but when lettuce tastes this good, I’ll eat it any day!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Blueberries for Laura

Early July is pre-blueberry season in Massachusetts but it is time to start thinking about picking. Where I grew up, wild blueberries are a big deal and my folks happened to have a prize patch and my sister and I used to help with the harvest. By that I mean, my mom would gently boot us out of the nice cool house with a coffee can apiece and tell us not to come back until they were full.

If you have ever picked wild blueberries, you know that it takes a long time. They are smaller and more tart than the kind that you find at the store – well worth the time but they sure do add up slowly. One day, I knocked my can over. Record screech, awkward silence, stomach falling five stories – this is the worst possible blueberry picking accident. Stained shirt, sunburn, little bugs – I could handle those. Hundreds of painstakingly gathered berries rolling down the hill into the field for the birds to eat was too much to handle. I sat down to cry.

And then it happened. This is one of those childhood moments that taught me a thousand lessons in about a second. My sister quietly walked up to me and gently poured half of hers into my empty can. Her can had been almost full. She had been within moments of a tall glass of lemonade and an afternoon of reading in the shade. Instead, she shared her berries with me. We quietly finished the job and headed back to the house.

I don’t think this little memory is something that she thinks about too often but it comes back to me every time I pause to think about teamwork, generosity or, frankly, blueberries. In retrospect, I realize that this is something that farm kids see every day. Harvesting, just like eating, is not a solitary act. Traditionally, farmers shared equipment, family members and what ever it took to get the job done. Hard work tastes good. The company of friends and family is sweet. And I love blueberries.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Carolyn announces the 2006 concert location

I'm with Neil Young in Philadelphia today with the news you have all been waiting for. At 11:30am ET we will announce that Farm Aid 2006 will be held on September 30th at the Tweeter Center on the Waterfront in Camden, NJ, right across the river from Philadelphia.

We are excited to start sharing the news and the lineup with you. Right now, it's our board members, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, but plenty more will join us for a day of good fun and great music.

Book your flights and hotel rooms now -you won't want to miss it.

Check out the Farm Aid concert page for more info.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Jen urges "Be Independent"

Strawberry season is winding down here in New England, so I stopped at a farm to pick up a few pints a few nights ago. Since I just moved this past winter, I’ve been getting to know my new neighborhood and its farms this spring. I picked out some juicy, red strawberries and tender asparagus and asked the farmer about his farm.

He told me how the property came to his family from the Barrett Family, who owned the property back in 1775 when the farm played a major role in history. Barrett’s Farm served as the weapons depot for the colonial militias that organized to fight for our independence. When the British arrived in Boston to seize the weapons, they headed straight for the farm where they heard they were stored. But when the Redcoats arrived at the farm, they found nothing.

Upon Paul Revere’s warning, Colonel James Barrett’s sons had plowed up a field and buried the weapons in the furrows while Colonel Barrett led the Middlesex Militia to the North Bridge, where the shot heard round the world declared the colonists’ intention for independence. Barrett’s Farm has been farmed continuously in the 231 years since then.

It got me to thinking about the role farms and farmers have played in our American history. Farmers have been agitators; they’ve been organizers; they’ve been soldiers, generals, presidents, teachers, authors. And they’ve been giving us good food for hundreds of years.

This July 4th, you can thank farmers for the role they’ve played in shaping our nation by declaring your own independence. Declare independence from food that’s been compromised by time, travel, or less-than-the-best growing practices. It can be a lot of work to make the commitment to “buy local”-- but you don’t have to go whole hog—just purchasing a few things direct from the farmer can make a huge difference. The asparagus and strawberries I bought at the farm cost the same as I would have paid at a grocery store. And they were days or weeks fresher, 3,000 miles closer, and nurtured by the hand of a farmer who cares. Do it to invest in your local economy. Do it to support a farmer. Do it for the story the farmer can share with you. Buy local from a farmer for yourself and your taste buds.

Happy Independence Day!