After 2007, it was only a matter of time before Farm Aid came to upstate New York.
That year, the annual benefit concert, which has been spearheaded by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp since 1985, was held on Randall’s Island in New York City for the first time. Before the concert, the Farm Aid organization put together an “upstate-downstate” caravan, stopping at farms throughout the upstate region to pick up locally grown food for the event, and to talk to farmers about the challenges and issues they face.
“Yes, there is urban farming in New York City, but in reality, most New York City dwellers are eating food that is grown in upstate New York,” said Jennifer Fahy, who has been Farm Aid’s communications director for the past 11 years. “Six years later, and we’re actually in the place where the farmers actually are.”
Farm Aid has worked closely with local farms and organizations such as NY FarmNet (www.nyfarmnet.org) to put together the 28th Farm Aid concert, which takes place at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Saturday.
Farm Aid 2013
WITH: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds, Jack Johnson, Amos Lee, Jamey Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sasha Dobson, Carlene Carter, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Bahamas, Pegi Young & The Survivors, Jesse Lenat, Insects vs Robots and The Blackwood Quartet
WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: Sold out
MORE INFO: 584-9330, www.spac.org
“People have been so warmly welcoming us, right from the announcement,” Fahy said. “It’s funny to see the interactions on our Facebook page — we get people in the Midwest saying, ‘What, New York?’ And then New Yorkers are chiming in with, ‘Hey, we’re not all city dwellers, this is farm country, too.’ That’s part of the education process, learning about where our food does come from and where we have the greatest capacity to grow food.”
Wilton farmer John Vincek, whose family has owned the Vincek Farm since 1919, has been enlisted by Sunnyside Gardens to loan bales of hay and other items to help decorate the stage for the show. However, with rain in the forecast for Saturday, the situation is up in the air. “We have all this product here we raised, but we don’t want it to get ruined,” Vincek said. “They’re talking heavy rain on Saturday.”
The sold-out show will as usual feature the organization’s four board members headlining — Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and SPAC favorite Dave Matthews, who became a board of directors member in 2001. The concert’s other performers are good friends and often family members of the board members — Jack Johnson, Amos Lee, Jamey Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sasha Dobson, Carlene Carter, Lukas Nelson (son of Willie Nelson) & Promise of the Real, Bahamas, Pegi Young (Neil Young’s wife) & The Survivors, Jesse Lenat, Insects vs Robots (featuring Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson’s other son) and The Blackwood Quartet. Performing on the Homegrown stage starting at noon will be Will Dailey and Albany band The Parlor.
In addition to the music, attendees will be able to connect with local farmers at the HOMEGROWN Village, which will feature various exhibits and skill shares on the back lawn at SPAC.
“We’ll have half-hour demos of how to do really fun things like making your own bacon, making pancakes from grain to the griddle, cheese making, fibers — we’re going to do a llama wool spinning demo,” Fahy said. “There will be lots of fun things for people to really get involved in.”
Since its founding, Farm Aid has worked to raise money to benefit family farmers struggling to make ends meet in the corporate-dominated food industry. Through education events, such as the HOMEGROWN Village, Farm Aid has also sought to bring other issues, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the struggles of dairy farmers, into the mainstream consciousness.
“Dairy is one issue that we’re highlighting in New York — there are so many dairy farmers there,” Fahy said. “The reality is that the farmer has no say in how much they are being paid for their milk. Since 2009, there’s been a huge dairy price crash, and farmers are almost continuously losing money every time they milk their cows.”
For Vincek, the No. 1 concern facing his farm and other family-owned farms is land taxes. “If you don’t make enough, you’re not eligible for the farm exemption,” Vincek said. “Small farms are more like hobby farms, and a lot of people have to work off the farm, on the side. It’s not an easy business, believe me — you’re constantly worried about the weather. This summer, all it did was rain, and we had a heck of a time trying to get the hay in.”
The artists who have performed at Farm Aid over the years have strong connections to the farming world, having often grown up in farming families — many are active farmers today, such as Matthews.
This year is no exception. Country royalty Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, is playing her first Farm Aid concert this year. The Carter Family heir is no stranger to the event, having attended the first Farm Aid concert, and is good friends with Willie Nelson.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of it, but it never seemed to work out, schedule-wise,” Carter said from her home in Santa Ynez, Calif. “The whole spirit of Farm Aid — I’m for the little guy.”
Farming is in Carter’s blood as well — her grandparents were farmers, and her father, country musician Carl Smith, was a cattle rancher. Both June Carter and Cash helped to instill a love of gardening in Carter.
“I know the sweat that goes into just having an acre garden, but that’s nothing compared to what farmers really have to go through,” Carter said. “Me saying I’m a farm girl — and I was, but I just didn’t have the pressure of being a farm girl. The fact that I was brought up to think — we grew our own food; we grew vegetables and canned them, and when we were able to we got a freezer and we would freeze our veggies for the year. I didn’t ever think to go to the store and buy them.”
Carter is set to release “Carter Girl” next February. It will be her second studio album since her 2008 comeback “Stronger,” which was released after a tumultuous period in her life that included the deaths of longtime partner Howie Epstein, June Carter, Cash and sister Rosey Nix Adams, all in 2003. She address the loss in one of the album’s songs, “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a reworking of the Carter Family song that features Vince Gill on guest vocals.
“I took the old chorus of ‘Lonesome Valley’ and wrote my remembrances of when my mom and John passed,” Carter said. “It’s an uplifting song — kind of, I’m sad about them leaving; they’ve gone off to paradise and are on tour with the angels, while down here I’m trying to carry on the legacy of the Carter Family’s music.”
“Carter Girl” certainly does that — the album features songs by three generations of the Carter family, including her own new compositions and re-workings such as “Lonesome Valley 2003.” Among the many collaborators on the album are Elizabeth Cook, Carter’s husband Joe Breen, her cousin Lorrie Carter Bennett and Willie Nelson, who sang on the Carter Family and Cash classic “Troublesome Waters.” Carter is hoping she can team with Nelson for the song at Farm Aid.