Ask Farm Aid | August 7, 2008

Just how does Farm Aid decide where to host the show each year?

August 2008

Hello Hilde,

I live outside of Boston and was thrilled to hear the Farm Aid concert was coming to Mansfield this year! Tell me, I’m really dying to know, just how on earth did New England get so lucky?

Sincerely,
Hilde Steffey
Somerville, MA

Before I get to the heart of this essential question, I’d like a chance to say a quick hello. My name is Hilde (pronounced “Hill-dee” for those of you who need a double take). I’m fresh on-board as Farm Aid’s resident researcher and have the great pleasure of inheriting this reader-inspired column. My official title is Program Associate, but more often than not I get introduced as the “New Laura.” Trust me, I take this as the highest compliment! Like many of you, I have looked to Laura for her straightforward and candid analysis of food and farm issues for years. We all miss Laura’s good humor and quick wit around the office and wish her the very (very!) best as she continues her hard work representing family farmers and good food everywhere.

OK, so it’s no coincidence that my first letter comes from someone with my same name. Seeing as though we’re just getting to know each other, I figured I’d take it upon myself to ask a question I’ve been curious about for years – just how in the world does Farm Aid decide where to take the show each year?

To get the inside scoop, I headed downstairs to consult with a few of Farm Aid’s tireless directors. On my rounds, I checked in with Carolyn, Glenda, Wendy and Ted – who, combined, have 72 years of show location decision-making experience! (I know, Farm Aid’s only been around for 23 years, but these folks have that much know-how). It turns out there are two layers to the answer – the practical explanations behind where we go and the more integral reasons for why we roam in the first place.

Let’s start with the where…

For 23 years, Farm Aid has relied on the generosity of musicians across the country to donate their time, travel, and accommodations, and perform on behalf of America’s family farmers. Farm Aid is a deep commitment for our board artists and they do a lot to juggle their tour schedules to make the Farm Aid concert possible. As Willie always says, “We love to go where we’re wanted” – so for a start, we’re delighted when we find that vibe. This year, we were wanted in New England and it was a good stop for our four board artists (and, yes, we’re still cheering about it in the office – finally, a chance to host the show in our own backyard!)

And then comes money.

Seeing as though Farm Aid is a benefit concert at its very core, we must put together a cost-effective show and raise as much money as possible.

The construction of “sheds” or amphitheaters in the 80s and 90s helped us by creating an alternative to stadium shows of Farm Aid past. These 20,000+ seat venues generally offer both pavilion and lawn seating, enabling us to have a range of ticket prices available. In addition, sheds are often located 20-40 minutes outside of major cities, making them accessible for out-of-town Farm Aid fans, as well as providing a great link between urban and rural communities.

So these are a couple of the very practical reasons for how we decide where to host the show each year – being realistic about the schedules of our artists and doing our best to fundraise. But, truth be told, there is much more depth and motivation to our roaming ways…bringing us to the why.

Why we move really goes back to Willie and his vision: to have a concert that moves all around the country so that farmers everywhere can celebrate family farming across America. If we were to stay put in one place like some music festivals, we simply wouldn’t be able to honor that vision. From rolling prairies to urban rooftop gardens, winter wheat to summer squash, Farm Aid seeks to reach all family farmers and encourage good food everywhere. In fact, traveling is how we learn.

Which brings me to my next point. To do what we do best, we must understand and embrace the issues of family farmers across the nation; because, when it comes down to it, farmers and their needs are just as diverse as the crops they grow, the land they steward, and the mouths they feed. Moving the concert around gives our staff the chance to interact with family farmers and farm groups from Champaign to Columbus, Bristow to Burgettstown. In doing so, we deepen our knowledge; in fact, we are often surprised by just how much each concert has to teach us.

What we’ve learned to appreciate above all else is diversity and innovation. During our work in the Philadelphia/Camden area in 2006, for example, we discovered an urban farm growing on less than an acre that was netting more than $50,000 a year for the two partners operating the farm. In New York City last year, we found a three-acre farm in the heart of the city that was providing food for local farmers markets, a CSA program and for local restaurants, while serving as an educational training ground for young people in the neighborhood. Movement from year to year allows us to put the spotlight on local success stories such as these, and broaden our understanding of what constitutes family farm agriculture in America today.

In addition to all the good we gain as an organization by traveling from town to town, we also like to think we leave some good will in our wake. In other words, moving around is kind of like sowing the Farm Aid seed! As you can imagine, putting on a show is no small feat. We spend months getting to know an area, establishing connections, generating press, marshalling local resources, prepping, even primping, to put on the best show-day, show-week, even show-month we possibly can! From all the publicity and buzz that Farm Aid generates, the groups we feature are bound to benefit – whether it be from increased exposure, sales, new memberships or volunteer interest. Farm Aid provides a one-of-a kind stage for farmers and farm groups to come together and strengthen their networks, to start new conversations, and to look ahead to the future of family farming together.

Our impact doesn’t stop there. For the second year in a row, Farm Aid is also making big waves by helping our host venue source 100% of its vending and catering from local, organic or family farmed food. This tasty exposure to good food benefits concert-goers and the local community alike. And, by getting the ball rolling for future local procurement, our hope is that HOMEGROWN concessions will become a central aspect of concerts in the areas we visit for years to come.

We’re always grateful that Farm Aid receives warm, persuasive invitations to come to different regions; but we’re also not too surprised. Not only is the concert one heck of an exhilarating day – people everywhere are clamoring for more access to family farmed food. Regardless of how tour schedules align, or what direction the north wind blows, Farm Aid mobilizes musicians, farmers, and eaters alike to participate in an event like no other. Lucky for us, we can spread our good message just about anywhere. And lucky for you, sooner than later, we just might show up in your backyard too.

Until then…
Eat well and be well,

Hilde

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