SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson is taking his message “On the Road Again” with a first-ever upstate New York event on Sept. 21 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
New York was selected for this year’s Farm Aid because of its rise to prominence as a hotbed for young farmers who are pursuing a variety of niche-type ventures from fiber production and goat’s milk to horticulture and free-range poultry and beef.
The concert and related activities, in addition to raising money for Farm Aid programs, is designed to create awareness about issues and challenges faced by today’s farmers, such as access to credit and land, which is growing increasingly scarce and expensive.
“He (Nelson) always wanted to move concerts around the country to make sure farmers could attend, be part of the movement and receive recognition,” said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid spokeswoman.
The first Farm Aid benefit was held in September 1985 in Champaign, Ill., to raise money for farmers who were at risk of losing their property and livelihoods because of mortgage debt.
Now, instead of reacting to a crisis, it has taken on a more proactive mission of promoting family farms and locally-grown food while encouraging new agricultural start-ups as well.
Farm Aid raises nearly $2 million per year, which supports various programs such as a hotline, Farmers Resource Network and grants for farm and food organizations doing direct work to support family farmers.
In 2007, Farm Aid was held at Randall’s Island in New York City to emphasize the growing role of urbanites in demanding local food. Nelson’s reasoning was that New York has more consumers than any other city in the country.
In the six years since then, many regional initiatives have either expanded or have been started to provide fresh, local products to that huge population base, primarily through farmers markets in and around the city.
Farmers up to 150 miles away regularly sell all kinds of goods, either through direct retail or to restaurants. The list runs the gamut from cantaloupes, honey and pumpkins to milk and Greek yogurt, one of upstate New York’s fastest growing commodities.
This year’s Farm Aid, in contrast to 2007, recognizes the importance of those who produce such goods. It’s the first time ever that Farm Aid is visiting upstate New York.
Last year’s event in Hershey, Pa., had more than 30,000 people.
“We’re a national organization truly connected to grass roots,” Fahy said.
This winter, Saratoga Springs hosted two large agricultural conferences, a strong indication of the region’s strong interest in this field. More than 1,000 people turned out in January for a three-day Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York conference.
In February, about 400 people were on hand for an event called “It Takes a Region,” hosted by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, which covers 12 states with a goal of building a more sustainable, healthy and equitable regional food system.
“It’s about creating access to locally grown, healthy food,” said Betsy Johnson, conference organizer. “We put a lot of emphasis on having smaller, more diverse farms and promoting practices that don’t harm the environment.”
These are many of the same goals promoted by Farm Aid, which makes its September event a natural fit for the area.
Music headliners, in addition to Nelson, include fellow Farm Aid board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
“A lot of farmers from around the country plan their summer vacations around this,” Fahy said. “Believe it or not, people come to Farm Aid from all over the world. Each year we have concert-goers from places like Australia, Germany and Japan. Last year, only four states were not represented.”
A variety of events, programs and activities such as farm tours and farmer meetings will be held in the days leading up to the concert. It could be one of the largest ever at the performing arts center, also known as SPAC, which has a full schedule of popular and classical music each year.
Farm Aid has a strong educational component, too. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives on farms now, so organizers try to help the public understand more about food, farming and agriculture in general.
On concert day, there will also be a “Home Grown Village,” a county fair environment with interactive exhibits that show people how to preserve fruits and vegetables or raise backyard chickens.
Through “home grown concessions,” all food sold at the venue will come from local farms, from hamburgers to ice cream.
Farm Aid also partners with Grow NYC to host a youth farmers market run by kids, who keep proceeds that can be used for farm-related activities. Even decorations such as mums, cornstalks and hay bales come from local producers, providing a significant boost to the local farm economy.
Farmers and producers interested in selling goods at Farm Aid can call 617-354-2922.
Farm Aid tickets go on sale June 28. For information go to: farmaid.org