HERSHEY, Pa. — The lightbulbs were flashing when muscians Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and others gathered on a small stage to meet the press Saturday, talking about why they have continued supporting Farm Aid, 27 years after the first show in Champaign, Ill.
For Tom and Donna Perry, who help run Perrydell Farm in York, sharing that same stage to talk about farming was an honor, but a little overwhelming too.
“Oh my gosh, my heart was beating through my chest. But it was great at the same time,” Donna said afterward with a laugh.
In many ways, farmers were the true celebrities during the daylong festival and concert at Hersheypark Stadium.
More than 30,000 people came out for the concert, which benefits “family farms” and organizations that Farm Aid supports through various programs and grants it doles out throughout the year.
Farm Aid was started in the mid-1980s, the idea being to raise money to help then-struggling Midwest farmers through proceeds generated by the concert.
It’s since evolved into a more proactive organization, promoting what its founders consider to be “sustainable” farms and farming practices, while also shedding light on larger environmental and social issues that directly or indirectly affect farms and rural communities, such as natural gas drilling, use of biosolids or sludge on farms and increased use of ge netically modified (GMO) crops.
For Willie Nelson, founding member of Farm Aid, the struggle of family farms is one he laments is an issue 27 years after he helped organize the first concert.
“This problem should have been solved years ago,” he said during Saturday’s press conference.
But Neil Young, co-founder of Farm Aid, calling on small farms to stand up against corporate farm interests and Washington lobbyists, said their struggle is something worth fighting for.
“We are not going anywhere. We are going to stay right here,” he said.
Singer Dave Matthews, a Farm Aid board member who owns a 300-head grass-fed beef operation just north of Scottsville, Va., said the key to growing local food systems is for people to support local farmers.
“I know it’s not possible all of the time. But whenever possible, buy from your neighbor,” Matthews said.
The Perrys, along with Jenn Halpin, farm manager at the Dickinson College farm in Carlisle, Pa., shared the stage with the artists during a back and forth discussion on farm issues that went on for about an hour.
Later in the day, the Perrys got a chance to sit with recording artists ALO during another discussion on farm issues.
The couple help run a 250-head milking and bottling operation just outside York, Pa., which has been in the Perry family since 1922.
Most people look at sustainability in their own way. For the Perrys, engaging four generations on the farm and having the ability to share ideas with each other and look toward the future is something they say will sustain the business for years to come.
“There is more to it than how you farm. We got three, four generations working on the farm, including my parents, my brothers, everybody has different ideas,” Tom Perry said. “And then you got the consumer coming in, buying milk from us and so you got ideas from them. The idea of sustainability is how you sustain that farm and balance all of these different ideas.”
Halpin, who helps run the 50-acre farm at Dickinson College, embodies the youthful energy that was present throughout the concert venue.
Having discovered farming through spending time in the Peace Corps and traveling throughout Africa, she said many young people have become attracted to farming, especially small-scale farming, because they feel it gives them an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.
“For those of us who like instant gratification, farming has some of that aspect to it, and also that investment in the future. It gives you both, which I think is a good balance,” Halpin said.
“I think having the ability to go overseas for whatever or just go to different regions of the U.S. and see what other people are doing is awesome in terms of perspective,” she said, “and perspective helps you bring ideas and bring innovations and bring issues to your community that you can help to address. So farming is a perfect avenue to make change happen.”
Adam and Ali Holter, 21 and 23, recently got married and now help run a 100-head, 207-acre organic dairy farm in Frederick County, Md., which has been in Adam Holter’s family since 1889. The farm gained organic certification in 2005.
“I’ve grown up knowing that’s what I wanted to do since pretty much as soon as I’ve been able to walk. I’ve always been at the farm,” he said.
Ali Holter, on the other hand, never lived on a farm and is a teacher, although she said she helps out when she has time.
The two have taken on a bigger role at the farm, with Adam Holter’s father owning it.
He said his family switched to organic because it was better from a labor and animal-welfare standpoint.
But he said it’s also been a good way to get to know customers and to be able to put a face with the product.
“You can actually know who your farmer is. The process of buying food can very much be a relational experience. It’s not just about going to the supermarket and buying whatever is there, it actually is knowing who your farmer is, knowing where it came from,” Holter said.
“It really provides a sense of accountability and a responsibility for the farmer to provide a direct person with an actual face,” he said
Sophie Ackoff, who represented the National Young Farmers Coalition at the concert, said access to land, capital and health insurance are the biggest issues young people face getting started in farming.
But demand for locally grown food, she said, is growing, which opens an opportunity for young people to get involved.
“There has been an incredible amount of growth in markets. So the desire for local foods is one of the best things out there, but the ability to find land and grow this food for people is what’s hardest,” Ackoff said.
Although the concert itself likely drew the majority of people, farmers and farm groups got to interact with people in the Homegrown Village, which featured interactive displays, games and informational booths designed to educate people on farming and other issues as well as provide resources for farmers in need.
There were workshops on heirloom seed saving, growing mushrooms in a bag, raising backyard chickens and composting, among others.
Will Allen, manager of Cedar Circle Farm, a 40-acre certified organic vegetable and berry farm in East Thetford, Vt., has been to nearly every Farm Aid concert.
He said Farm Aid has become an important advocate for small- and medium-size farms. But he also has seen people become more interested and knowledgeable about farming and, in general, where their food comes from.
“What we’ve seen over the years, people ask more significant questions as they get more educated about what the issues are. We have an organic farm so it’s easy to talk about that stuff. But in general, I think the American population is getting a lot more sophisticated about food, and it’s partly because of our obesity/diabetic epidemic. It’s gotten serious,” Allen said.
“I’m just staggered by how educated you know, how people have educated themselves basically, and going to places like our farm and other farms and these kind of events, they really figure out a lot of stuff,” he said.
But having the chance to meet and learn from other farmers in one place is also invaluable.
“It’s always a pleasure for us to be here with farmers from around the country and with people who support small farmers around the country,” Buxton said.
“We all want to know what each other grows. That’s the first thing we ask,” she said. “We can talk a long time about that, and it’s really wonderful to meet so many farmers. Farmers don’t get a lot of opportunity to leave the farm, especially this time of year.”
Deb Brubaker, whose family runs Village Acres Farm in Mifflintown, Pa., brought along a bike crank mill to show people how to turn wheat into flour.
An avid biker, she got the idea out of a need to do something productive on the farm, while at the same time enjoying her love of biking.
People got a chance to ride the bike, which operated a crank that turned wheat into flour.
Brubaker said she appreciates the organization’s goal of getting the word out on farms to a much wider audience.
“I think for me, it’s just great to see the merging of food and agriculture, emerging with the kind of bigger cultural idea of entertainment and knowing that folks in the entertainment industry really care about us on the farm,” she said.