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Sensory Overload: 10 Things You May Not Know About Farm Aid’s Willie, Neil, John, and Dave

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

From left: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and John Mellencamp

Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews: Most of us know these guys. To some, they’re like family. But as many times as you’ve seen Dave in concert, or sung along to “Jack & Diane,” or played “Harvest Moon” or “On the Road Again” on the guitar, as well as you know these guys’ lyrics by heart, you might not know that they’re the original HOMEGROWN members.

You might not know that Willie, Neil, and John organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms—or that Dave joined the board in 2001. You might not know that these iconic musicians have helped raise more than $40 million to keep American farmers on their land. And you might not know that this year’s Farm Aid concert, September 22 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is sold out—a boon for family farmers nationwide in this drought-stricken year.

Or maybe you know all that and more. But, as a lover of all things HOMEGROWN, you still want to celebrate it. In advance of next weekend’s raucous, rocking, and rollicking tribute to family farmers, we thought we’d take a minute to pay respects to the big four who make it happen. Without further ado, ten HOMEGROWN things you might now know about Willie, Neil, John, and Dave:

1. Forty varieties of heirloom apples grow at Best of What’s Around, the organic farm owned by Dave and his wife, Ashley. The farm is also home to a 300-head herd of cattle raised for grass-fed and -finished beef.

2. That cattle gets processed at True & Essential Meats, a family-owned Virginia facility established in 1939 that works with some 50 area farmers to help rebuild the local food system and provide high-quality meats to local eaters, farmers markets, restaurants, and shops.

3. Neil’s son Ben runs Coastside Ranch, a certified-organic egg farm in La Honda, California. His flock of 250 Red Sex-Links, a chicken breed closely related to Rhode Island Reds, lays more than 100 eggs a day. All of the hens in the flock are named Georgette, and all of the roosters are named George.

4. Neil is the master of HOMEGROWN lyrics: “You gotta tell your story, boy / You know the reason why / Are you ready for the country / Because it’s time to go.” See his original manuscript (among a treasure trove of other artifacts) for the song “Are You Ready for the Country?” recorded on September 26, 1971, at Broken Arrow Ranch in Redwood City, California—part of his seminal 1972 album, Harvest.

5. On the subject of songwriting, John agrees HOMEGROWN is best. As he told an “Entertainment Tonight” reporter at his Indiana homestead in 1987 (two years after the release of his unforgettable song “Rain on the Scarecrow”): “I’ve learned that I can’t create anything except from here. You know, you’ve got to have perspective from where you see the world.” Watch the full vintage interview (complete with huge Nina Blackwood hair) here.

6. Human Wheels, a fan discussion board devoted to all things Mellencamp, once published a cookbook called Human Meals: C.O.O.K.in’ in the U.S.A.—a culinary ode to John’s 1985 sing-along anthem, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

7. John is a fan of hard work. As he told Dan Rather in 2009: “This I believe: That we can all do better, and that people give up too early. Those are two things I’m pretty certain of. . . . I guess [I learned that from] my grandfather. His whole point in life to me was, ‘If you’re gonna do it, and you tell somebody you’re gonna do it, you have to do it.’”

8. Willie is as fierce as ever when it comes to family farming. As he told Time Magazine in 2010: “I think the farmers can pull us out of our economic problem just by growing our food and our fuel for us. And I think it needs to be the small family farmer, because he grows food that he feeds his [own] family.”

9. Willie likes gardening—and comedy. In 2010, he swapped growing tips with Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. Below is Willie’s opinion on manure as fertilizer, and click through for his thoughts on the value of wearing a hat.

10. Willie comes from farming stock. “If we didn’t grow it, we didn’t eat it,” Bobbi Nelson reports in Joe Nick Patoski’s 2008 biography of her brother, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. “Ol’ Reddy, our first cow, was part of the family. We kept one of her calves. We had another cow and hogs. . . . My grandmother [pictured with Willie, below] and grandfather, they had to be their own butchers. That’s one reason we didn’t eat any of our chickens. Our chickens had names. We raised them from eggs. We ate the eggs and sold the eggs for money to buy groceries. That’s the way we survived.”

(For more on raising animals, watch the animated Chipotle commercial “Back to the Start,” featuring Willie singing a heartbreaking rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”)

See Farm Aid 2012’s full lineup—also featuring Kenny Chesney, Jack Johnson, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and more—and watch videos of Willie, Neil, John, and Dave onstage at past years’ Farm Aid concerts at FarmAid.org.

“American Meat”: Not Just Another Food Documentary

Friday, February 24th, 2012

 

Over the past couple of weeks the mainstream media has been paying more attention to the industrialized meat system in America.  During it’s telecast the Grammy’s featured Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ advertisement, an animated critique of factory farming,  to which the Farm Bureau  and sustainable farming supporters published opinions in major outlets last week.

After the ad aired, two massive food corporations, McDonalds and Bon Appétit Management Company, have publicly committed to sourcing pork from farms that prohibit the use of gestation crates. Are we seeing the start of real change in the meat industry?

Recently I met documentary filmmaker Graham Meriwether at an Occupy Big Food event in New York City.  Over grassfed burgers (his favorite), our conversation turned to the issues with our current agricultural system, and the future of food.  Graham’s latest documentary, American Meat, takes an in-depth look at the problems with meat production and offers models for change in our current food system.

AMERICAN MEAT TRAILER from Leave It Better on Vimeo.

 What really sets American Meat apart from other solutions-based, sustainable agriculture-supporting documentaries is its balanced and respectful expose of the meat system.  Graham, an advocate for sustainable agriculture, originally planned to film a year on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, but realized his film did not include 99% of the real meat production, the prevailing industrialized system. “I tried to make the film as even-handed as possible. I do have an opinion and I talk about sustainable agriculture, but I want to respect commodity ag.  There is a reason it is in place and that is because we decided as a culture we wanted our food as cheap as possible.”

Graham reached out to commodity hog producers in Iowa and poultry producers in North Carolina for inclusion in the film in order to provide an even-handed look on American meat production.  I asked Graham how he was able to convince these producers to open up their doors to him.  He said that “in 2008 Pilgrim’s Pride was the largest producer of chickens, and then declared bankruptcy and cut off 44 farmers in North Carolina.  I found that to be an opportunity to talk to some farmers who were frustrated with the system. “

The openness of these farmers to camera crews, and the American public’s opinion, is something that you don’t often see in food documentaries.  American Meat humanized these producers and fairly showcased their operations.  While American Meat does present a strong case for encouraging sustainable models like the Salatin’s Polyface Farms, Fred Kirschenmann and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Niman Ranch, and corporations like Chipotle, it also provides factory farmers with an opportunity to tell their story.  A huge risk for them to take on.

Per usual, the segments on Polyface were interesting and inspiring — it’s always wonderful to see farmers in sustainable production — but that’s not the story that stuck with me.  I was more intrigued by how, when, and why farmers have vertically integrated into industrialized production.  There is a strong case for farmers from the Midwest to expand and sign contracts with major corporations.  In order for these farmers to make “big money” in the marketplace, they have to adhere to the status quo.  And, even though production models are changing, today’s dominant system in place is industrialized production.

Many farmers vertically integrate into the industrial agriculture system in order to stay competitive. They invest millions of dollars into their operations in order to fulfill the margins of the companies who contract them, but many end up going into massive debt in order to meet their quotas.  American Meat showcases farmers like Sam Talley, who became a poultry farmer for the independence and gratification of helping feed the world, who was contracted by Pilgrim’s Pride and required to build massive heated poultry houses in order to produce enough chickens to fulfill his contract.  He was cut back in 2008 and 2 of his houses were put out of production.  He is $420,000 in debt, and will pay it all back by the time he is 75.

The story of one hog farmer, Chuck Wirtz of Iowa, stuck with me.  Chuck and his young son Carson operate a farrow-to-finish commodity hog farm. The film shows images of his 10’x18’ pens where 24 pigs live in confinement indoors.  While he is still raising the majority of his hogs in these conditions, Chuck has converted a small portion over to welfare-compassionate production to reach new markets like Whole Foods.  It’s been a challenge for Chuck, but he doesn’t regret it. And, he admits that the meat tastes better!

For Graham, transitioning operations are “just as important to this movement. Folks in Iowa and Nebraska, they’ve been doing [commodity agriculture] for generations.  They have so much pride, they produce most of the food in this country and they will be part of the solution. We need our primary stake behind the middle of the country, it’s very important not to turn a deaf ear and to celebrate what people like Chuck are doing.”

Graham shared with me a story about screenings for the Future Farmers of America he and Chuck did in Iowa.  Says Graham, “it’s an inspiring moment.  [Chuck and I] would have young people in HS after the film who want to try to figure out a way to do [transition].  They are working on a commodity farm, but want to set up a new system.  They ask us how to transition and how to convince their parents to do so.”

American Meat brings the good food movement full-circle.  It goes back to the roots of the issue in our industrialized food system, fairly presents them, and offers models for change and sustainable solutions. Graham feels that “the pendulum has swung too far to this type of production. We need to expand sustainable production to be a much larger part of the market. Right now it’s only about 1%, but should be 10%.” Graham and his crew did a masterful job on the film, and I recommend everyone check out it out on DVD or at a screening near you.

International Guerilla Sunflower Gardening Day

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

We all know what a difference a little sun makes…just sayin’…

More info at GuerrillaGardening.org.