Before the Music Begins, Farm Aid Advocates Spread Message of Hope

Thom Duffy   
Farm Aid supporters tour Braddock Farms

If you really want to understand what Willie Nelson has inspired with Farm Aid, his annual benefit for family farmers, show up for the concert early -- say, two days early.

With the 32nd annual Farm Aid taking place Saturday (Sept. 16) at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, hundreds of farmers and family farm advocates from across the country had arrived by Thursday for strategy sessions and tours of local farms -- including one in the shadow of the one of the region’s remaining steel mills.

On Thursday evening, in a meeting hall in Pittsburgh’s Hill District -- a historically African-American neighborhood that was home to playwright August Wilson and guitarist George Benson -- attendees discussed Farm Aid’s mission of building a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America through the lens of economic development, environmentalism and social justice.

The event “is one of those reminders of the power of food to change lives,” said Russell C. Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture, one of Thursday evening’s speakers. “I’ve always admired Farm Aid and Willie Nelson’s team,” said Redding, noting this weekend's concert marks the third time that Farm Aid has been staged in Pennsylvania.

Farm advocate Leslie Schaller of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) said farm discussions now embraced “small business incubators, urban agriculture, young farmers, open markets, demand for local [food]” and more. “There’s just amazing stuff happening in every rural and urban place. We just need to share these stories.”

When Nelson staged the first Farm Aid benefit concert in 1985, in response to the farm foreclosure crisis of the mid 1980s, he could not have anticipated that the organization would thrive over the next three decades, raising more than $50 million for family farmers -- or how its mission would become linked to broader challenges in America.

“The three main health problems in this country are obesity, heart disease and diabetes -- and these are all food-related,” said Shelly Danko-Day, urban agriculture and food policy advisor for the city of Pittsburgh. “We all have to help our neighbors and our communities eat better.”

Pittsburgh and surrounding communities have taken a lead in developing urban farms. Grow Pittsburgh has created more than 60 farms in the area and runs a training program in urban farming for young people. A city program has made it possible for urban farmers to grow on previously vacant lots.

On Friday, Farm Aid supporters toured several of area farms, including one in the borough of Braddock, Pa., 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, alongside the Monongahela River. Braddock Farms is a one-acre, community-supported plot located, strikingly, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Plant, a reminder of the industry that once dominated the region. The mill smoked behind farmer Robert Grey as he picked raspberries and offered them to Farm Aid’s visitors.

With the decimation of the U.S. steel industry through the 1970s, Braddock suffered deeply, losing 90 percent of the population who once called it home. By 1988, it had been designated a financially distressed community by the state of Pennsylvania.

Braddock’s mayor, John Fetterman, who participated in Farm Aid’s pre-concert discussions, has gained national recognition for his efforts to revive his community. He spoke of the need to move beyond political debates to find solutions.

“We live in the age of outrage fatigue,” he said. “There’s something new everyday. Food is now very political. In my world, persistent food insecurity is real, food insecurity is chronic.” 

In Braddock, Fetterman helped create the borough’s community farm while his wife, Gisele Baretto Fetterman, co-founded 412 Food Rescue, which redirects edible, unsold food to needy families. (The organization arranged to collect un-used food from the Farm Aid concert).

Other urban farmers aligned with Farm Aid cited other motivations behind their efforts.

“Food apartheid” is what Ayanna Jones of the Sankofa Village Community Garden calls the decision of grocery store chains to abandon her African-American neighborhood of Homestead in Pittsburgh for more than 40 years. “They devalue us as human beings,” she said of the food chains. “But I’m not fighting with the corporations, I’m growing food.”

“And we’re growing farmers,” she added, noting that neighborhood children as young as five begin working in the community plot. A teen workforce built the farm’s irrigation system “and they did it in five days.”

“I believe,” says Jones, “gardening and farming can heal a lot of things that are happening in our country today.”