Bushels of Fun at Farm Aid 2017

Co-Author: Allyson Singh

Vanguard has supported Farm Aid for more than two decades, but as new Vanguardians attending our first Farm Aid, we didn’t know what to expect. We quickly realized that volunteering at Farm Aid offers more than access to a great show: We had an experience that will stay with us long after the music ended.

Where else but Farm Aid can you see legendary musician Willie Nelson help Sheryl Crow cover “Midnight Rider,” hear newcomer Margo Price talk about supporting dairy farmers, learn about vermicomposting – and enjoy an organic pickle on a stick?

This year’s event in Burgettstown, Pa., brought together Grammy winners, farmers, superfans, farm advocates and people who love fresh food in support of an incredible cause.

For more than 30 years, Farm Aid has been known as the annual benefit concert held by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and other beloved musicians to raise money to help family farmers. People watching at home or who have only heard about Farm Aid, however, may not realize how much more there is to Farm Aid than the music – and what Farm Aid does year-round to improve life for thousands of family farmers.

Entertainment and Education

Like everyone else, we couldn’t get enough of the fantastic music. This year’s lineup featured more than a dozen performances by stars such as The Avett Brothers, Jack Johnson and Valerie June, all of whom generously donate their time for the cause. More than that, we appreciated the chance to learn more about the farmers. Their stories and their skills were on display throughout the day.

The morning press conference gave the musicians an opportunity to discuss why they consider Farm Aid’s work so meaningful. The artists shared the stage with farmers who told their own stories – about family histories in farming, the struggles they’ve faced, and the love they have for bringing fresh, healthy food to their communities.

Ayanna Jones, an urban farmer who runs the Sankofa Village Community Garden in the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh, talked about how this garden helps address the issue of food deserts, while also introducing kids and young adults to gardening and fresh produce. We found it heartening to learn about what people like Ayanna are doing in their communities to help others get the high-quality food they need and deserve.

Younger farmers spoke of wanting to do the same work that their families have done for generations, even when they hadn’t expected to take this path. Several farmers mentioned that they have day jobs and do farm work after hours because the farm alone can’t support them.

At the FarmYard Stage, we saw musicians and farmers in conversation about how Farm Aid helps family farms survive economic challenges and natural disasters – which is particularly relevant in light of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. During one of the interviews, we heard from the owners of Bootstraps Farm, which endured flooding in 2016, destroying crops and fencing and leaving the owners’ home severely damaged. Farm Aid stepped in to help, sending an emergency relief check so the farm could recover.

Snacks and Sustainability

Our volunteer tasks took us all over the venue, so we worked up quite the appetite and couldn’t wait to try (lots of) local, organic, delicious food. Everything from the meat (corn dogs!) to the produce (apples!) to the baked goods (double chocolate zucchini cookies!) is produced in a way that respects both the farmers and the Earth.

We were impressed to see volunteers making sure utensils and containers went in the right places for recycling or composting. Farm Aid doesn’t only encourage other people to treat our planet well, but makes it a key feature of an event that has the potential to create a lot of waste. At the end of the day, Farm Aid diverted 12 cubic yards of compostable material from the landfill to make soil!

By the end of the day, we’d had plenty of sun and were ready to hit the hay. But we loved our experience and can’t wait to attend again next year to hear incredible music, learn about how we can support family farmers, and enjoy the amazing food these farmers produce.

You might say that our first Farm Aid planted the seed for a continuing commitment to this remarkable organization and the remarkable people who depend on it.