Music will be the focus of Saturday's Farm Aid concert in Raleigh, with performances from big-name acts including Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Jack White. But not too far out of sight, there will also be enough networking going on to make Farm Aid the agricultural world's answer to college basketball's Final Four.
"If you look closely at the sides of the stage, off in corners you'll see people gathered around talking," said Scott Marlow, executive director of Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation Inc. "There are a lot of informal meetings about ways to work together. It's a gathering place for people to work on family-farm issues across the country. We're very excited it will be here in North Carolina."
Since 1985, Farm Aid has put on 26 benefit concerts and raised more than $45 million for American family farmers. Saturday's show at 20,000-capacity Walnut Creek Amphitheatre is sold-out.
Farm Aid has not released pre-show estimates on how much it expects to raise this year, but the 2013 concert in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., netted $1.3 million. About $28,000 of that went to organizations and farmers in North Carolina, including RAFI, a nonprofit that works with small farms on sustainability issues. RAFI (which received around $17,000 last year, according to Marlow) is also a longtime Farm Aid partner in the organization's nationwide referral network.
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"People facing financial difficulties call the Farm Aid hotline, they're referred to us and we're the ones who go out to sit at their kitchen table and try to help them figure out how to save their farm," Marlow said. "We work with 50 to 75 farmers a year, mostly in North Carolina but throughout the Southeast."
Along with money, Farm Aid also tries to raise consciousness, and not just through onstage exhortations by the performers. Farm Aid's Homegrown Village in Walnut Creek's plaza areas will have locally sourced and organic concessions as well as displays, information and hands-on exhibits about various economic and environmental aspects of farming.
Many of those exhibits will be about the virtues of small-scale organic farming as an alternative to larger-scale production farms that use chemicals, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Many Farm Aid principals have been quite outspoken about "factory farms." In a July interview announcing Raleigh as site for the 2014 event, Farm Aid board member Mellencamp declared, "Most of the processed food you eat is killing you."
Statements like that are why some area agricultural organizations aren't taking part in Farm Aid even though it's happening locally. One group sitting it out is the NC Farm Bureau, the state's largest general farm organization.
"We represent all types of farming operations from the smallest family organic farms up to the largest-scale conventional farmers," said Mitch Peele, senior director of public policy for NC Farm Bureau. "We try to promote an agenda that helps all farmers, not pit one sector against another. That's our concern with the Farm Aid people even though they do some good things. That's why we're not participating in Farm Aid as part of the event this year."
It's a controversial issue that won't be solved anytime soon.
"GMOs are such a hot issue, and there's always pushback on any controversial issue," said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid's communications director. "We're really concerned about corporate control of farming through the process of engineering seeds. That can have a big impact on family farmers' bottom line and livelihood. Most people are focused on the health aspects of GMOs. Our main concern is how it impacts individual family farmers, and it's not been positive."