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For people attending the Farm Aid concert at Walnut Creek Saturday, the foods on offer will look a little different from usual concert concessions.
By Rose Hoban
When you attend a concert or a ballgame, often the food offerings are things like nachos with bright orange “cheese” sauce, foods that are greasy, salty and highly processed.
But the producers of tomorrow’s Farm Aid concert at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh want to change that for guests at their events. Since 2007, Farm Aid organizers have insisted that the venues where their annual concert is held offer fresh fruits and vegetables, local delicacies and foods raised on farms with sustainable agriculture practices.
This year’s concert will feature a “purple corral” food court with offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets; locally raised meats and vegetables; and even Italian ices made from North Carolina-grown paw paw, blackberries and elderberries.
“The good-food movement has been going on for a while and more people are wanting and reaching for family farm-sourced food,” said Glenda Yoder, who coordinates concert planning for Farm Aid’s nonprofit organization.
“We believe that events can be transformative, with the incredible music and these artists donating their performances,” Yoder said. “People arrive wanting a full experience of what the family-farmer story is and they want to know, ‘How can I participate?’”
Yoder also said the concert promotion company Live Nation has bought into using more local concessions at all of its venues nationwide; Live Nation has the contract for running things at Walnut Creek.
“We’ll be working with their food concession company Aramark and their concessions stands and their subcontractors,” Yoder said. “But we’ve invited additional vendors, the local restaurants and food companies and some of the subcontractors who go on the road with us.”
“It’ll be a different scene than what is normally there,” she said.
Changing the paradigm
Yoder said that when Farm Aid went to New York City in 2007, it engaged the farmers’ markets that have sprung up around the New York metropolitan area to help provide the concessions at their event. One of the traditions that emerged from the New York concert was the Youth Market, where kids from the inner-city partnered with kids who were interested in farming to sell fresh farmers’ market fruits and vegetables.
Since then, having locally sourced food has been one of the specifications in Farm Aid’s contracts with venues.
This year, the Youth Market vendors will be selling peaches, apples, muscadine grapes, watermelon and cherry tomatoes for snacking, all raised on farms around North Carolina.
“That component of the concessions looks like a farmers’ market,” said Yoder, who worked in food services for years and said Farm Aid’s fresh concessions are an example of what’s possible in the industry.
“The naysayers used to say that no one would buy an apple at a concert. But you’d be surprised; they do … and they love it!” she said. “It takes a lot of work, but Farm Aid does the work to make it possible for our providers.”
Brian Long from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said his department helped Farm Aid hook up with managers from the state-run Raleigh Farmers Market.
“Market staff helped Farm Aid identify farmers who could supply food to be sold at the Youth Market,” Long said. “Farm Aid then worked directly with the farms to iron out details.”
Other North Carolina-sourced fresh foods on offer will be boiled peanuts, popcorn, sweet potato fries, roasted corn and salad in a cup with vegetables from Eastern Carolina Organics, prepared by Durham’s Cafe Love.
Extra work, but worth it
The foods on offer aren’t just about fresh fruits and vegetables but also prepared foods from local farmers and restaurants such as Raleigh’s Sitti, which will be selling vegetable and chicken kebabs, and Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head, which will bring their signature shrimp and grits.
One of the farmers selling his produce is Chatham County’s Tucker Withington, operator of Lilly Den Farm, who will have 1,200 servings of a quarter of a roasted chicken with mashed sweet potatoes and sautéed green beans on the side. He said he slaughtered 300 chickens on Wednesday in preparation, and he and his wife and workers have been going at it all week to get ready.
“A typical week is about 70 hours for me, so we’re still going through all our normal chores along with getting ready for this,” Withington said. “We’re a little bit crazy.”
His wife also has made fresh mozzarella cheststicks and packs of creamy mozzarella cheese curds, and they’ll be bringing white and chocolate milk.
When asked why he was going to the extra trouble, Withington talked about going to his first Farm Aid concert when he was 8 or 9 years old, and how the movement influenced his decision to go into farming.
“There was a lot less gray in Willie’s beard then,” he said, referring to concert organizer Willie Nelson. “That was back before sustainability was such a hot topic.”
Originally, the concerts and the organization was focused on saving family farmers in financial crisis in the ’80s. But over the years, the organization has evolved as a major force in helping family farmers gain financial stability by finding viable markets for their products.
“We live and die by sustainable ag and ag in general,” Withington said. “All the beliefs of Farm Aid line up with ours.”
He also said that this week’s work represents a tidy profit for him, which will come in handy, as his wife is pregnant with their fourth child.
“We needed a cash injection. We could potentially make a greater profit this weekend than we have all summer,” he said. “The timing on this couldn’t be better.”
Bringing the movement to NC
Scott Marlow, head of the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA helped bring the concert to North Carolina. He said he was in on early meetings between Farm Aid personnel and representatives from Walnut Creek.
“When Farm Aid started the conversation, the first sentences out of their mouths were to talk about the ‘front of the house,’ how we source food, what the experience is like,” he said. “It was all about local food, the concessions.”
RAFI-USA has been working with Farm Aid for years, Marlow said. When a North Carolina farmer in crisis calls the Farm Aid hotline, the calls get directed to Marlow’s office.
“We go out and sit with them at the kitchen table and go through their books and figure out how to help them save their farm,” he said.
So for Marlow and other farm activists, the Farm Aid concerts are more than just music and fundraising; they’re a gathering of like minds.
“If you look closely at the concert, you’ll see people in groups over in the corners planning events and planning work and sharing stories and information and planning campaigns and strategy,” Marlow said. “I get to see people that I don’t get to see except there. It’s old-home week.”
He said he’s been to a lot of Farm Aid concerts, and when he got involved in bringing the show to North Carolina he was impressed by the organization’s commitment to local food.
“I was impressed by the fact that for the show, a huge amount of Farm Aid’s focus is spent walking the walk and not just talking about it and making it happen for a lot of local farmers.” Marlow said.