Farm Aid 2015 – My Top Three Takeaways

This post comes to us from Brett Tolley, NAMA’s community organizer.

I’ll admit it — I’m a huge Dave Matthews fan. Long ago I happened upon a discarded Dave CD in the woods by my high school. I dusted the dirt off and rocked out in my 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit (which I bought by digging steamer clams). It was love at first “Song that Jane Likes”.

So when Farm Aid invited NAMA to join this year’s event (for the 7th year in a row) you can imagine my excitement. Dave Matthews is a Farm Aid board member and performs each year. But looking back, it wasn’t Dave or the other rock legends that stood out. It was the family farmers whose words, stories, and messages hit me harder than anything I ever blasted from my old beat-up VW.

Farm Aid — the US’s longest running “concert for a cause” is not just an event, it’s a non-profit organization advancing the good food movement, supporting family farmers, and reshaping the system to reflect values such as justice, diversity, democracy, and sustainability. At NAMA we share these values and were honored to take part in our necessary work to build bridges between family farmers and fishers.

Joining us this year to host a Homegrown Village exhibit were inspirational organizations and friends like the National Family Farm Coalition, the Rural Coalition, Sitka Salmon Shares, Salmon Beyond Borders, Last Man Fishing, and members of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. See our photo album here.

Fish and farm advocates stand together at 30th Anniversary of Farm Aid in Chicago.
An overarching theme of this year’s Farm Aid was intergenerational knowledge and the “passing of the baton” between the movement’s seasoned veterans and its new emerging leaders. As a young leader myself I was ready to sponge up everything I could. These are my top takeaways. 

Takeaway 1: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
David Senter, a farmer and leader of the American Agriculture Movement, told stories about the country’s first “tractor-cades” — convoys of farmers on their tractors bringing their complaints to policy makers. In 1977 David led a tractorcade to the Texas capital and upon arriving he confronted a police officer. The officer asked, “What are you doing?” And with a smile David responded, “We’re here to protest… now if someone could just show us how to go about doing that, we’d appreciate it.”

Similar to family fishermen, family farmers weren’t always familiar with protest tactics and methods for movement building. Like a fish out of water, this can feel uncomfortable and lead to doubt or resistance. One farmer I met told me … 
These same words could have been spoken along any docks of any given fish pier up and down any coast.

David inspired a movement of tractorcades across the country that eventually converged on Washington DC where thousands of farmers banded together to take on the injustices of the agriculture system. In the fish world we may not be there yet, but we’re making headway.

For example, a few weeks ago NAMA and our networks organized with family fishermen to protest policies that are consolidating the fleet and privatizing the ocean commons (Sign the Petition) We reached 300,000 people through a Thunderclap campaign, and now have a wave of momentum heading toward DC to impact the national Fish Bill reauthorization (aka Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act) which is currently underway.

Tractorcades across the country helped spark a movement in support
of family farmer livelihoods and against industrial food monopolies

Takeaway 2: Connect the Old With the New

A farmer said to me, “We have a generational crisis on our hands. You won’t believe this, but the average age of a farmer is around 60 years old.” I said yes I believe you, because that’s the same average age as the fishermen.

In both farming and fishing communities young people are being told there is no hope. Which is why Farm Aid designed workshops to address this challenge and ensure the younger people entering the movement are well equipped and supported.

At NAMA we’re also making a strong commitment to support the next generation of change-makers, whether that means on our board, in our network’s leadership, or though skills training and development. When it comes to the urgency of supporting our young food producers and advocates, fishers and farmers are in the same boat.

A new generation of fisher & healthy ocean advocates testify
with community-based fishermen at recent New England Council meetings
Takeaway 3: Keep Hope Alive

Mark Ritchie, former Minnesota Secretary of State and farmer advocate, said that if we are to succeed, we must keep hope alive. And to keep hope alive, we must continue building relationships and strengthening our networks. This reminded me of words from a fishing mentor that, “for relationship building, there is no substitute for face to face time and real human interaction. Today’s computer technology is great, but don’t forget that real connections are made it person.”

Direct in-person connections are what helped spark the United Farmer and Rancher Congress in 1986 where 2,000 farmers traveled to St. Louis, Missouri. The gathering of rural caucuses across the country put forward policy solutions that stemmed the tide of the farming crisis and established the Farm Aid network — still going strong for 30 years. Maybe its time for a 2nd United Farmer, Rancher, and FISHER Congress?! Count me on board.

Overall, I left Farm Aid inspired and energized. And in the words of Dave Matthews…