My Road to Farm Aid: 20 years in the making

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

This year’s Farm Aid marks its 30th year anniversary — almost as old as I am. Farm Aid is one of the biggest concerts in the world helping to raise awareness of the importance of family farmers. Although this is my first year attending, I feel like I’ve been on the road to Farm Aid almost my whole life.

My #Road2FarmAid started when I was ten years old. I was at the fish pier with my mother and sister, awaiting my father’s return from a day’s fishing trip out to George’s Bank. The pier was full of comings and goings. Fishermen offloading. Crew mending nets. Seagulls flying overhead. Smells of salt and fish guts in the air and the sound of fishermen’s booming voices along the docks.

One of those voices was my father’s good friend Bob St. Pierre, who recently passed away. Being the great storyteller he was, Bob taught me that family fishermen and family farmers shared a lot in common. We provided food for people, worked at the mercy of mother nature, and were part of a long tradition passed on from generation to generation. He also told me that like the family farmers we were up against some of the BIG players trying to squeeze us out. So we must learn from the family farmers if we are to survive.

I had no idea what Farm Aid was, but I was on my way.

Captain Bob telling a story of catching the great bluefin tuna

With the fish piers far behind, the next step along my #Road2FarmAid came during my first week in college. I woke up to the sound of my roommate in tears and the site of the television screen as we watched the second plane hit the World Trade Tower. The following few weeks after 9/11 were rough, but during one of those late nights, huddled around the t.v. with some good friends, we turned on Farm Aid and watched live from Indiana. At center stage was Dave Matthews making a small tribute to NYC. To the tune of All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews strummed those chords and for whatever reason, a cathartic wave washed over me. Amidst the pain and confusion there was something in that moment that helped me process what was going on. Music has the power to do that sometimes.

Dave Matthews perf. All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan at Farm Aid 2001

A few years later I studied abroad in Mexico and spent much time in the Sonora Desert learning first hand the plight of family farmers who had been displaced from their farm lands. International policies like NAFTA affected millions of farmers, leaving them little choice but to risk everything and head north. Seeing the faces of fishermen like Bob and my father in these farmers, helped me realize what Bob shared with me many years before. I made a documentary about the experience titled “Dying to Get In” and in the spirit of music and activism, included the soundtrack to one of my favorite songs of all time “This Land is Your Land” by Woodie Guthrie, this version performed by the Mexican-American singer songwriter Lila Downs.

Lila Downs perf. This Land is Your Land and Pastures of Plenty by Woodie Guthrie

As we approach Farm Aid 2015 my long journey to Farm Aid is nearing its end. I am extremely humbled and grateful to be attending this year on behalf of NAMA and our network helping to deepen the connections between family farmers and fishermen. This is NAMA’s 7th year at Farm Aid and we’ll be joined by our fantastic partners: the National Family Farm Coalition, the Rural Coalition, Sitka Salmon Shares, and Salmon Beyond Borders – an exciting fishing-community led campaign aimed to stop the large-scale mining that destroys fish habitat.

For me, I’ll be taking to Farm Aid thoughts of Bob and my fishing family ancestors who’ve fought to protect the health of the ocean. The fight certainly hasn’t gotten any easier. Today we face unprecedented pressures from an industrial food system and policies that seek to privatize the ocean commons. Yet we keep going, building strength with our brother and sister farmers, and finding restitude in good music. To me, I know I’m in the right place when I’m around a rockin’ beat and passionate activists. Which, by the way, has become a small side project of mine together with some great people called the SeaFire Kids. Who knows, maybe my road to Farm Aid is just beginning.

SeaFire Kids performed at last year’s Rock the Boat benefit concert for NAMA

Pics from Past Farm Aid Events

Farm Aid 2013 in New York with fishing families from Maine, Mass, and NY

Farm Aid 2014 in North Carolina where we hosted the game “Lets Make an Ocean Grab”

Farm Aid 2014 Panel with Jim Hightower, L to R NC fishermen Dewey Hemilright and Jeff Oden, NAMA’s Director Niaz Dorry, and Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Farm Aid 2012 in Pennsylvania with our wonderful collaborators
Kathy Ozer (l) and Lisa Griffith (r) of the National Family Farm Coalition