By John J. Moser
HERSHEY — Country music icon Willie Nelson told a news conference to kick off Saturday’s 27th anniversary Farm Aid concert to raise funds for struggling family farmers that he and other headline artists “are glad to be here — on one hand.”
“And on the other hand we’re very sorry that we have to be here, because this problem should have been solved many years ago, and it’s still going on,” Nelson said.
That was largely the sentiment among the 30,000 people at a sold-out HersheyPark Stadium for a nearly 10-hour concert featuring Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Kenny Chesney and Jack Johnson and a half-dozen other acts.
“It doesn’t show up on the TV screen long enough, like some Kardashian,” Young said at the news conference, referring to the popular family from reality TV. But Young said that could change if people who back the cause organize and can convince young people to take up the mantle.
“We really need to get much more organized and really find some leaders,” Young said. “What we’re doing will get much more notice if we’re organized.”
There was evidence Saturday that some of that new leadership is coming from the Lehigh Valley area.
In the event’s Homegrown Village, a collection of 30 exhibits of food and farm groups from across the country, the Kutztown-based Rodale Institute had a line waiting at microscopes in its “Soil Microbiology: Examine the Life in Your Soil,” which taught visitors about “the life in their soil.”
Compost production specialist Troy Hinke said Rodale has been a long-time participant in Farm Aid, and he was encouraged by the response he saw Saturday. “Excellent,” Hinke said. “One of the best conventions I’ve worked a booth at.”
Nazareth-based C. F. Martin Guitar Co. also was among the exhibitors, and also among the most popular. Martin Artist Relations Manager Chris Thomas said Martin is looking to expand its participation in festivals, and “this one just made a lot of sense” because Young, Mellencamp, Matthews and Nelson all play Martins or have signature guitars.
“We like to get behind a good cause and have some fun with everyone else,” Thomas said.
Heidi L. Secord, owner of Josie Porter Farm in Stroud Township, shared the side stage in the event’s Homegrown Village exhibition area with indie rocker Grace Potter to buying local produce, which Potter said she tries to do by visiting farmers markets even on tour.
Secord said she has farmed for 15 years, but is relatively new to owning a farm. Joie Porter Farm is in its sixth season in an innovative arrangement in which she leases 48 acres of protected farmland from the township for $1 a year in exchange for acting as a steward to the land.
Secord also is a board member of the state Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Young and Mellencamp said at the news conference that such help for smaller, private farmers is precisely what’s needed. Several of the headliners decried what Mellencamp called corporate farming’s “choke hold” on the industry, which he said not only is killing family farms but leading to less healthy food and a less healthy economy.
“And we eat this [stuff],” Mellencamp said.
What gathered the people Saturday was the concert, the first Farm Aid in eastern Pennsylvania after it has criss-crossed the United States. The nearest had been Burgettstown, near Pittsburgh, in 2002 and Camden, N.J., in 2006.
The concert provided some inspiration moments. Much of Mellencamp’s set was heartland-themed songs such as “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.” The penultimate song in Young’s set was “Homegrown” – appropriate, even though it was released in 1977.
But some of the best performances were the collaborations that come from such festivals. Perhaps the most poignant was when Nelson’s song “Lukas,” whose band Promise of the Real played earlier, played a duet on the father’s “Just Breathe.”
Potter joined Chesney onstage for “You and Tequila,” their duet from his “Hemingway’s Whiskey” album. Chesney joined Mellencamp for “Small Town.” Nelson joined Potter on her song “Ragged Company.”
And a rollicking concert-closing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Potter returned the favor, with Young and country singer Jamey Johnson.