SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.- Farm Aid is more than a family of musicians banding together to help the small farmer. It's also a family meal.
A key component of Farm Aid concerts - this year's is taking place Saturday in Saratoga Springs - is the food, which comes through Farm Aid's Homegrown Concessions. It was started six years ago to create new markets for family farmers.
Vendors, which include local food-service outlets, as well as national brands such as Chipotle and Amy's Organic, must meet Farm Aid's criteria for sourcing the ingredients in their food, from organic flour in the panini to free-ranging, antibiotic-free hogs on the barbecue grill.
Even the cotton candy has a family farm origin, made from maple syrup produced in the Catskills.
"Farm Aid's mission is about family farmers, and economic opportunity for family farmers is a really big priority of ours," said Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid. "We also support good farming practices and rewarding farmers for those practices. So our Homegrown criteria call for food that is sourced from family farms that meet an ecological standard, and that returns a fair price to the farmer."
Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp lead the star-studded lineup this year, along with Jack Johnson, Carlene Carter, Toad the Wet Sprocket and about 10 other artists.
The annual concert is the chief moneymaker for the Farm Aid organization Nelson co-founded in 1985 and leads as president. The beneficiaries of the organization's year-round efforts are always featured prominently at the shows, with a Homegrown Village providing concert-goers a chance to meet local farmers, learn agrarian skills, and eat food from vendors who meet strict criteria set by Farm Aid.
This year the village is being set up on the expansive lawns of the state park surrounding the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The action there gets going before the 10-hour concert.
The village offers plenty of activities to help people get in touch with their inner farmer. There's a daylong group potato-stamp art project; workshops on making butter, bacon, cheese, lemon vinegar and llama wool bracelets; and a demonstration of how to grow shiitake mushrooms on logs in your own backyard.
The Farm Aid organization has raised more than $43 million since 1985 to support programs that help small family farms, expand the Good Food Movement and promote locally grown food. Farm Aid has made grants of more than $2.5 million in the Northeast during the past 28 years, according to the organization.
Roger Allison, who started Patchwork Family Farms in Columbia, Mo., with a Farm Aid grant 20 years ago, said Farm Aid has been a lifesaver for the family farmers in his organization who raise hogs in a natural way, unconfined, without antibiotics.
"Thank god for Willie Nelson and Farm Aid," Allison said at Saratoga after driving 23 hours to bring his truckload of savory meats. "It has really instilled hope in independent family farms all across the United States. We love Willie. Willie has helped us out."