Farm Aid & MakerFaire: Go Forth & Be Fertile, Not Futile!

For such a young nation, we’re having an awful lot of senior moments. Where the hell did we misplace those keys to a peaceful and prosperous future? Where’s our legendary American ingenuity? Why do we throw up our hands when the pie isn’t big enough instead of just rolling up our sleeves and rolling out more dough? But not all senior moments are bad. When 94 year-old Pete Seeger unexpectedly strolled on stage at Farm Aid last Saturday in Saratoga Springs, NY, the crowd went wild. Clutching his iconic banjo, the sharp-as-a-tack senior delivered a soft yet stirring rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.”

Then Farm Aid’s founders–Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young–joined Seeger in singing “This Land Is Your Land” with a bonus verse that ended “New York was meant to be frack-free!”

As Young noted several times during the day, “Farmers are on the front line of climate change.” They’re on the front line of the fracking debate, too. From the Marcellus Shale to the Monterey Shale, fracking threatens our most fertile farmlands. Gas industry reps, aka ‘land men,’ been waving dollar signs in the weathered faces of weary farmers who’ve leased their drilling rights only to find themselves screwed, as the unpleasant facts about fracking emerge.

Thinking, perhaps, of all those methane leaks and our apparent collective apathy about curbing them, Young opened his acoustic solo set with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and then blew his top over the way we’re abusing our topsoil:

…farmers today, it’s all in their hands, because all that carbon that’s up in the sky–and believe me, this has a lot to do with what’s going on with all of these radical weather patterns we’re seeing, this is real–all the carbon that’s up in the sky used to be in the soil, used to be down here under the crops. And then Monsanto, and all the big chemical companies and the industrialists, they came and they made factory farms, and they replaced family farms, they brought in the chemicals and made it so you couldn’t grow without chemicals…

Those chemicals…have made it so we’ve lost sometimes more than half our topsoil. And it didn’t just disappear. It’s up there. We need to bring it down to earth…

He went from apoplectic to apocalyptic, alluding to Boulder’s biblical floods:

Colorado could be coming down a highway towards Albany right now. If you don’t believe me, you’re in denial. Wait a couple of months. We’ve seen it, seen it down in New Jersey, you saw it in New York, saw it in New Orleans…saw it in Toronto, saw it in Calgary, saw it in the mid west. It just keeps movin’ around like a ghost. We’ve gotta stop it. You can help. You can do your part by supporting your family farms and eating good food that comes from the land, grown sustainably.

Colorado’s catastrophic flooding created an all-too-literal shitstorm, contaminating the local waterways with a bacteria-laden brew of feedlot feces, raw sewage and some 37,000 gallons of crude oil. Dan Kelly, vice president of Noble Energy, admitted that the sheer force of the flooding had moved the earth so violently that the foundations to some of his company’s tanks “actually washed out underneath them.”

Hundreds of oil and gas wells (as well as pipelines) have been shut down while authorities try to assess the damage–which may take months–and state officials warn people to ‘stay away from the water.’ Hard to do that if it’s flooding your house or farm, though.

The pro-fracking contingent is pooh-poohing environmentalists who think these poop-and-petroleum-polluted waterways should give us pause. “That’s like worrying about a single drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” according to Amy Oliver Cooke, director of the Energy Policy Center at Denver’s free-market Independence Institute.

The natural gas industry swaddles its toxic twaddle in the American flag–energy independence, yada, yada, yada. But their ostensibly “clean bridge to a renewable future” is a surprisingly dirty detour, a dead end that diverts us from the road to self-sufficiency through truly clean, homegrown renewable energy.

That’s not a pipeline-free pipe dream; we have the technology to transition to clean energy and lower our energy consumption through conservation and greater efficiency NOW. But the fossil fuel-funded gasbags who determine our energy policies are so petrified by a future without petroleum, they’ve turned the capital into a kind of La Brea Tar Pit on the Potomac.

If they were more animated, we could ship DC’s dyspeptic dystopians off to The Temple of Doom ride at Disneyland, where they’d fit right in with the other dinosaurs. One destination they won’t be heading to, clearly, is Tomorrowland. That attraction was designed to give folks “a vista into a world of wondrous ideas,” a chance to explore “new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals,” and, sadly, they don’t want to go there.

But millions of us do. We can imagine a future filled with homegrown, sustainable solutions to our food and energy needs. That vision infused Farm Aid, and I saw it again the next day at MakerFaire, the annual DIY extravaganza that drew some 70,000 kids and grown-ups to the New York Hall of Science in Queens last weekend. It’s a kind of county fair for tech geeks and crafters (and yes, Disney sponsored it–here’s to putting the tinker in Tinker Bell). The Maker movement is all about fostering a love of science, nature, innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness.

The Farm Hack booth at MakerFaire was where the Farm Aid and MakerFaire missions collide. After all, sustainable agriculture’s heirloom seeds–i.e., the kind you can save from year to year and share with friends, unlike Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds–are a lot like the open source software at the heart of the Maker culture. Both are freely shared resources, as opposed to jealously guarded intellectual property patented in the pursuit of private profit. And both can lead us to a more resilient and fertile future.

Farm Hack farmer Dorn Cox echoed Neil Young’s “solution-is-in-the-soil” theme, steering me to the work of The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving our soil. Quivera co-founder Courtney White has written a series offering “short case studies of innovative practices that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity.”

We’ve got the can-do, we’ve got the know-how, this land IS our land. The sun, wind and waves are out there, too, just waiting for us to harness them. In 1967, Buffalo Springfield recorded “Mr. Soul.” Who knew Neil Young would become Mr. Soil? Long may he–and his FarmAid allies, and the makers, and the farmers–run.

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