Singer-songwriter Ben Taylor is the son of pop-music legends Carly Simon and James Taylor, but he has charted his own way in the industry with both his music — an organic and soulful hybrid of folk, bluegrass, pop, reggae, and country — and his passion for local foodways.
Like many musicians, Taylor supports his favored cause by playing his guitar. After lending his talents to benefit concerts and a documentary soundtrack for the community-farming project Island Grown Initiative on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he is now touring for Listening, his first album in four years.
You describe yourself as a “country boy” in your Huffington Post blog about urban farming. What was your experience with food and farms growing up?
I grew up in New York City. My parents were busy Manhattanites, who generally did us the favor of allowing us to choose from a healthy list of wonderful takeout options. But in the summertime, we were always on Martha’s Vineyard; it’s a large agricultural community there, so you eat a lot of organic, local food.
When and how did you become interested in urban farming?
I noticed the sacrifice in quality that you make to outsource things, whether it’s the business of agriculture or anything. I believe so heavily in local economy, both in terms of local independent businesses and self-sufficiency. It’s something that I was always thinking about growing up in the city itself.
A lot of people in the food-awareness movement think we need more people who know how to cook so we can avoid industrial food. Do you cook?
When I’m not touring, I’m at home on the Vineyard, where it’s easy to make a point of getting and cooking local produce. The restaurants are all extortionately expensive, so we basically get stuff to grill at friends’ places. I love anytime I can eat off the plant.
How do you make the transition to eating while touring?
On the road, it does get hard. I’m not a vegetarian anymore; I was for 10 years, and that was really, really hard traveling on the road. It’s still hard, because I don’t like to eat corporate food. It’s not a luxury I can afford on the bus — I’m not going to pay for a caterer, I don’t have room on the bus to fill it up with food for long periods of time or anyone to keep track of it.
I feel like one of the biggest components I’m realizing now is that we could have a tremendous amount or lack of spiritual nutrition. And by that I just mainly mean being involved with your food, being there from the sort of roots of it. Or even if you get it yourself and cook it yourself, you put some of yourself in it so it’s not just calories that are devoid of any sort of spiritual intention that you are ingesting.
I feel like that’s a big deal when I’m touring — I’ll look around, I’ll walk around town, and look for places where it looks like you can get a home-cooked meal. Sometimes that’s as good as you can do on the road.
I heard there was a special “treat” that converted you back to eating meat — what was it? And do you think you’re now a meat-eater for life?
A friend of mine shot an elk with a bow and arrow, and he was cooking it in his pressure cooker with shallots and garlic and whatnot. And the scent of it wafted into the room I was in like the scent wafting through Jerry’s mouse hole in the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons — my back feet just lifted off the ground.
After an hour and a half of dinner, I slept for 15 hours, and then after that, I woke up feeling so good that I figured it couldn’t be too bad for me.
It certainly has made things easier having meat as a source of calories, but on the road, especially when I’m looking not to eat corporate food, I don’t eat meat for days on end. So long as meat is raised by farmers I know — if I saw a cow or a sheep in the yard and I know one of my friends killed it themselves, if they’re roasting it on a spit, I could probably eat it. It’s the random, faceless cows — the anonymous cows — that turn stones in my stomach. And I don’t eat any white meat; pigs and birds freak me out.
On the road, when you’re touring, I imagine you’ve seen the full spectrum of the country’s food. Do you think the current food-awareness movement is a trend or here to stay?
I think it happens on many levels simultaneously. Of course it is a trend, and that’s incredible, because for things that are ecologically sustainable, it all of a sudden becomes more saleable and thus stable. That couldn’t really have happened without it being a trend at first.
People are more aware of the difference between organic and conventional, even if it’s just shopping at Safeway. That’s great that it’s saleable for Safeway to sell organic foods. These corporations are spreading the word on a global level that an independent business owner could never hope to do.
Sure, that opens up opportunities for loopholes and all kinds of greenwashing, where companies with massive corporate underbellies put on the façade of being more sustainable and mom-and-pop just to raise the bottom line. But that’s still fine on some level, because it’s creating awareness.
On the other level, you do have these real honest-to-goodness grassroots communities, with people just getting out of college and saying, “You know what? If money doesn’t need to be spent on additional transportation, I can make local food for my community, and have a good lifestyle, why would I want to do anything else?”
When you’re not touring, you’re raising funds for a community-gardening project. What are the details?
I work for the farming awareness group Island Grown Initiative, which has a number of different factions — apprentice training and gleaning programs, and raising bees, meat, and poultry on Martha’s Vineyard. I believe in all of the organization’s causes, but the scholastic version — Island Grown Schools — is the one that’s near and dear to my heart.
We raise money and work with the faculties and state scholastic people to make gardening a part of the actual school curriculum and try to accommodate the other things that need to be learned at the same time. Kids are growing stuff in greenhouses that they are eating in the cafeterias — that’s a beautiful thing.
And with their gleaning program, they’ve set up a network for collecting stuff that’s going to rot because independent farmers don’t have time to harvest it. They get kids from local communities and volunteers to get this stuff and deliver it to the local jail, retirement homes, summer camps, etc.
What are the biggest challenges that small farmers face, and how can you help them?
It’s hard trying to start the idea microcosmically, and not get any bigger than what you need to for what you can do in your own community. Island Grown Schools and Island Grown Initiative are excellent because we’re ambitious in what works for us. We’ll make a model, and we’ll make it public, so others are inspired to make programs like that that work in their own specialized communities.
Another problem is that some people still associate gardening with some sort of country-bumpkin occupation, and it really isn’t. What I was saying in the Huffington Post blog is that it really is a bunch of cool, young farmers making a living for themselves. Sure, on a global level we have huge obstacles to overcome with corporate agribusinesses, but most of those problems disappear if we put them in the hands of local farmers and don’t expect them to grow too much.
Like many of your songs, the closing track on Listening — “Next Time Around,” which could easily be put in the canon of folksy campfire harmonies — is inherently down-to-earth with its guitar-strummed storytelling. Do you think there is a link between your convictions about local food and your style as a performing artist?
I am a spiritual being with some vague human connections between the facets of my spirit. I try to take responsibility for the choices I make, and own my feelings. This is who I am, and it has a tremendous effect on both my music and my day-to-day dietary habits.
What’s your favorite summer meal?
I feel like a victim of a trend saying this, but I do love kale. Raw kale with lemon, olive oil, and Parmesan, some shaved toasted almonds — oh, my.
Jelly candy. Don’t even have to think about it.
Erica Berry is a writer based in Brunswick, Maine.
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