Amateur Hour: Farmer Talent Show

by Katie Waddell on April 8, 2015 Amateur Hour

Photo by Adam Alexander

Photo by Adam Alexander

“Amateur Hour,” a series by AFC’s Katie Waddell, surveys Chicago’s array of amateur nights and talent shows.

This week’s “Amateur Hour” starts with the Third Annual Farmer Talent Show, organized by Band of Farmers at the Hideout Inn, a much-loved dive nestled between warehouses in one of Chicago’s industrial corridors. Band of Farmers is a coalition of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms that serve Chicago and the surrounding area.

What do goat puns, poetry recitations, vegetable trivia, and stand-up comedy have in common? They’re all things you might see at a talent show for farmers. This might sound like an SNL skit, but it’s 100-percent real, and I have the iPhone pics to prove it.

It was an unexpectedly familiar scene—like walking into a well-liked friend’s small exhibition opening. Only with trucker hats and sensible shoes replacing head-to-toe black and weird haircuts. In certain ways, these non-industrial farmers are a lot like working artists. As one performer noted, most people have romanticized notions about what their lives are actually like. Few seem to recognize that while it’s a rewarding job, it’s hard and often frustrating work.

The evening itself was full of satire and slapstick, though the performances were revealing in a way that goes far beyond trivia. Poetry recitations and stand-up routines were punctuated with sober observations about the hardships they collectively face: meager incomes, battles with commercial agriculture, living at the mercy of the weather. But humor is medicine. And edifying as the serious moments were, the spirit of the evening shone through best in the lighthearted routines.  Here’s the highlight reel:

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A duo from Joe’s Blues, a blueberry farm in rural Michigan, played an electric upright bass and an oddball piano hand-painted red with rainbow keys, and with rocking-chair rockers attached. The piano—Did it come that way? Do they sell rocking pianos on Amazon and no one ever told me? Did he make it himself? Do they also grow magic piano-making elves on the blueberry farm? That he played it so expertly, swinging back in forth in time with his instrument, suggested ownership. But that also meant that he’d bothered to lug it to a talent show one state away. Their performance was great, but I appreciated their eccentric taste in objects even more.

Buzz around the subject of bees defined the evening.  Home Sweet Organics proprietors Kim and Rachel put on a so-called “pollination seduction” burlesque, followed by bee stand-up comedy. Stephanie Douglass of Growing Home performed a 10-ish minute set as a queen bee with the attitude of a Kardashian. Douglass mixed Bee sex jokes about “super sex-positive” hives (a queen bee mates with one to 40 drones at a time), with more serious commentary on genetic modification. “You guys, don’t freak out,” she cautioned, “I am resistant to Roundup. I’m that queen everyone’s been buzzing about.”

Then came the farmer fashion show.

At the emcee’s prompting, fashion show participants lined up against the wall next to the stage. It was clear that they weren’t random audience volunteers, but they didn’t look particularly sartorial. The models wore the same sensible shoes and flannels they had on when they got to the bar. One guy dressed up in an old bathrobe for the occasion. Here’s what came down the runway:

  •      Coveralls “that stand up to cold, wet, and goat poop”
  •      A beanie that the model found in a puddle and decided to keep
  •      10-for-$1 gardening gloves
  •      An “all-seasons survival utila-kilt” that can allegedly hold a case of beer

All this was set to a techno soundtrack. The bathrobe guy proved a star. He disrobed to reveal actual (not costume-y) lederhosen. Then he juggled fire. Badly. He kept dropping his flaming bean bags (or whatever they where).

The flaming bean bags weren’t particularly illuminating on their own, but in context with everything else that evening, I realized I’d actually learned a few things. Like that “lambing” is an actual verb. (It means birthing a lamb, and according to livestock farmer-cum-poet named Harry, it’s messy and terrifying process.) I also found out that the average American consumes 85 grams of high-fructose corn syrup on the daily—which didn’t even exist before 1970. Or so said the farmer performing “‘The Lorax’ and a Brief History of the Last 100 Years of Agriculture.” And Monsanto, a multinational agrochemical and agricultural company? The Band of Farmers agree: it’s still the worst ever.

The farmers were an impressive bunch; idealistic but tough. Many of them left big cities and secure desk jobs to pursue radically new lives in a precarious occupation. As an audience member, it was tempting to fantasize about owning my own fuzzy lambs while editing out all the other stuff they said about broken equipment, coalition meetings and debt. (I’m sure that a lot people equate “working artist” with frolicking and not borderline poverty and panic attacks.) But the best thing about getting a glimpse inside their world was that despite the hardships, they seemed to genuinely love their jobs. That kind of satisfaction isn’t easy to come by.

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