But the festival’s online format also will highlight Farm Aid’s real superstars—the family farmers who grow the nation’s food, the men and women whom Nelson sought to help when he launched Farm Aid with its first concert in Champaign, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1985. Since then, Farm Aid—the longest-running concert for a cause— has raised nearly $60 million to support family farmers and a sustainable agriculture system.
And for Farm Aid’s performers, this is personal. In videos provided exclusively to Billboard in advance of the festival, Brandi Carlile offers a tour of her garden as she harvests late-season vegetables—and Chris Vos, lead singer of The Record Company, offers an emotional tribute to his dairy-farming father and his grandfather, who worked the land before him.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color, and amid another season of severe weather, driven by climate change, Farm Aid warns that thousands of family farmers may be driven out of business. The sustainable agricultural methods of family farmers, meanwhile, are viewed as essential to addressing climate change.
“This pandemic and so many other challenges have revealed how essential family farmers and ranchers are to the future of our planet,” says Nelson. “Farm Aid 2020 is going to give the whole country a chance to learn about the important work of farmers and how they're contributing to our well-being, beyond bringing us good food.”
Farm Aid’s videos of family farmers help illustrate the organization’s intersecting causes of sustainable food, economic recovery from the pandemic, and the call for racial justice.
“This year has been challenging for us all,” says Black farmer Angie Provost, speaking beside her husband June, in front of a tractor at the Provost Farm, which raises sugarcane in Louisiana. In its videos, Farm Aid challenges the image most may still have of the independent American farmer. In the three-plus-decades since Farm Aid helped launch the Good Food movement, a new generation—young, diverse, committed to sustainability—has turned to farming.
The farmers get an emotional boost from Farm Aid and the personal perspective of artists like Brandi Carlile. “This is my garden,” says Carlile in a Farm Aid video, climbing down from an off-road vehicle beside the plot she farms with her wife, Catherine Shepherd. “We’re starting to harvest the things that are over here, like our tomatoes, our eggplants—or aubergine as my wife calls it—some acorn squash. A whole bunch of cucumbers. My kids live for these things!”
Of all the artists on this year’s bill, perhaps none has more personal connection to the challenges of the family farmer than Chris Vos, lead singer of The Record Company. “It’s one of the highest honors of my life—as the son of an active Wisconsin dairy farmer and having grown up on that very dairy farm myself—to be asked to play Farm Aid this year,” he says.
In the Farm Aid video, Vos holds up a weathered cap. “This hat … was my grandpa’s,” he begins, haltingly. “Look at it. He was a farmer. It’s got dirt on it. It’s got grease all over it. It’s got love. And his sweat. And his commitment. That’s what the American farmer is about.”