When Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid arrives in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday (Sept. 24), the annual benefit he created nearly four decades ago to support family farmers takes on new urgency amid the climate crisis, says Dave Matthews, longtime concert participant and a member of the Farm Aid board.
“There’s this new farming culture that is growing,” says Matthews, “young farmers who are committed to the environment. If you do farming in a more natural way, it can contribute to the health of the planet.”
Focusing more than ever on the importance of sustainable, climate resilient agriculture, Farm Aid takes place at the Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek and will feature Chris Stapleton and Sheryl Crow along with Nelson, Matthews and fellow Farm Aid board members John Mellencamp and Margo Price.
Additional acts include Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Allison Russell, Charley Crockett, Brittney Spencer and Particle Kid. (Citing his concerns with COVID-19, Farm Aid board member Neil Young is sitting out the festival for the second consecutive year). The sold-out concert can be viewed on Farm Aid’s website, its YouTube channel and Circle Network outlets. Sirius XM will broadcast Farm Aid 2022 starting at noon (ET) on Willie’s Roadhouse (channel 59) and Dave Matthews Band Radio (channel 30) on SiriusXM radio and on the SXM app.
“I’ve always said that family farmers strengthen us all,” said Nelson in a statement when this year’s lineup was announced. “Farmers in North Carolina, across the Southeast, and all over the country are growing solutions to our toughest challenges, including climate change. We’re bringing Farm Aid here to highlight their hard work and celebrate the ways we can all join farmers to help.”
Matthews recalls that his involvement with Farm Aid began after his full band played the festival in 1994. “It happened in a really natural way for me,” he recalls, acknowledging that even then he was concerned with “the plight of farmers in this country but also a changing planet.”
He shared with Nelson and his fellow Farm Aid artists the view that the industrialization of agriculture in the nation – the rise of so-called agribusiness – “started to destroy the fabric of what farming was in this country, independent small businesses, feeding yourself and feeding your community.”
In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness that industrial agriculture also is contributing to the climate crisis. In a report in August 2021, the National Resources Defense Council stated that industrial agriculture is a “significant source” of carbon in the atmosphere. Farm Aid has championed sustainable farming methods that can hold carbon in the soil, enhance biodiversity and help mitigate climate change.
“So there’s yet another reason to embrace these smaller, more focused farms,” says Matthews. “There’s a wonderful documentary called Kiss The Ground, which beautifully explains how farming does not have to damage the environment but can contribute to its health — if you do it in a more natural way.”
On Saturday, Farm Aid again will host its off-stage Homegrown Village where concertgoers can experience hands-on activities illustrating the interaction of soil, water, energy, food and farming. At the Farm Yard Stage, experts, farmers and featured artists will discuss concerns including how to promote sustainable methods of farming.
Farming practices in the U.S. are greatly influenced by the federal Farm Bill, passed every five years, which covers how U.S. tax dollars are spent in a sprawling number of programs to support American agriculture.
On Sept. 14, Farm Aid announced that it had joined more than 150 organizations, all “sharing an interest in a stronger, more equitable farm and food system,” calling on President Biden to support a 2023 Farm Bill that “reflects his strong values.”
In a blog post by Farm Aid communications director Jennifer Fahy, the organization stated that those values include: addressing racial justice “to repair historical and ongoing discrimination against farmers and communities of color;” ending hunger and food insecurity; increasing access to health food and improving nutrition security; ensuring safety and dignity for food and farm workers; protecting farmers and consumers; ensuring the safety of the food supply —and meeting “the climate crisis head on.”
“The next Farm Bill must be a climate bill,” wrote Fahy, “It must invest in research, technical assistance and financial incentives to enable farmers and ranchers to reduce emissions and to implement farming practices and labor policies that make their farms and workers better able to withstand extreme weather.”
From the perspective of a touring musician, Matthews acknowledges how the climate crisis impacts live music, particularly outdoor festivals and amphitheaters, an essential sector of the music industry.
Matthews spoke with Billboard shortly after the Dave Matthews Band played three nights at The Gorge Amphitheatre, the outdoor venue some 150 miles northwest of Seattle, which dramatically overlooks the Columbia River and the Columbia Gorge canyon.
“It was a little smoky the first couple of days,” he recalled, from wildfires in White River, Wash. and the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest, to the northeast. The fires had been sparked by lightning storms, which have been increasing with the rise of carbon in the atmosphere.
On its 2022 tour, which continues into the fall, the Dave Matthews Band will have funded the planting of an additional one million trees, bringing the total number of tree plantings funded to 3 million, through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees program, a global forest restoration effort, and other tour sponsors. When trees are planted, the conservancy notes, they remove climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere and support biodiversity.
Matthews’ own connection to the environment came early in his life. “From a young age, I was drawn to wild places, whether in Africa or in America, the two places that I lived. I grew up looking at wildlife and seeing the devastating mismanagement of wildlife, which really, in a way, preceded my knowledge of climate change.
In recent years, Matthews has felt the impact of the climate crisis personally, in ways large and small, he says. “I remember talking to a friend of mine near where I grew up in [Westchester County] New York and we used to always skate on this pond. Then I went to visit an old neighbor there and she says, `Oh, it’s been years since that pond froze.’”
Yet Matthews finds reason for optimism. He cites another documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, “a really beautiful movie” about a young couple, Molly and John Chester, who transformed abandoned acreage in Ventura County, Calif. Into a biodiverse farm, despite hardships including wildfires.
“We have so much knowledge at our, at our fingertips” about addressing the climate crisis, says Matthews. For farmers, it’s about “sharing the blueprints—and that’s where Farm Aid’s mission, for me, really needs to be going forward.”
“Climate change should be the conversation, no matter what we’re talking about,” he says. “If we’re talking about forest maintenance, if we’re talking about war, if we’re talking about development and how we build buildings, if we’re talking about energy —we have to talk about the climate. Every one of those things have to be addressed with climate change in mind.”