Betting on the farms
September 29th, 2006
Dave Matthews and friends aim to keep farmers on their land
By CHUCK DARROW
Back in the 1960s and early '70s, Manhattan-attorney-turned-rural-farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by the late Eddie Albert on the CBS-TV sitcom, Green Acres), often would launch into an impassioned speech about the importance of the American farmer to the nation's social and economic health and well-being.
Those monologues -- always delivered with the strains of patriotic fife music in the background -- were offered strictly for laughs. Decades later, rock superstar Dave Matthews is echoing the character's sentiments, but comedy has nothing to do with it.
"Our view of what a farmer is, the one we imagine in our head, by the silos, near the barn, tending to his pigs, tending to his cattle, or tending to the fields, is really being erased," insisted the 39-year-old South African-born, Virginia-based "jam band" avatar. He was on the phone in advance of Saturday's Farm Aid concert at Camden's Tweeter Center.
"I feel like the farmer in America represents all the things -- the freedom, the individual, the strength of hard work -- all the things that truly, we hold dear, without the rhetoric, that represents everything that we truly value.
"The country was built on these incredible ideas and they've stuck with us. But they are fundamentally being attacked by the people who have power, and the people who represent us in the government, and all under the guise, and the disguise, of "Oh, we have a new, farm-friendly program in the government.'
"Well, all those programs do is pay these giant corporate farms to be more profitable, and make it impossible for a small farmer to compete."
The result, he continued, is an acute diminishing of important national resources.
"The speed by which farms go out of business, daily, it's not by the tens, daily, it's not by the hundreds, it's really, literally by the thousands -- farmers just dropping out and giving up to the wave of the future, which is a very ugly one, which is one that's also an assault on the planet."
Matthews, who owns a farm on which he raises poultry and cattle and grows vegetables that are marketed as the Best of What's Around brand, is certainly doing more than talking the talk. For years, he has joined Farm Aid founders Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp as a main celebrity organizer of the annual benefit that this year marks its 21st anniversary.
According to Matthews, whose annual summertime Tweeter Center concerts are invariably sold-out affairs, his original association with Farm Aid was inspired as much by career concerns as a desire to preserve America's small farms.
"The first time we did Farm Aid was in Kentucky, I think," he recalled. "It was probably 1993 or '94.
"We were just starting to . . . enjoy a little bit of the limelight, and we were invited to come down. I think Hootie & The Blowfish did that show. It's sort of the way it is now. It's a venue for a lot of bands to be seen, and also be part of something . . . that's annually historic."
However, Matthews wound up getting a lot more than exposure at a high-profile concert.
"What struck me then was how much . . . surprising information washed over me," he said.
"I was surprised by how the sort of offensive against small farmers was really endorsed not only by corporate farmers, but was really endorsed by the government, and the use of taxpayers' money -- to really do everything you could do, without too many people noticing -- to destroy small farmers and to destroy the possibility of young, hopeful farmers ever getting the chance to get their feet in the ground.
"And (to) really monopolize a huge industry into the hands of the few.
"The idea that we could turn it around seemed like a good cause."
The Farm Aid concept arose from 1985's Live Aid concert for African famine relief at Philadelphia's long-gone JFK Stadium.
During the set he performed with the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood, Bob Dylan made a remark about helping the American family farmer who, at that time, was being threatened with extinction by the corporatization and consolidation of the agricultural industry, and the exuberant commercial development of the nation's farmlands.
Inspired by Dylan's suggestion, Nelson, Young and Mellencamp spearheaded the inaugural Farm Aid, which was staged six weeks later on Sept. 22, 1985, in Champagne, Ill.
Today, Farm Aid's focus is primarily on encouraging the cultivation and marketing of locally grown crops.
"Getting food that is grown locally is the best thing for you, the best thing for your children," said Young at a July press conference in Philadelphia, at which Saturday's event was announced.
At first glance, Camden -- which is about as urban a center as you can find anywhere -- may seem like an odd choice to host this year's edition of Farm Aid. But according to event officials, the city is actually a logical site located in the middle of a region with a large number of family-owned farms.
In addition to boasting numerous fruit- and corn-growing operations, the Delaware Valley is a center for such crops as mushrooms (Chester County, Pa.), blueberries (Hammonton) and cranberries (the Pine Barrens of Burlington County).
"Our campaign is for farmers, whether they're living on a 500-acre corn farm in Iowa or a half-acre sustainable farm in the heart of Philadelphia," said Ted Quaday, Farm Aid's program director.
While there will be a large educational component to Saturday's day-long concert, it is, first and foremost, a musical event. Joining the four headliners will be a diverse roster of acts that cuts across much of the pop music spectrum.
Among the performers scheduled are 1950s rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis (whose recently released CD, Last Man Standing, boasts such guest collaborators as U2's Bono, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen), steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph, '60s folk hero Arlo Guthrie, reggae stars Steel Pulse and even polka king Jimmy Sturr.
For Texas-based Los Lonely Boys, playing Farm Aid is, among other things, a chance to repay the kindness shown the band by Nelson.
"We've done two of them," said guitarist Henry Garza, who fronts the group known for its blending of rock, blues and Latino music.
"The first year, we had just hooked up with Willie. He took us under his wing when our first album (Los Lonely Boys) came out. It was such a great vibe, and such a great cause, that we were happy to play Farm Aid.
"They have a lot of great musicians who get together and spread a lot of joy. It's always fun for us to get on stage, but to do it for this cause is really great.
"And we're looking forward to seeing Willie. He's like our Yoda. We love hanging around with Willie!"
When the Dave Matthews Band gigs, it is usually on stage for the better part of three hours. Saturday, however, Matthews, who'll perform without his five-piece band, will be limited to about a 45-minute set -- a circumstance he said he can handle.
"I don't mind," he offered. "I'm very happy to do 45 minutes when it's just me. It's not too hard for me to get into it.