My first order of business when Farm Aid’s 38th Annual Benefit to Help Family Farmers announced Raleigh, North Carolina as the location for its concert, was to start planning a road trip.
My good friend and neighbor, Scott Swackhamer, a Penn State Ag Science graduate, and I have been attending these Willie Nelson extravaganzas for years, Scott usually wearing the volunteer hat and me carrying journalist credentials.
I had my eye on the prize: an interview with the Holy Father of Texas (the words a friend from that state recently used to describe Mr. Nelson), and asked for a 10-minute meeting with the Red Headed Stranger when applying for press accreditation.
The road trip
I had traveled to Virginia in the days leading up to our epic trip south, so we met at a Park & Ride lot just below Washington, DC, and I stuffed all my gear into the Dodge Savana minivan. 1997 Scott’s brown giant.
“Smells like ripe bananas,” I told Scott.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“What is that.”
“Paw paws,” Scott said with a sheepish smile.
Turns out Farm Aid, which always includes a plethora of learning opportunities in the days leading up to the event, and at the event itself, was hosting a seed swap and Scott – a serious farmer with his wife, Emelie, a Montgomery County ag Extension Agent – had nothing to trade, so he picked fruit from one of the trees in his yard. Always an adventure to travel with Scott, and no doubt the feeling is mutual.
Local (and international) wisdom
Scott and I had met and kept in touch with North Carolina farmer activist Craig Watts at Farm Aid in Hartfort, Connecticut, the previous year, so we all went to an Airbnb house 20 minutes north of the hall. concert.
Craig had become somewhat famous – “infamous, some might say – as a whistleblower for shining the spotlight on the economically unfair and inhumane practices of companies dealing with contract poultry farmers.
Farm Aid came to town in 2014 and helped give it a national platform.
Watts now works for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, Farm Aid Beneficiaries and Collaborators. He is converting his old chicken coops to the organic production of mushrooms and vegetables.
After settling into our digs and getting the guitars out for a bit, we all turned around and got ready for Friday’s pre-concert activities. Craig and I set off in his truck for Durham for a screening of “The Smell of Money”, a documentary about how large commercial pig farms are causing environmental and health problems in predominantly black rural communities.
Scott and his son, Clay – as fate would have it, Clay and his freshly minted doctorate. in Biological Systems Engineering from UC Davis were in town to present at a conference – were on their way to Raleigh to pick up their degrees and volunteer assignments for the next day.
Craig and I were early. I said hello to a guy in the row behind us, and his accent piqued my curiosity, so I moved over to talk to him.
Craig later said, with characteristic Southern wisdom flowing effortlessly from his mouth, that if you meet someone who speaks English with an accent, they know at least one more language than you do.
Fred Stouthart has been working with local municipalities and provinces in the Netherlands at the intersection of agriculture, health and the environment for 40 years. Soon to be retired, he is now looking for a meaningful legacy project and plans to bring the Farm Aid model to the Netherlands.
Stouthart said he thought it was a happy coincidence when he saw the trailer for the documentary we were about to watch.
“It’s the same kind of problems we face in Holland,” he said. The main thing is odor nuisance and the health of local residents.
The smell of racism
More than a nuisance, according to the documentary we watched following our conversation. People were dying.
“I hate to talk about resilience as a black person,” panelist Ghanja O’Flaherty, co-director of infrastructure and development with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, said after the film. “It feels like it’s an ongoing thing that we have to do. It is at the heart of our experience and … of being able to live in the world.
“But at the same time, I feel like that’s what it’s all about, in a lot of ways.”
The documentary follows a group of residents over 20 who have been harmed by factory hog farms and the industry’s deleterious practices, including the spraying of effluent (they call it fertilizer) from hog waste pits onto fields. adjacent to their homes and how communities, many residents of who had family land on which pig farms now operate were taken illegally, are fighting back.
“They’re protecting their position, protecting their property, protecting their well-being and their lives,” O’Flaherty said. “The fact that you even have to do this is more than a little infuriating. Who in the world thinks it’s an appropriate position to have to ask not to get shit sprayed? »
Farm Helper Spirit
Craig and I had just enough time to change into costumes before we all hopped in the van and headed out to Farm Aid’s New Year’s Eve dinner and the Spirit of Farm Aid awards ceremony. The paw paws became noticeably more mature.
I met Pennsylvania Farmers Union President Mike Kovach, my former Rodale colleague Heidi Secord, who is now Pennsylvania’s first female executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, and many other familiar faces.
And many new ones. What Farm Aid does best – besides supporting family farmers (and other groups with similar missions) and putting on a big concert – is facilitating relationships.
I made an important one when I entered the room. How many people, if boasting were in their nature, could call themselves both older than Willie Nelson and counted among his dearest friends?
There stood David Amram, 91 (he will be 92 in November) and interpreter at every Farm Aid since 1987.
Amram has collaborated artistically with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Jack Kerouac, Sonny Rollins, Lionel Hampton, Allen Ginsberg, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Patti Smith and Arlo Guthrie, to name a few. -ones.
And, of course, Willie. When the Nelson Family Band, including his sons Lucas and Micah, closed the show the next night, Amram literally blew everyone away with his blues solo playing two pennywhistles at the same time.
Happy to chat, Amram hinted that his association with Farm Aid had led him to healthier eating and possibly longevity.
“People would rather eat poison than an ear of corn that might have an insect in it,” he said. “People just don’t realize these farmers are feeding their children.”
Spirit of Farm Aid winners have included longtime Farm Aid producer Charlie Hernandez and his wife Andrea Fulkerson, artist Tim Reynolds (who has performed with Dave Matthews annually since 2007), volunteer Adam Baker, farmer advocate Savi Horn of the Land Loss Prevention Project, and North Carolina farmer and advocate Craig Watts.
What? He didn’t look surprised?
“I’ve sworn to secrecy,” Watts deadpanned.
Oh yeah, the concert
An hour before showtime, Willie Nelson and fellow board members John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and Margo Price took the stage for a press conference, joined by Farm Aid communications director Jen Fahey , Executive Director Carolyn Mugar and a rotating group of local family farmers.
“By bringing Farm Aid back to North Carolina, we can show what family farmers are doing for the benefit of all, through their on-farm practices,” Nelson said. “Family farmers have an intimate relationship with the earth’s soil and water. By investing in the long-term health of our soils, water and climate, farmers are giving back to the land that provides us all with good food.
The festival at Coastal Credit Union Music Park in Walnut Creek was sold out. Viewers were encouraged to visit the local Farm Aid village which offered hands-on activities to celebrate farming and a chance to meet farmers in person and learn how they enrich the soil, protect water and grow food. economy as well as healthy food. Local and national organizations were also on hand to provide information on collecting and relocating food systems to avoid preventable food waste, the dangers of corporate consolidation, and local Carolina farms, markets, and agricultural produce. North.
As well as addressing local and regional social justice issues, the theme for Farm Aid 2022 was tackling climate change.
“Farmers are on the front lines of climate change and know all too well its consequences,” said Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. “At the same time, family farmers are the best resources we have to minimize the consequences of climate change. We all need to support proactive agriculture and food policies that support climate-resilient family farmers and pastoralists as they manage our soils and strengthen our food system.
Throughout the day, artists and farmers came together on the FarmYard stage to discuss the challenges and opportunities of agriculture, including climate change, farmer mental health, food policy and indigenous agriculture. .
The musical lineup included Sheryl Crow, Chris Stapleton, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Allison Russell (a new discovery for me and my favorite), Charley Crocket, Brittney Spencer and Particle Kid (aka Micah Nelson), with longtime Matthews his collaborator Tim Reynolds joining him on stage.
Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, originally slated to join, and my interview with Willie, both fell victim to COVID. Nelson is doing great, as evidenced by his phenomenal guitar playing that night, but his people have decided that one-on-one talks aren’t going to be a thing this year.
I’ve spoken at length with so many people about the issues facing family farmers that space in an already lengthy web article wouldn’t do them justice. Look for ‘Farm Aid Dispatches’ appearing on this website, and possibly in the pages of the Lancaster Farming newspaper, over the next few weeks.
It’s time to get back on the road. Scott is chomping at the bit… and I think we still have a few legs left.