On Saturday, September 22, 2018, Farm Aid came to Xfinity Center in Hartford, CT. Before the sold-out event began for 24,000 fans, festival organizers held a press conference to talk about the current state of affairs in the farming community. Founder Willie Nelson joined co-founders John Mellencamp and Neil Young on stage, along with Dave Matthews, who has been a board member since 2001.
Connecticut’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Steven Reviczky, kicked off the press conference stating that “this crisis is real. 93% of dairy produced has been lost since 1973. 500 family farms lost. Connecticut has 100 dairy farms.” On that note, local farmers from throughout the state spoke of their current situation.
Joe Greenbacker of Fort Hill Farms put it simply by stating, “We’re tired of working for no money.”
Blue Hills Orchard’s president, Eric Henry, indicated that “every avenue we have to make money is a good thing. Farming in New England is pretty tough. You see land being lost all the time. To keep the farms that we have is crucial. That’s key. Why would you want to lose that?”
A once-empty acre of a concrete lot in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is now home to Reservoir Community Farm. Alexis Martin stated that “it’s basically an acre of land that was built from the ground up. The youth program is eight weeks long, and kids from Bridgeport can come and learn. They learn that they have options other than the corner store.”
The major names behind Farm Aid also spoke at the press conference. Nelson was very to the point, noting that “everyone should be very concerned about who does their food. I would hope most of it comes from our local farmers.”
Mellencamp was pissed off and noted that his song “Rain On The Scarecrow” was inspired due to the state of the farm economy. He explained,
That’s how I met Willie [Nelson]. The admiration is bullshit now. Having the farms having to deal with some madman’s trade habits, fuck that. Big companies run all these radio stations. You’re going to hear corporate bullshit. We’re going to eat corporate bullshit, and we’re governed by corporate bullshit. If you don’t vote we’re going to get shit, which is what we’ve got right now.
Young reflected his passion on the matter with strong words that he hoped would stick and drove that point home by stating that
You should never drive by a farmer’s market without going in and taking part in humanity. I’m Canadian, and I love America. There’s nothing here that needs to be made great again. The corporate farmers suck. They’re poisoning you. Their food is bad. You can stop this if you stand up. Don’t support it. Just don’t drive by another farmer’s market ever again without buying something. Please don’t abandon the farmers of America. Do whatever you have to do. Vote. Buy an orange. Buy something.
Matthews followed the same theme, as he went on to say,
It is unfathomable in a country that has as much as we have, that has the richest people in droves, that we can still look at ourselves and say we’re the greatest nation on the planet when we have people that are going hungry. When we have people that have to go five miles to get to a grocery store is crazy. Our tax dollars should go to people that are starting urban farms. Our tax dollars should be supporting people that are growing good food.
After the hour-plus press conference on stage, doors opened and attendees started to stream in. The venue was packed with fans coming from as far away as Florida, New Jersey, and all points in between. As expected, Willie Nelson opened up the day’s musical event alongside the Wisdom Indian Dancers before Ian Mellencamp took to the stage on acoustic guitar, followed by Particle Kid. It eased fans into the day as they continued to stream into the venue under gorgeous blue skies.
Throughout the day, attendees had the chance to learn more about farming and the state of the industry by exploring the interactive exhibits that were available in the “Homegrown Village.” Groups from across the nation provided learning experiences regarding soil, water, energy, and food within this area. At the FarmYard stage within the Village, musicians who performed on the main stage joined local farmers on various discussions. Ian Mellencamp spoke in the panel regarding diversity and told listeners to “get to know your local artists just as you should get to know your local farmers. Art, music, and good food go so well together.”
During every performance, enormous screens behind and to the sides of the stage showed stunning photos that continuously changed. Everything farm related, from gorgeous fields of flowers to barns to farm equipment, was seamlessly splashed on the screens, creating a striking backdrop that quietly reminded the audience of the importance of the day’s event.
Back at the main stage, the music moved at a quick pace. Afternoon sets featured Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Margo Price, and Jamey Johnson. Johnson was no stranger to the event as this was his eleventh appearance at Farm Aid. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats captivated the crowd with a steamy, energetic set, with Margo Price and Lukas Nelson joining in to wrap things up with a cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” The angelic vocals of Kacey Musgraves were simply as Nashville as her, and the band was decked out in classy blue outfits.
As the sun started to set, the performance time for each artist became lengthier. Sturgill Simpson bounded onto the stage with an energy that just wouldn’t quit. Grammy-winning Chris Stapleton had the crowd charged up, with fans wasting no time belting out the lyrics to “Tennessee Whiskey” at the end of his set. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds gave an impressive acoustic performance that included heavy hitters such as “#41”, “Ants Marching”, and “Don’t Drink the Water.”
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – “Don’t Drink The Water”
[Video: Farm Aid]
John Mellencamp continued to keep the Farm Aid crowd spirited as he reached into the catalog and busted out some of his greatest hits. “Small Town”, “Jack & Diane”, and the song that started his journey on the path for farmers, “Rain On the Scarecrow”, had the entire venue singing along to the lyrics. At times, Mellencamp would back away from the mic and let the audience take over a tune. Over 20,000 people singing along to his songs visibly impressed Mellencamp as he surveyed the crowd while they sang.
Neil Young was joined by Promise of the Real, and they did not disappoint. With such a passion for the Farm Aid cause, Young maintained his stance and took the time to repeatedly remind the crowd to shop at farmers’ markets and help the small-town farmers. His set graced the entirety of his legendary career, varying from “Show Me,” “Heart of Gold”, to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio,” and featured the live debut performance of “Children of Destiny.”
Neil Young & Promise Of The Real – “Heart Of Gold”
[Video: Farm Aid]
Willie Nelson bookended the music by closing out the event with his set in annual fashion. Lukas and Micah joined their father on stage to back him during his set, which included heavy favorites “Whiskey River”, “On The Road Again”, and the Brenda Lee cover “Always On My Mind.” A tip of the hat was made to Waylon Jennings with a performance of “Good Hearted Woman”, and Nelson also performed several Hank Williams covers, including “Hey Good Lookin'”. Neil Young took to the stage and helped close out the show as the event wrapped up with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and the Albert Brumley cover of “I’ll Fly Away.”
The event that sold out in four hours was a huge success in Connecticut. For more information on how you can donate to farmers in need, please visit Farm Aid’s official website.
Willie Nelson & Family – “Always On My Mind”
[Video: Farm Aid]
Headline photo courtesy of Brian Bruner/Bruner Photo. Videos courtesy of Farm Aid.
Words by Sarah Bourque