In September, between touring California and making his way to The Life Is Good Festival in Canton MA., singer-songwriter Dave Matthews will stop to sing one for America's farming families at the annual Farm Aid concert.
Farm Aid is the longest running benefit concert series in America, held nearly every year since 1985. The organization has raised more than $40 million to help keep family farmers on their land in the face of an economy that favors industrial-scale farming.
This year, the show is coming to Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Penn., a fitting venue for Farm Aid's efforts, organizers say. Agriculture is Pennsylvania's leading industry, and the south-central part of the state includes vast areas of highly fertile farmland. The state ranks third nationally in direct farmer-to-consumer sales, according to Farm Aid, and sixth in organic farms, with some 600 chemical-free operations.
Matthews, who has been a Farm Aid performer since 1995 and a board member since 2001, hopes to educate listeners about the declining economies of family-run farms.
"I do feel like our awareness is changing in this country, but it's not fast, and it's not fast enough," Matthews said last week before his band performed at the same stadium where Farm Aid 2012 will be staged.
Growing up in South Africa, Matthews idolized his dairy farmer uncle and dreamed of being a farmer himself one day. Today, Matthews maintains a farm and vineyard in Virginia, and his family grows some of the food they eat at their Seattle home.
Matthews sees the idealized version of the small family farm as a contrast to the industrial techniques and scales that dominate modern agriculture.
"The way it's run now is unhealthy, unsustainable, and that's what's destroying the small farmers (and) the mid-sized farmers," Matthews said. "That's the part that is heartbreaking."
Industrial-scale farming may be more profitable but does not take into account longer-term effects on health or the environment, Matthews said. If the cheapest way to do something is to produce the worst food for our children, that's obviously not the right thing to do, he said.
Through the concert series, Farm Aid hopes to draw attention to the issues facing family farmers. Food vendors from local family farms will be present at the September concert to answer questions and teach people about agriculture.
Industrial-scale farming tends to drive food prices down, which means small farmers have a hard time making enough money on their crops to sustain their operations. Some farming advocates want the government to either subsidize small farms or keep prices artificially high to help keep small farmers profitable. But critics say focusing on the plight of farmers overlooks the struggles of poor families in urban areas, who already have a hard time paying for food. They also say government has no business subsidizing an industry capable of being profitable on its own, even if that means smaller farms end up going out of business.
With the upcoming expiration of the farm bill--also in September--focus has shifted back to the complications surrounding financial aid provided by the government. The current farm bill includes large subsidies aimed at helping farmers to cope with risk.
But critics, like The Heritage Foundation, say that current congressional efforts to help farmers are ineffective.
"The small family farms that politicians claim to be saving are harmed most by the subsidy regime," said Diane Katz, a research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation, in a report posted on the group's website.
"Direct payments allow larger farms to access greater levels of credit, either to expand or modernize their operations," Katz said. "The flow of free dollars also increases the price of farmland, crowding out newcomers and relegating small farms to niche markets."
Large farms are more viable by virtue of economies of scale and access to technology, Katz said. The average age of small family farmers is increasing, and more of their land is being retired or incorporated into larger operations, she said. By the market's natural trend, family farms are simply not as profitable.
But despite the economic realities of industrial-scale farming, Matthews sees some hopeful signs, including a growing demand for the types of farm products produced by smaller operations. After a Farm Aid concert in Virginia, a couple of hours from his own farm, several farmers stopped Matthews on the street to thank him for helping the Farm Aid organization.
"It really does affect people, it has an effect on farmers - that's the part that's really hard for me to impart," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.