When it comes to the plight of the American farmer, and the state of the environment across the globe, singer-songwriter-musician Jack Johnson talks the talk and walks the walk. And he sings about it a whole lot, too.
Johnson, also a professional surfer, has been singing about environmental issues (and more — he has nine solo albums to date, in addition to dozens of compilations and soundtracks appearances) for years, including gigs at the venerable FarmAid extravaganza for the past three. He’ll be among the lineup for this weekend’s Farm Aid 30 anniversary concert event on Saturday at FirstMerit Pavilion on Northerly Island, alongside founder Willie Nelson, board members John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews (performing with Tim Reynolds), and guests Imagine Dragons, Kacey Musgraves, Old Crow Medicine Show, Mavis Staples, Holly Williams, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Insect vs Robots and Blackwood Quartet. The daylong extravaganza will also feature the Homegrown Village and Homegrown Concessions areas, highlighting local food purveyors as well as educational and informational booths/activities on farming and family farm issues.
Noon, Sept 19
FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island
Tickets: $49.50-$189.50; livenation.com
The first Farm Aid concert was held in downstate Champaign in 1985, the site chosen by Nelson because of its “central point in which to gather the nation’s farmers.” To date, FarmAid.org has granted nearly half a million dollars to 13 organizations in the state, while raising $48 million in support of farmers/agricultural issues across the country.
“We organized the first Farm Aid concert in Illinois in 1985 to respond to the people suffering during the Farm Crisis,” Willie Nelson said in a statement. “Thirty years later, in Chicago, we’ll bring together so many of the people — farmers, eaters, advocates and activists — who have made the progress of the Good Food Movement possible. At Farm Aid 30, we’ll celebrate the impact we’ve had and rally our supporters for the work ahead.”
Johnson spoke to me recently about Farm Aid and the environmental issues that should matter to everyone.
Q. How did you get involved with Farm Aid concerts?
A. I was a huge fan of Willie and Neil before I ever got a chance to meet them. I was a huge fan of the way they toured. I heard stuff Willie was doing, like using battery-operated trucks on his tours, running things on biodiesel. So I started doing things like that for my concerts. Willie lives in Hawaii part-time so we started meeting up at events here and got to know each other. One day I got a call to play Farm Aid, and I was hooked. This year will mark my third time. I love how the whole show runs. The way they have the [Farm Aid] Village set up. They bring in locally grown food and things like that. So now I model my tours after that. It’s all about supporting local farmers.
Q. Do you farm on your home site in Hawaii?
A. I wouldn’t call it a farm [Laughing], but I do love gardening. I grow a lot of the food my family eats. We have lots of friends who are farmers. It’s an exciting time in Hawaii. There’s a lot more food being grown on the islands. Different [crops] are being grown on different islands. I live on Oahu and we grow a lot of tomatoes here. The big island grows strawberries because they have the higher altitude.
Q. How is the farming landscape in Hawaii changing or is it still in danger?
A. So much land was being used for plantations and sugar that farming other foods was nearly impossible, and importing almost all our produce and food was the only way. But times are changing. I’ve got eggplant and bell peppers and tomatoes growing this year. And all kinds of herbs. Black beans.
Q. How critical is the state of the planet’s food chain?
A. It’s a very critical time for our planet. Everything is in danger. As humans, we’re always playing catch-up. Decisions about our water systems, our agricultural decisions, all need to move toward a healthier food system across the globe. In Hawaii, for example, we have a group of islands and now we look at is an example of how foods can grow in different ecosystems, co-exist and created better food systems. Local production is the key. Local sourcing is a must.
Q. How does your Kokua Hawaii Foundation work to improve the whole situation?
A. Too much of our food [in Hawaii] is being shipped all around the world. And if we can grow a lot of it here, why do we need to [import so much of it]? There’s a lot of GMO farming going on in Hawaii; all those chemicals being sprayed on the plants. There’s great concern for the health of the food and also the health of the soil and water. So much of the local farmland is being picked up by local corporations that ship what they grow. In turn, 90 percent of our food is shipped in. Think about the costs of all that — how much energy it takes to ship food 2,000 miles to and from the nearest mainland coast. My group is trying to give farmers lower loan rates so that they can stay afloat and provide food locally. We work with local schools to connect with kids about environmental issues like recycling and gardening. We try to get our message out through music with environmental concerts. Sourcing locally makes sense ecologically and economically.
Q. Does the message of Farm Aid still resonate with people?
A. I think progress has been made. If Farm Aid completely steered the direction of food in America it would be a whole different story. In the beginning, Farm Aid was more about awareness. Now it focuses more on solutions, on pointing out the problems and showing people what they can do to make things better. It’s very different now than it was, even 10 years ago, because of social media. You can get messages out in a good, effective way.
Q. Why did saving the planet, helping farmers in crisis, become a rallying cry for you?
A. It’s just what I’m interested in. The music was a deviation from my original path in life. Before I was into music, I was a director of a surfing/kayak camp for kids. Then I started making films and documentaries that focused on surfing. Did all the camera work. I even went to film school. I wanted to be National Geographic documentary filmmaker. I loved being involved with nonprofits around the world. The music allowed me to do these concerts for these world organizations. I love writing songs and music, and when me and my band leave a town, we know we’ve given back. From 2008 to 2013 we donated 100 percent of our proceeds from touring.
Q. Any tips for Chicagoans about what they can do to help turn the tide on our environmental woes?
A. Talk to kids about carrying reusable water bottles. After going out on a research trip recently in which we observed what plastic does to the ocean, seeing how widespread plastics pollution is, it really can make a difference. Bring your own bags to the grocery store; we just banned them in Hawaii. And say no to straws. And of course, grow your own vegetables and support your local farmers!