The Power of Possibility: Why Farm Aid’s Advocacy, Support and Legacy Remain Vital
Farm Aid celebrates its 36th anniversary in 2021. The annual concert is returning to an in-person format on Saturday (Sept. 25), after going virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organization's mission has remained remarkably focused and consistent since launching in 1985.
According to its website, Farm Aid was formed "to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land." Since the first Farm Aid, they've raised "nearly $60 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture;" in fact, during its more than three decades in existence, the nonprofit has donated to 300-plus nonprofit organizations that help family farms.
Among the farms that have benefited is Missouri-based Patchwork Family Farms, a sustainable hog farmer collective. “Farm Aid has a long history of working with organizations like ours, that are on the ground, that are on the front end of bad corporate policies, bad government policies, and of what it would really take to change what’s going on in rural America,” co-founder Rhonda Perry told Modern Farmer in 2015. “We’ve continued to have similar visions of what is wrong, but also of what is possible.”
That Farm Aid believes in the power of possibility — and, more important, invests in possibility — is one reason both the organization and concert continue to thrive.
"Farm Aid is important because the values that it represents are important to our society and culture," Lukas Nelson, who's also performing this year with his band Promise of the Real, told The Boot in 2018. "Supporting local economies and family-run business ensures a quality that corporations lack. In the process of diminishing our food quality, they put the mom and pops out of business, when they had the better food to begin with.
"That’s why supporting family farms is important: We are preserving the idea of quality over quantity," he adds, "and the power of a tight community with ideals that conform with longevity and wisdom rather than cheap profitability and quantity."
Farm Aid's Beginnings
The first Farm Aid took place in 1985, a year marked by a surge in musical altruism. In fact, the idea for Farm Aid emerged thanks to an offhand comment Bob Dylan made at the large-scale benefit show Live Aid, which took place on July 13 of that year: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?” he said during his set.
Dylan's concern was rooted in an early '80s crisis caused by a perfect storm of contributing factors, including farmers facing lopsided supply and demand. An excess of commodity crops translated to goods being offered at lower prices — just as buyers were less interested in U.S. products, due to higher prices and trade restrictions. For example, in 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter banned U.S. grain exports to the Soviet Union, which was a devastating blow to many.
"We are preserving the idea of quality over quantity and the power of a tight community with ideals that conform with longevity and wisdom rather than cheap profitability and quantity." -- Lukas Nelson
On top of that, farmers who had borrowed money to expand their footprint during flusher times were faced with sky-high interest rates and a decrease in farmland value: "60 percent in some parts of the Midwest from 1981 to 1985," according to Corn+Soybean Digest. The end result is that farm debt "hit a staggering $215 billion by 1984 — double of what it had been in 1978," the publication added.
Unsurprisingly, many farmers defaulted on their loans or were dealing with serious money issues; according to a 1985 New York Times article, "one-fourth of the nation's 650,000 full-time farmers — there are another 1.7 million part-time farmers — are under severe financial stress. These experts estimate that as many as 65,000 of the full-time farmers are so deeply in debt that they face loss of their farms within two years."
In a 2015 retrospective piece, Modern Farmer noted that the Farmers Home Administration, which was part of the United States Department of Agriculture, had no problem pushing farmers off their land, even by using force.
“The mood in the countryside was one of helplessness,” said Missouri farmer Roger Allison, who battled the USDA in federal court over foreclosure. “We were up against the government. Farmers wanted to make their loans and deprived themselves and their families of food, electricity — the very basics — just trying to pay the debt.”
It's no surprise, then, that Nelson, Mellencamp and Young wasted no time launching the event. On Sept. 22, 1985, a little over two months after Dylan's idle thought, the first Farm Aid became a reality at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois. A cavalcade of stars — including Nelson, Dylan, Young, Mellencamp, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, John Denver, Glen Campbell and Charlie Daniels — gathered in front of an estimated 78,000 people for a 14-hour concert.
''I'm a farm boy from Oklahoma,'' country icon Roger Miller told the New York Times at the time. ''We musicians don't have all the answers to the farm problem. We're just trying to bring attention to it.''
The first Farm Aid was broadcast all or in part on local and cable TV, as well as via radio, while an accompanying phone telethon also raised awareness and funds. All told, the first Farm Aid raked in about $7 million, some which went to support organizations such as the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) and Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG).
"The amount of money collected will be insignificant for individual farmers," Iowa farmer Elmer Kunkel told the New York Times. "The most important thing is that the concert has brought us together, and it has brought the media here to draw attention to the facts."
Farm Aid's Lasting Legacy
Farm Aid wasn't just a one-and-done event, of course. The concert has taken place nearly every year since, with the exceptions of 1988 and 1991. More importantly, Farm Aid launched a support system that's grown and evolved through the years, and added services to respond to the changing needs of farmers, whether in the short- or long-term. For example, when Hurricane Harvey decimated portions of the south in 2017, Farm Aid's Family Farm Disaster Fund provided assistance to helpful organizations that could boost those affected.
Back in the '80s, the groundswell of support that lingered after the first Farm Aid helped tackle some of the event's precipitating factors. Most notably, in 1987, Nelson and Mellencamp testified in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Production and Stabilization of Prices in support of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's Family Farm bill. Both spoke about corporate interference in the farming industry, and why family farms are important.
''I am an entertainer playing rock music, and Willie asked me to be involved in Farm Aid about two or three years ago," Mellencamp told the politicians. "In Seymour, Ind., the town I grew up in, there used to be a John Deere dealership. It is no longer there.
"When I am out on tour and I am talking to people, they are afraid. Their vision of the future is: What is going to happen to my children in 20 years when, all of a sudden, three farmers are farming the State of Indiana and they also own all the food-processing plants?" he explained. ''It seems funny and peculiar that, after my shows and after Willie's shows, people come up to us for advice. It is because they have got nobody to turn to.''
The musicians involved in Farm Aid provided both visibility and leadership, which went a long way to keeping the plight of the farmers in the public eye — and contributed to the passage of legislation such as the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which overhauled existing laws.
"When Willie Nelson came to testify before the Agriculture Committee, we felt that was productive, because Nelson had organized the Farm Aid concert; he was involved in something that had been a tremendous benefit to farmers," an aide to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin told the New York Times at the time.
Interestingly enough, that celebrity factor wasn't always a plus: A 1987 profile of Mellencamp that shadowed his testimony noted that many politicians left during the speech because he wasn't performing. Yet Young, Nelson and Mellencamp are the type of musicians who are galvanized by such treatment, who view being somewhat outlaw as a badge of pride. Their musical careers have always been a testament to the power of going against the grain — and the great work (and great works) that can happen when the mainstream isn't necessarily expecting much from you.
"Honestly, it really sucks that Farm Aid is still happening, because that means the U.S. government doesn’t care about feeding people real food." -- Micah Nelson
Of course, the men also aren't afraid to be rabble-rousers where need be. In 2013, Young, whose environmental activism permeates many aspects of his career, pointedly noted, "The farmers are on the front lines of climate change, and climate change is the issue of the 21st century."
The high-profile public gestures dotting an official Farm Aid timeline further bear this out. In addition to congressional testimony, there's Young's 1985 ad that asked then-President Ronald Reagan, “Will the family farm in America die as a result of your administration?” and Nelson protesting alongside hog farmers in 1995, as well as advocacy around fresh food in schools and conferences dedicated to farming innovations.
But much of Farm Aid's important work happens behind the scenes, with funds being donated to organizations, or the implementation of grassroots campaigns that are effective but not very glamorous. For example, the timeline item referencing the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 passage noted that Nelson "followed up on this victory with letters to nearly 90,000 family farm borrowers to tell them where they could find financial and legal counsel."
Speaking to Modern Farmer, Allison, the Missouri farmer, was effusive about what this support means. "Thank God for Willie Nelson. Thank God for Farm Aid. They’re still there with us. We need them. Together, we’ve changed a lot of the bad stuff in agriculture. We’ve allowed farmers to have a new vision of a type of sustainable agriculture that we can all participate in, and profit from.”
There certainly is room for improvement, however. In a statement to The Boot in 2018, Micah Nelson didn't mince words when asked what it means to see Farm Aid going strong: “Farm Aid is as important as food," he said.
"What does it mean to see the event going strong? Honestly, it really sucks that Farm Aid is still happening, because that means the U.S. government doesn’t care about feeding people real food," he continues. "The U.S. government doesn’t care about people; they only care about their corporatist agenda so we have to take care of the organic family farmers ourselves. It’s total bulls--t.”
He's not wrong — but at least he's not alone in reiterating how important farmers are to the global ecosystem. This passion propels the activism at Farm Aid's core — and explains ultimately why both the organization and concert continue to thrive. The principals aren't parachuting philanthropists, but live the Farm Aid credo and weave it into their daily lives.
“In 1985, alternatives didn’t exist for most farmers, and people didn’t understand that there was a role for them in changing the system," Mellencamp said in 2015. "People thought the farm crisis was a rural problem.
"But after that first concert, people listened," he added. "They realized that if we lost family farmers, we lost Main Street, and we lost our food. They stood up with family farmers, and now things are changing. We’ve got a lot more work to do, but the connection between rural and urban communities is more real and important to people.”
Willie Nelson + More Fight for Family Farms at Farm Aid 2018: