With Music Business Support, Farm Aid's Main Players: Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson Leave Impact
This is what the music business has long known about Farm Aid:
On one day, each year, since 1985, Farm Aid co-founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp have gathered an all-star roster of musicians for a high-profile benefit concert to support the men and women who help feed America.
With Dave Matthews later joining the organization's board in 2001, Farm Aid through the years has welcomed hundreds of artists to its stage, from the inaugural event in Champaign, Ill., to this past summer's show in Kansas City, Kan. Along the way, it has raised more than $39 million to help keep American's family farmers on their land.
This is what the music business may not know about Farm Aid:
The support of the music industry has helped Farm Aid influence a profound shift in the cultural landscape of the country during the past quarter century.
The organization's work, as Nelson has said, simply affects everyone who eats.
Farm Aid deserves credit for promoting many of the positive developments in food culture in the United States in recent years: the growth of farmers markets, the rise of community-supported agriculture groups, the spread of farm-to-table "slow food" restaurants and the wider use of sustainable farming practices.
And those changes in food culture and farming practices, in turn, are affecting much broader issues, from health-care costs to the fight against climate change.
"We started out to save the family farmer," Nelson says. "Now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us."
Yet none of Farm Aid's efforts would be possible without artists who donate their time and their music.
Farm Aid is "eternally grateful" for the support of the artists and the music industry, Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar says. "It's the combination of the music and the message that is so important. What happens at a Farm Aid concert opens up people's hearts."
Farm Aid has its roots in the mid-'80s era of music activism. In 1984, the ad-hoc supergroup Band Aid released the holiday single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to raise money and awareness for famine relief in Ethiopia. The American superstar ensemble USA for Africa followed in March 1985 with "We Are the World." And on July 13, 1985, the Live Aid concerts for African famine relief were staged simultaneously in London and Philadelphia.
That July, onstage at Live Aid, Bob Dylan remarked to the crowd: "Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?"
At the time, falling crop prices and rising debt payments had ignited a wave of foreclosures that were pushing family farmers off their land.
"Out here in these rural communities, there was a real feeling of desperation," recalls Rhonda Perry who, along with her husband Roger Allison, is a partner in the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, and a co-founder of Patchwork Family Farms in Columbia, Mo.
That August, Nelson was booked to play the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. In an interview for the 2005 book "Farm Aid: A Song for America," his then-booking agent Tony Conway of Buddy Lee Attractions recalled: "Out of the blue, Willie said to me, 'I want to do a concert for American farmers. I want to see if we can do it here in Illinois; I don't care where, just someplace we can get a stadium.'"
That inaugural Farm Aid concert was staged on an all-but-impossibly short lead time at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Sept. 22, 1985.
Perry recalls that her husband and Mugar had traveled by train from a farmers rally in Ames, Iowa, to the concert. "And as they made their way across by train, there were farmers along the sides of the road with American flags waving, and signs. It was an incredible experience in which farmers got hope for the first time in a long, long time."
Veteran promoter Arny Granat of Jam Productions tapped Ron Stern as producer of the first Farm Aid concert and Stern has filled that role since. The first show was led by Nelson, Young and Mellencamp, and also featured Dylan, Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi, Roy Orbison and many others before a crowd of 80,000.
It might have ended there, a one-shot expression of good intentions.
But Farm Aid's foursome have the tenacity of "junkyard dogs," Mugar jokes.
Indeed, there are few other examples of activist organizations created by musicians that have had such staying power, including the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, conceived in 1966 by Pete Seeger, or WhyHunger, created in 1975 by the late Harry Chapin and led today by Bill Ayers, an ally of Farm Aid.
Mugar is pleased to have Farm Aid cited in such company. But she notes the organization's unique stature: It's the longest-running concert for a cause that the music industry has ever seen.
More than 300 artists, from across musical genres, have participated in Farm Aid concerts, with the backing of their respective managers, booking agents, tour support companies and others.
The 2011 event, staged at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., featured Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews on a bill with Jason Mraz, Jamey Johnson, Jakob Dylan, Billy Joe Shaver, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Ray Price, Robert Francis, Will Dailey & the Rivals, Rebecca Pidgeon, the Blackwood Quartet and John Trudell.
Early in its history, Farm Aid's power to influence both culture and policy was evident. Family farmers joined Nelson and Mellencamp in testimony before Congress that led to the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which effectively halted farm foreclosures by allowing farmers to restructure their loans.
More than two decades later, Farm Aid's range of activities is impressive. For example, it continues to fight to shape government farm policies. Last month, Farm Aid's directors wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, calling on them to take action to encourage fairness and competition in the agricultural sector.
"Family farmers are the backbone of our nation's economy and are crucial to rebuilding it, but to do so they need fair markets," Nelson said in a statement that accompanied the release of the letter.
Farm Aid also provides direct assistance to farmers through its hot line, 1-800-FARM-AID; online Farmer Resource Network; and its grants to scores of farm-support organizations nationwide.
The organization's role in creating connections between farmers and consumers is well-documented, through its efforts to get family-farm food into city neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other public institutions.
And Farm Aid has embraced communities in the digital realm as well as the dirt of the field. Homegrown.org is an online community designed to "celebrate the culture in agriculture," according to the site, connecting people who care about the quality of their food and more. But as a "brand extension" for Farm Aid, Homegrown has flourished offline as well.
"Homegrown is a way we can reach eaters and doers and participants in the food system," Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder says. Homegrown has also brought Farm Aid's philosophy and message to events beyond its annual concerts.
Homegrown, for example, "curates the food and farmer aspect of Maker Fair," Yoder says, referring to the family events, staged year-round and nationwide, that are focused on technology, science and DIY craft projects. Homegrown Village, with its hands-on exhibits, is now part of every Farm Aid event.
For the music industry, perhaps the most promising aspect of Homegrown is its concessions that have brought family-farm food to tens of thousands of fans at Farm Aid concerts. That happened for the first time at the Farm Aid concert in 2007 in possibly the most unlikely setting-New York's Randall's Island.
By proving that family-farm food can supply concert concessions, Farm Aid may help open a massive market to its farmers-the nation's entertainment venues (see story, page 42).
Farm Aid has been a bellwether in other ways as well, highlighting the dangers of corporate dominance in an essential part of the economy: the nation's food supply.
Like Farm Aid founder Nelson (see story, page 36), executive director Mugar recognizes the link between Farm Aid and the recent protests of Occupy Wall Street, in opposing concentration of wealth and control.
"It's something that family farmers have known by their experience for decades," Mugar says. "Sometimes we say they are the canary in the mine. To understand what people's problems are with corporate America today, and unbridled corporate control, I think family farmers are your best source to go to."
Reflecting on the changes facing America's family farms, Missouri Rural Crisis Center's Perry describes the struggle today.
"What you're seeing now is [a fight over] corporations and their role in taking over agriculture in a way that means we don't have markets for what we produce," she says. "In some ways, it's a little trickier to understand and the enemy isn't always so obvious as when the government is foreclosing on your farm.
"Now, what happens is that a handful of corporations control the entire meat supply [for example]. So we can raise the best pork in the world and that doesn't mean we will have a market in which to sell it, because of the concentration in the marketplace."
Looking back at her early involvement with Farm Aid, Perry recalls that the Missouri Rural Crisis Center was one of the first groups to benefit from the funds raised at the first Farm Aid concert.
Those funds helped organize the center to fight for change but also provided emergency food "for farm families who were raising food for the country but didn't have enough food for their own families," she says. "At that first distribution, 700 families showed up."
Certainly, the activists wanted to publicize their efforts-but not at the expense of the farmers' pride.
"We asked them at the time, 'If you don't want to be public about [accepting free food], that's totally fine. We understand.'" Out of those 700 families, Perry says, not one said they didn't want to take a stand publicly. "They said, 'No, these are our lives and people need to understand what's going on out there.'"
And people still do. And Farm Aid is still making that possible.
"It's been a long, long ride with Farm Aid," Perry says, "and a great experience with them as an ally."
For Family Farms, It's About Control -- And Sustainability
Just how do you define a "family farm"?
The phrase conjures up quaint images of farms with modest acreage and roadside vegetable stands.
But the reality is that the family farms bolstered by Farm Aid -- with the ongoing support of the musicians and their fans -- aren't defined by size.
"It's about who controls the farm and makes the decisions," Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar says. The family farmers "are in the soil, every day. And they really make the decisions about their farms, not people in distant boardrooms."
Rhonda Perry knows what that's like. Perry and her husband, Roger Allison, are partners in the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, one of the first farm-support organizations to benefit from a grant funded by Farm Aid's concerts. They also are co-founders of Patchwork Family Farms in Columbia, Mo.
Patchwork "is a project of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center," Perry says. "It acts as a cooperative-run entity that is made up of multiple family farmers who raise pork without antibiotics or growth hormones, with access to fresh air and sunshine."
Perry agrees that control is key.
"The way we determine a 'family farm' is much more based on who is in control, who is making the decisions about that farming operation and doing the majority of day-to-day labor on that operation," she says. "And that means they also own their own livestock versus operations in which farmers are simply raising livestock for some corporation."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service produces periodic reports on how farming is organized in the United States. The ERS summary of its 2010 report doesn't distinguish between family control and corporate control of large-scale farms, while it states that "for the most part, large-scale farms are more viable businesses than small family farms."
But how "viable" can large, industrial-style farms be if they contribute to climate change and severe weather?
"We won't solve [global] hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations," United Nations official Oliver De Schutter is quoted as saying in a summary of a U.N. report issued in March on sustainable farming practices -- the type of farming promoted by Farm Aid.
The U.N. report states that, in critical regions of the world, small-scale farmers can double food production within the coming decade and help stem climate change through the use of what it calls "agroecology."
Why should the music business care?
The link among corporate farming practices, climate change and severe weather is increasingly clear, to those close to the issue.
And for an industry increasingly dependent on the strength of the global touring industry, severe weather can play havoc with its bottom line.
"We need to go fast," De Schutter said, "if we want to avoid repeated food and climate disasters in the 21st century."
Words With Willie: Willie Nelson Talks Farm Aid's Power To Connect
Willie Nelson has always drawn strength from his roots. His new album, Remember Me, Vol. 1, due Nov. 21 on R&J Records, is culled from sessions during which Nelson and producer James Stroud cut some 35 sides of classic country hits dating back to the 1940s.
"Pretty much a history of country music," Nelson says. "All the way back to when I did the Stardust album, I realized, 'Hey, there are a lot of young people out there who never heard these songs.'"
And as knowledgeable as his ace producer may have been, Nelson quips, "All of these songs I probably knew before James Stroud was born."
A keen appreciation for the things that endure also helps explain why, more than 25 years ago, Nelson stepped up to help the American family farmer with the first Farm Aid concert.
Did you expect in 1985 that you would still be involved today in the fight to support family farms?
No. I really felt we'd do one [concert] and call attention to it and the big powers that be, the smart guys, would see what was going on and they would fix it. It took me a long time [to realize] that these were the guys who were keeping it from [improving]. The big corporations were what's keeping the family farmer down.
You teamed up with Neil Young, John Mellencamp and later Dave Matthews, who each now serve with you on the Farm Aid board.
After I talked to Jim Thompson, the governor of Illinois, about doing the first Farm Aid [at the stadium of the University of Illinois], the first thing I did was call Neil because I knew he felt the same way I did. It was easy to sell [each of] these guys on the idea because they go down the road every day like I do, and they talk to all kinds of people every night, farmers and others. And they knew the problem was getting more and serious. They were the first to say, "Yes, let me help."
You joined George Strait, Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett, Asleep at the Wheel and others in Austin on Oct. 17 at Fire Relief: The Concert for Central Texas. Corporate farming practices have been linked to climate change and severe weather, such as the droughts that have fueled this year's wildfires.
It's incredible. Without water, what can a farmer do? The drought has gotten really bad. Wells are drying up. Oak trees are dying. Cedar trees are dying, and that just doesn't happen. I'm hoping that this drought will be broken in a while. But the experts are saying it could go on.
Farm Aid has sourced T-shirts from Anvil Knitwear, which, among other initiatives, supports farmers during the three-year transition period needed to certify their cotton as organic.
It's a great idea. But what happens is, you have a corporate farm right next to a family farmer. And the things that [the corporate farm] is putting on their soil, the weather and the wind blows over to the guy who's trying to grow organic next door. So we need ways to regulate the big corporations and keep them from contaminating good soil.
You've also strongly supported the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance. Did that grow out of your Farm Aid work?
It did. It was very important that we grow food and fuel ourselves, when we can grow it organically, and our farmers can grow it, without our having to go around the world starting wars over oil. And I was aware of this a long time ago, so I started trying to bring out the importance of keeping the small family farmer on the land and letting him grow our fuel and our food.
How do you stay in touch with family farmers?
I write all the checks for every dollar that goes out of Farm Aid, for all of the grants around the country. And I know who's getting the money. When I go to these towns, a lot of these folks show up and we say hello. So I know a lot of the folks out there, and I feel real close to them.
You and your wife, Annie, recently posted a video on WillieNelson.com reciting a poem in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Is there a connection between the protests against corporate dominance of the economy and Farm Aid's fight against corporate agriculture?
Yeah, it's all tied together. There's no way to separate them. What's happening out on the street [can be linked] to bad farm policy 35-40 years ago, which led to putting family farmers out of work and corporations taking over the land.
They took all these farms and made golf courses and subdivisions out of them and sold them to a bunch of people who couldn't afford them-and now have lost them. It was a domino effect. It started back when they quit taking care of our national resources. It just shows how everything's connected.
Farm Aid Brings Sustainable Food to Concert Venues
Could the produce and products of America's family farms satisfy the vast hunger of the nation's concert and entertainment venues?
Farm Aid suggests that's entirely possible, and it invites venues to learn from its experience.
"You can feed everybody this food," Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder says. "Years ago, the supply chain didn't have [the capacity]. The supply chain has it now and we've shown it can be done."
For those seeking to promote the business of America's family farms, "food service in the entertainment business is the last frontier," Yoder says.
After years of serving food from family farms backstage, Farm Aid brought that menu to the masses, beginning with its 2007 concert on Randall's Island in New York. It has continued the practice since.
The move was part of a broader effort by Farm Aid to bring its business practices in synch with its mission of supporting family farms.
For example, the organization accepts sponsorship dollars from food-related companies "who pay family farmers a fair price, have an ecological standard for farming practices and make their commitment to sustainable and family farming known to their customers," according to a sponsorship policy posted on FarmAid.org.
Recent sponsors that have met this standard include Horizon Organic, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market, soy milk company Silk, Unified Natural Foods, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Applegate Farms.
For its T-shirts, Farm Aid has partnered with Anvil Knitwear, which markets clothes created from certified organic cotton and also "transitional" cotton from farmers working through the three-year period needed for organic certification.
"What Anvil is doing is paying a premium to farmers to provide them with incentives during the three-year transition process [needed to grow organic cotton]," Yoder says. "Anvil's partnering with Farm Aid also gives them the opportunity to bring farmers to Farm Aid concerts to tell the public the story of our T-shirts."
Farm Aid uses the brand name "Homegrown" for its concessions where, Yoder says, "we love to provide marketing opportunities for national companies who want their brands displayed [and meet Farm Aid's guidelines]. But we also provide economic opportunities for local farms and small businesses that can participate in our events."
Patchwork Family Farms in Columbia, Mo., a cooperative of family farms that raise pork with sustainable farming practices, has been part of Farm Aid's food supply chain for 13 years, first backstage and then serving the fans.
"We were able to get a system down for that particular market," says Rhonda Perry, a co-founder of Patchwork with her husband Roger Allison. At one time, she says, "what you knew was, when you went to a concert you were going to eat really crappy food. And you sort of had to be OK with that, because that was the reality."
But with Patchwork and many other vendors, Farm Aid has proved that tens of thousands of fans can be fed better food at an entertainment venue.
Yoder explains that Farm Aid now has a clause in its contract with venues that says, "Farm Aid will provide assistance to whomever the concessionaire is, and we will make [this food supply] possible.'" Farm Aid culinary director Sonya Dagovitz is the point person for the concessionaires.
Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson believes healthier concessions is a change in music business practice whose time has come.
"It would be great if the music venues everywhere-all artists, all promoters-would also promote good food at concerts," he says. "Because people now are demanding good food. They're that smart. I think this is the future. People want to know what they're feeding their family. It's getting more and more that way. And that's good."
Perry adds, "We're always glad to tell people what our experiences were, how we do things, what's worked for us and what didn't work for us.
"The more events and venues that enable family farmers to sell and the more successful farmers are when they're at those venues," Perry adds, "the better off we all are in the end."