Willie Nelson's Farm Aid Stages Its Most Crucial Benefit Concert in a Generation

Willie Nelson photographed at Farm Aid in 2016.
Brian Bruner/Farm Aid

Willie Nelson photographed at Farm Aid in 2016.

“The crisis farmers are in now is even worse than 1985, because there are fewer farms left to lose,” says John Mellencamp, co-founder of Farm Aid. “They have a whole system stacked against them."

When Willie Nelson opens the 33rd annual Farm Aid concert in Hartford, Conn. Saturday (Sept. 22), with his traditional performance of The Lord’s Prayer as a gospel hymn, farmers across the nation will be him in spirit, praying for help.

Not since 1985, when a wave of farm foreclosures led Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp to stage the first Farm Aid benefit concert, have America’s family farmers been so threatened -- by economics, politics and nature.

“The crisis farmers are in now is even worse than 1985, because there are fewer farms left to lose,” says Mellencamp. “They have a whole system stacked against them, and time is running out for Americans to demand a fairer playing field. Farm Aid 2018 has to be a rallying cry for all of us to stand up and fight for these families.”

Farm Aid’s founding artists, joined later by Dave Matthews, are the guiding board members and musical force behind the longest-running concert for a cause -- a three-decade-plus fight on behalf of the men and women who grow the nation’s food. The non-profit organization, since 1985, has raised $53 million for programs to benefit family farmers and support a sustainable food system.

This is a cause, Nelson has said, that matters to anyone who eats. 

At Hartford’s Xfinity Theatre, the headlining foursome will be joined by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Jamey Johnson, Ian Mellencamp and Particle Kid -- a bill that led this year’s Farm Aid to sell out in four hours when tickets went on sale in June. For the artists, Farm Aid’s cause is personal.

“I’ve always felt a connection to Farm Aid, given that my folks and my grandparents and all of my uncles and great-uncles and their kids all lost a farm at the same time,” Price told The Connecticut Post. “It was a hard year for them, back in the early ’80s; it was ’85 when they lost their farm and, of course, I was really young but it had a huge impact on me. I remember how distraught and brokenhearted my grandparents were the day they moved out of their farmhouse.”

Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Margo Price performs at Farm Aid at Jiffy Lube Live on Sept. 17, 2016  in Bristow, Va.

Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s communication director, says the message of the benefit concert is clear: "Family farmers are a critical natural resource, but our nation's approach to farming and food production is making them increasingly endangered,” she says. “If we don't act now, we risk the total loss of U.S. family farmers."

To be contrarian, so what? Aren’t large, corporate-owned, industrial farms inherently more efficient at producing food? In the decades following World War II, “Industrial agriculture was hailed as a technological triumph that would enable a skyrocketing world population to feed itself,” states the Union of Concerned Scientists, the non-profit science advocacy group.

“Today, a growing chorus of agricultural experts -- including farmers as well as scientists and policymakers -- sees industrial agriculture as a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators,” the group says. “The impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment, public health, and rural communities make it an unsustainable way to grow our food over the long term.”

Yet family farmers, even as they grow the nation’s food, now “struggle to feed their own families,” says Farm Aid’s advocacy and farmer services director Alicia Harvie.

“Farmers are enduring the worst cycle they’ve seen since the 1980s farm crisis: a multiyear slump in farm prices that has slashed net farm income by more than 50 percent since 2013,” Harvie wrote in a commentary in The Hill published July 19. “Increasingly, farmers are pinched by prices that are far below their cost of production, as well as rising input costs, growing debt, tightening credit conditions and much more.”

The economic forces are exacting a particularly harsh toll on dairy farmers in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut.  In Durham, Conn., some 25 miles south of Farm Aid’s 2018 venue, the Greenbacker family took the heart-wrenching step of deciding to sell its dairy herd and end generations of farming at Brookfield Farm.

“When the price of milk [paid to dairy farmers] drops by 30 percent, our income drops that much too,” Joe Greenbacker told The Hartford Courant in June.  “It’s been too low too long for us to survive.”

The impact of those harsh economics on family farmers has been made worse by political actions of the Trump administration, harming the same rural communities that helped elect the president. Harvie’s op-ed in The Hill criticized the Trump trade war with China, which prompted China to announce a retaliatory 25 percent tariff on U.S. exports, including soy, corn, wheat, cotton, beef, pork and more. The tariff war has since continued to escalate.

“This move will cripple America’s already struggling farm families that send a huge volume of agricultural exports to China: $14 billion in soy, $160 million in corn, $391 million in wheat and many millions more in other agricultural products,” Harvie wrote. The Trump administration has promised $12 billion in emergency relief for farmers -- and many farmers support the president in his battle with China to protect U.S. intellectual property rights for new technology. Those rights include seed technology patents held by agri-business.

“The supposed reason for this trade war with China, then, is not to protect farmers — it’s to shelter multinational seed and chemical giants, like Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-Dupont and Syngenta-ChemChina, and other agribusiness giants who benefit from free trade regimes that put corporate profits before people,” wrote Harvie.

The Trump administration’s immigration policies also pose a threat to farmers, some say. In California’s Central Valley, which produces more than half of the vegetables, fruits and nuts consumed in the United States, some 70 percent of the farm workers who bring in those crops are living in the U.S. without documentation, according to a study by the University of California, Davis. With an executive order in January 2017, and via Department of Homeland Security memos issued a month later, the Trump administration began its crackdown on illegal immigration.

“If you only have legal labor, certain parts of this industry and this region will not exist,”  fourth-generation Central Valley farmer Harold McClarty told The New York Times. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”

Then, there’s the weather. Not the variable weather patterns that have challenged farmers throughout history, but the unprecedented sequence of hurricanes that have pummeled America’s farmland -- Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 (which both prompted Farm Aid to offer farmers emergency aid) and now Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

Before Florence made landfall, North Carolina-based farmer advocate Scott Marlow of Rural Advance Foundation International-USA, told the rural news website Daily Yonder: “What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon.”

Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise around homes in Lumberton, NC on Sept. 16, 2018. 

A link has been drawn between the intensity of hurricanes in recent years and the rising temperature of ocean waters and climate change. But the issue of climate change has become politicized. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump referred to climate change as “a con job” and a “myth.” After his election, he withdrew the United States from the global agreement on climate change negotiated in Paris in 2015.

If threats to America’s family farms are the result of current government actions and policies (including this year’s controversial Farm Bill), solutions may be found not only at a benefit concert but at the polling place. 

Farm Aid this year again will host volunteers for the music-rooted, voter-registration organization HeadCount, which has been a presence at the concert for the past decade. Since HeadCount was founded in 2004 -- with the backing of hundreds of musicians, including Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews -- the nonpartisan, nonprofit group has registered some 500,000 new voters.

Farm Aid’s musicians have long challenged the political status quo.

“America is already great,” Neil Young said pointedly in an onstage press conference that preceded the 2017 Farm Aid concert outside Pittsburgh. "We don't need to apologize. We don't need to feel bad."

In the 33 years since Nelson co-founded Farm Aid, the organization has helped family farmers year-round with grants and programs, such as an emergency hotline, run by a small, dedicated team, guided by its executive director, veteran activist Carolyn Mugar.

As this year’s concert approaches, Mugar says: "Every day we hear from farmers across the country on Farm Aid's hotline. They're telling us that times are tough, that they may not make it through another growing season, that they're already at risk of losing their farm."

"Family farmers are such a tremendous resource,” she adds. “They grow our food, care for the soil and make our communities and our country strong. We must rally when they urgently need our support. Farm Aid is putting out a call for people willing to pitch in, to make sure we don't lose them."