The #Road2FarmAid: A Year In The Life of Willie Nelson's Fight for Family Farmers

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

Willie Nelson photographed at Farm Aid in 2016.

Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert for America’s family farmers, will be staged for its 32nd year on Sept. 16 at the KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, with performances by the organization’s guiding foursome—Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews—along with Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Margo Price and more.  

The concert, quite simply, is quite unlike any other musical festival in the nation today.  Created by Willie Nelson in 1985 as a one-off event to respond to that era’s farm foreclosure crisis, Farm Aid has become music’s longest-running concert for a cause and has since raised $50 million for family farmers—including those whose livelihoods are threatened by this year’s hurricanes.  

What fans may not realize is that Farm Aid, as an organization, runs year-round, not only in planning for each year’s show, but in carrying out its mission of building a vibrant, family-farm-centered system of agriculture in America. With festival attendees using the hashtags #FarmAid2017 and #Road2FarmAid on social media in advance of this year's concert, Billboard invited Farm Aid communications director Jennifer Fahy, who has been with the organization since 2002, to describe the months that followed Nelson’s final song onstage the 31st annual Farm Aid in Bristow, Va. in September 2016:


Farm Aid’s small event series “An Evening with Farm Aid” headed to McKinney, Texas, 35 miles north of Dallas, to celebrate good food, family farmers and live music.  The small events seek to bring the message and experience of the annual Farm Aid festival to new audiences. The intimate festivities in McKinney included a cocktail hour in a barn that housed a museum of antique farm equipment; a farm-to-table dinner in a field; remarks by farmers who provided the food for the delicious dinner; and a performance by Texas-native and Farm Aid supporter Kacey Musgraves. With her full band in their trademark country attire, the stars were shining on stage and above, as many in the crowd moved to the dance floor for the Texas two-step.


Farm Aid created Farm to School Rocks, a guide designed to inspire everyone to engage in the farm-to-school movement. Farm-to-school programs connect farmers with schools to bring healthy, farm fresh foods to the growing minds who need it most and to revolutionize their learning environment with innovative curricula and educational opportunities. The program is is expanding across the country in a movement celebrated by teachers, farmers, parents, students, school food service directors and more. These programs, of all shapes and sizes, are producing tangible benefits for kids, farmers and communities.


Farm Aid announced that it distributed more than half a million dollars in grant funding in 2016, investing in organizations working to strengthen family-farm agriculture. In all, $556,315 was granted to 82 family farm, rural service and urban agriculture organizations in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Grants ranged from $5,000 to $20,000.“Farm Aid is proud to make grants to support so many good people engaged in the work of changing our food system,” says Farm Aid president Willie Nelson. “The real power of Farm Aid’s grants is in the network of changemakers they knit together, in cities and rural areas across this country.”


As we began to hear from more farmers in crisis on the 1-800-FARM-AID hotline, Farm Aid called attention to a new farm crisis affecting farmers across the U.S. With farmers enduring a multi-year slump in crop and livestock prices, many are being pushed to the financial brink. This new crisis is raising concerns that we are on the cusp of the biggest wave of U.S. farm foreclosures since the 1980s. Since 2013, America’s farmers and ranchers have weathered a 45 percent drop in net farm income, the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.  Farm Aid’s view is clear: The strain in today’s farm economy is no accident; it’s the result of policies designed to enrich corporations at the expense of farmers and ranchers. If the American family farmer is to survive, farm policy needs a massive shift in direction – one that delivers fair prices to farmers that allow them to make a living.


Farm Aid staff traveled to potential concert venues to assess the possibilities for Farm Aid 2017. Willie’s wish is that the Farm Aid concert move around each year, so that farmers all over the country have an opportunity to attend and be celebrated. Moving the concert each year creates more work, as we’re constantly working with new teams and introducing new ideas to venues (like composting and our HOMEGROWN Concessions®).  But it’s a brilliant way to meet farmers from everywhere and to highlight the specific needs, challenges and opportunities that farmers face in different regions. American agriculture is very diverse, and the Farm Aid festival has a great chance to shine a spotlight on that each year. By March, we had settled on a return to Burgettstown, Pa., and we began to make plans for the fast-approaching 2017 festival.


Farm Aid activated its Family Farm Disaster Fund as ranchers in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas dealt with the impact of massive wildfires that ravaged more than two million acres of land and thousands of cattle, taking the lives of several ranchers who worked to protect their animals from the blaze.  Farm Aid has 32 years of experience responding to farmers after disasters. We know that farmers and ranchers need long-term, sustained support to start recovering from the disaster. Every dollar Farm Aid raised for farmers affected by wildfires supported groups on the ground who could best assess needs and provide direct assistance. One farm family wrote a thank you saying, “Your generosity will help us to rebuild what has taken generations to develop.”


Farm Aid received a phone call from a producer at CNN about an upcoming special called “Champions of Change,” featuring CNN anchors and the causes they care about. CNN’s Kate Bolduan wanted her segment to highlight family farmers and their hard work. We connected Kate to a very special farm family we had met through our 2016 concert. We spent two days with Kate and her team on Robbins Family Farms in Southwest Virginia so that Kate could dig in to learn more about family farm agriculture and what Farm Aid does to strengthen family farmers. This segment aired in June 2017.


Farm Aid’s first film, Homeplace Under Fire, premiered on May 18 in Durham, N.C., with John Mellencamp as our host. Homeplace Under Fire is the story of the front-line, grassroots work of American farm advocates and their 30-year fight to keep family farmers on the land. During the farm crisis of the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of family farmers faced foreclosure. Fellow farmers, farm wives, and rural leaders studied laws and regulations, started hotlines, answered farmers’ calls from their kitchen tables, counseled their neighbors, and went toe-to-toe with lenders – giving their all to keep neighbors on their land. Homeplace Under Fire celebrates these advocates and their remarkable work.  Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp introduced Homeplace Under Fire and joined farm advocates and farmers after the film for a discussion about the urgent need for more farm advocates to support family farmers.


On June 13, Farm Aid went to Pittsburgh to announce that Farm Aid 2017 would be coming to Burgettstown, Pa,, just outside of Pittsburgh. We spent the day talking with radio, TV and print media to spread the word about the festival and the year-round work it supports. Farm Aid 2017 will be the third Farm Aid concert in Pennsylvania, and the second in Burgettstown. The reception to the news was hot and when tickets went on sale the following week, they sold out in 24 hours!


Farm Aid continued to spotlight the unique agriculture of Pennsylvania, sharing facts about Pennsylvania farms and stories of its farmers. Farm Aid’s Farmer Hero stories highlight farmers doing good work to grow healthy food, care for our soil and water, strengthen their communities, and connect with eaters using all kinds of innovative ideas like farmers markets, CSAs (community supported agriculture programs), cooperatives, farm to school programs, and more. Family farmers are our heroes, and we need more of them, so our stories seek to make sure that more people know how important family farmers are and hopefully inspire new farmers to get on the land.  Some of the Pennsylvania farmers in our spotlight include a produce grower on the outskirts of Pittsburgh city limits; a geologist-turned farmer raising pastured livestock and poultry; a mushroom grower in Youngstown, Ohio; and a farm family in the tiny town of Avella, Pa., who happen to have attended the last six Farm Aid festivals.


Farm Aid staff traveled to Pennsylvania and West Virginia with a film crew to meet with farmers who have stories we want to share at Farm Aid 2017. We spent four days visiting with dairy, livestock, organic, new and experienced farmers. The 2-minute spots we’ll create will be played on the Farm Aid stage and the farmers will join Willie, John, Neil and Dave on stage at the annual press event that kicks off concert-day. The press event engages farmers and artists in a conversation about the challenges and opportunities family farmers face and inspires everyone to be part of growing a family farm-centered food system.


Farm Aid 2017 takes place on Saturday, Sept. 16, at KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, PA. Leading up to the festival, we’ll host a public forum in Pittsburgh about the critical role of public funding to build thriving local and regional food systems, and the incredible economic promise of local food systems. Farm Aid will also host a gathering for farmers who join us each year from across the country and two farm tours—one to an organic farm that has been fighting fracking and the gas industry in their own backyard, and one to various urban farms growing and strengthening their communities and increasing access to good food.

As important, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey (and with the approach of Hurricane Irma), Willie Nelson has informed the Farm Aid community: "We're focusing our relief efforts on the farmers and ranchers who've lost their crops, livestock, pasture, barns, equipment and other essentials to maintaining their livelihoods and providing good food for all of us. We know farm families are resilient, and we will do all we can to help them find hope as they recover from this historic disaster. We've activated our Family Farm Disaster Fund, and we're partnering with local, regional and national farm organizations that know how to help farmers in times like these. We're in this for the long haul."


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