'Strength and Determination' at Farm Aid 2019: The Best Things We Saw and Learned

Brian Bruner.

Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid 2019.

Farm Aid on Saturday (Sept. 21) brought its all-star benefit concert to support family farmers to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin -- a state at the center of a deepening farm crisis, where an estimated three dairy farms a day are closing, advocates say.

Yet Farm Aid, now in its 34th year, is far more than a concert. The organization advocates year-round for a sustainable food system and this year’s event, once again, was a national gathering place for activists involved in food policy, social justice and the fight against climate change.

“You can get angry, you can get sad or you can get active,” says Julie Keown-Bomar, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

While family farms are at risk, says Farm Aid communication director Jennifer Fahy, the organization confronts the challenge from “a place of strength and determination.”

Here are the best things we saw and learned at Farm Aid 2019.

A Commitment For The Long Haul

Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson is a national hero. He created Farm Aid in 1985 amid a foreclosure crisis that was throwing farm families off their land, and this event is now the longest running concert for a cause -- a model of music activism and artist commitment for the long haul. 

At age 86, Nelson is a tireless, musical wonder, and he showed no signs of the breathing difficulties that led him to cancel some tour dates in early summer. At midnight, he was leading a finale of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” after a long, rich day of performances by his fellow Farm Aid board members -- Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews -- as well as Bonnie Raitt, Luke Combs, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Tanya Tucker, Jamestown Revival, Yola, Particle Kid and Ian Mellencamp.

More than 12 hours earlier, Nelson joined farmers, artists and organizers for the press conference which opens each year’s Farm Aid. “These are the folks who feed us,” said Nelson of the farmers, “and we need to let them know we need them. It’s 34 years,” he added. “But who’s counting?”

Believing In Miracles

Farm Aid’s guiding foursome often make free-wheeling comments at the morning press conference. “After 34 years, I thought I’d write something down,” said Mellencamp, in a reflective mood. “As a young man, I didn’t believe in miracles but as an old man I do. I see what you farmers must see when you look at the dirt under your fingernails and that’s the miracle of life.” During his evening set, Mellencamp rocked through the 1985 album track “Rain On The Scarecrow” which captured the desperation of family farmers of that era.

Saving The Planet, One Field At A Time

With Farm Aid taking place one day after the global climate strike, led by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, the fate of the planet was much on the mind of artists and organizers alike. Matthews linked a sustainable food system to surviving climate change, saying that “when we eat, and pay a fair price for the food, that we’re supporting the people who are taking care of the earth, taking care of the planet and giving us hope.”  

Part Of The Solution

The concert’s organizers introduced farmers involved in what’s known as regenerative agriculture, which captures carbon in the soil that would otherwise contribute to a warming atmosphere. “We could be part of the solution to climate change,” said Bert Paris of his family’s farm in Greene County, Wisc., which operates under that system.  

“A Solution At The Top”

Young was listening closely to Paris and others. “What you’re describing is the key to our surviving on the planet,” said Young. “It’s the way forward.” Often the most outspoken artist at Farm Aid, Young called for national legislation in the United States -- and his native Canada -- to mandate sustainable farm practices, by small farmers and corporate farms alike.

“What we really need,” said Young, “is a solution at the top.”

Ground Zero

Politics was another undercurrent at this year’s Farm Aid. “We are `ground zero’ in the presidential runoff,” noted Keown-Bomar of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. In 2016, only 77,744 votes in three states decided the presidential election, as slim margins gave Donald Trump an Electoral College victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  

Sarah Lloyd of the Wisconsin Farmers Union explained how federal government action is needed to control the overproduction of milk which has led to plummeting dairy prices. She called for consumer awareness and lobbying “across the political interests. The common interest is the survival of the family farm,” she said. Earlier, Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, remarked: “Make America kind again.”

Inaugural Farm Aid Stars Return

Apart from Nelson, Mellencamp and Young, this year’s lineup included two artists who performed at the first Farm Aid staged in 1985 in Champaign, Ill.: Bonnie Raitt and Tanya Tucker. 

Raitt’s performance was greeted with cheers of adulation (and later an admission by Matthews that he was awestruck to share the bill with her). “We are really proud to be back at Farm Aid,” said Raitt. “What a lineup!”

 “It’s great to be back,” echoed Tucker, who is enjoying a resurgence of attention following the release of her comeback album While I’m Livin’. “We’ve got to make a stand and tell [political leaders] what we want,” she said. “We just need to be more aware of what [food] we’re buying. When I get hungry,” she said, speaking to farmers at the event, “I’m going to think of you.”

“Turn Off The News”

“It’s like Christmas,” said Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son, describing the feeling when Farm Aid rolls around each year. “It’s a family reunion.” But throughout the year, he said, he and his bandmates in Promise of the Real seek out locally grown food when they’re on tour, and they support pop-up farmers markets at their shows when they can. During his set, Lukas Nelson sang what may be one of Farm Aid’s best new theme songs, “Turn Off the News (Build A Garden).” He also brought Yola, Price, Rateliff and Ian Mellencamp onstage for a soulful “Find Yourself.”

Yola: The Day’s Breakout Talent

Fresh from her attention-grabbing performance at AmericanaFest in Nashville days earlier, the British country/soul singer Yola -- heard on the new album from The Highwomen -- proved Farm Aid’s breakout talent this year. An imposing presence with a massive, gospel-fired voice, Yola held the midday crowd riveted with songs from her debut album Walk Through Fire. Her remarkable version of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road” earned her a standing ovation.

“Never Thought Anyone Would Hear It”

In one of those exquisite moments, mist was rising on the hills of Alpine Valley as country chart-topper Luke Combs took the stage for his Farm Aid debut, with the crowd singing along to his hit “She Got The Best of Me.” Combs, 29, described writing his breakout single “Hurricane” in Nashville before he had any inkling of success to come. “Never thought anybody would hear it,” he said. “Never thought anyone would hear any of my songs. Now here I am with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid.”

“It All Started With These Guys”

Live Nation senior vp Karl Adams has worked with Farm Aid since 2001, the year the artists went forward with the event as the Concert for America, two weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  

“All the evil things that we saw on that day, I was in desperate need of some good,” recalled Adams at a pre-concert gathering Friday evening as he accepted a Spirit of Farm Aid award. He called the concert “an annual reminder of the good that lives in the world.” With a 30-year career involved with “tens of thousands of events [and] hundreds of millions of people walking through the gates of our events I’m in a pretty good place to say [Farm Aid] is by far among the most top-notch events that we produce,” said Adams. “A lot of the festivals that you guys see today -- the Lollapaloozas, the Coachellas -- honestly, it all started with these guys. They stand on the shoulders of Farm Aid today.”

Stress On The Farm

Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid, welcomed a new partner to this year’s event, the American Psychological Association. The association’s CEO, Arthur Evans, and Price -- whose 2016 debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was about the loss of her family’s farm thirty years earlier -- led a discussion at the secondary FarmYard Stage about stress on the family farm. Rural residents, in general, have higher rates of depression, substance abuse and completed suicide, Farm Aid reports. Forces beyond the control of farmers -- weather, pests, market prices, loan rates and more -- further challenge their mental health.

Before A Single Note Sounds

For Farm Aid activists and supporters, some of the most inspiring moments take place before a single note sounds. On Thursday, the organizers convened a day-long conference to address issues that intersect with the sustainable food movement, including racial and economic justice and recognition of tribal nations that farmed Wisconsin centuries before European settlement. Those Native American farms, said historian and Potawatomi tribe member Jeffrey Crawford, included the very land where Saturday’s concert took place.

On Friday, advocates and farmers toured several farms in the region. One tour stopped at Alice’s Garden, an urban farm in a historically African-American neighborhood. It occupies land where planners demolished homes and businesses decades ago for an interstate highway (which the community successfully fought to block). “Seed Soil Soul” read signs amid the plots where minister and farmer Venice Williams trains young farmers like 23-year-old Annastajia Stallworth, teaching them to reclaim the African culture and experience of farming that pre-dated slavery. “I’ve never had a job like this that fixes you from the inside out,” Stallworth said. “It’s been an awesome experience and I’m not stopping anytime soon.” 

A Gift From The Land

Alice’s Garden -- which also is located at the site of what was once the first stop in Wisconsin on the Underground Railroad -- today welcomes new refugees. As Farm Aid supporters toured the garden Friday, a woman hunched over a small plot. She is an immigrant from Myanmar and, now, farms in a new country. She spoke no English. But as a visitor passed by, she stood up from the soil and reached out, placing in the visitor’s hand three ripe, red, cherry tomatoes -- the labor of a small farmer and a delicious, late-summer, gift from the land.