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Farm Aid Turns 30: How Willie Nelson Created Music’s Longest Running Concert For A Cause

A harvest moon would soon rise over 30,000 fans who had gathered on this September night to hear the guiding foursome of Farm Aid — Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave…

A harvest moon would soon rise over 30,000 fans who had gathered on this September night to hear the guiding foursome of Farm Aid — Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews — sing out once more for the men and women who grow America’s food.

Amid the musical celebration in 2012 was an awareness of the ongoing threat to the survival of family farmers.  The number of small, independent, farms in the country continues to decline, while expenses continues to rise for those trying to make a living off the land.

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Backstage, aboard his bio-diesel-fueled tour bus, Nelson sat back at a table and reflected on three decades of Farm Aid’s mission of supporting family farmers.

“They know now, after all these years, that we weren’t kidding,” said Nelson, speaking before the annual concert in 2012 in Hershey, Pa. “There really is a serious problem out there.”

Farm Aid on Saturday, Sept. 19 marks its 30th anniversary, returning to its Midwestern roots, with a performance in Chicago, at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island with Imagine Dragons joining Nelson and friends.  Also on the bill: Jack Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jamey Johnson, Mavis Staples, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (who have been backing Young on his current tour), Holly Williams, Insects vs. Robots, Ian Mellencamp and the Blackwood Quartet.

Here’s what most music fans may know about Farm Aid: One day, each year, since 1985, Farm Aid co-founders Nelson, Young and Mellencamp (joined later by Matthews) have gathered an all-star roster of musicians for a high-profile show to benefit America’s independent family farmers.

Here’s what fans may not know about Farm Aid: Over the past three decades — with the participation of scores of top-name stars — Farm Aid has helped influence a profound shift in the cultural landscape of the country.

The music-rooted organization deserves credit for promoting many of the most important changes in food culture in the United States in recent years: the growth of farmers’ markets, the spread of farm-to-table restaurants, sustainable farming methods and the surge in what’s become known as the Good Food movement.  

That movement has rejected the food grown on farms owned by corporations instead of families, “factory farms,” says Nelson, that have “polluted the water and the air, making it impossible for rural folks to enjoy their own homes.

Musicians, of course, have often offered their talents to meet the needs of the moment — and then moved on. The focus and endurance of Farm Aid is unique. It is the music industry’s longest-running concert for a cause.

“These four artists are just like farmers, they never give up,” says Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. “They’re stubborn, they’re clever, they’re strategic and it’s because of them that this organization has been effective.”

The late Pete Seeger, gave his last major concert performance at Farm Aid in 2013 in Saratoga Springs, New York, accompanied by, from left, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and Neil Young.
The late Pete Seeger, gave his last major concert performance at Farm Aid in 2013 in Saratoga Springs, New York, accompanied by, from left, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and Neil Young. © Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

More than 400 artists have performed at Farm Aid during the past 30 years and each show has had highlights.  To cite a few in recent years: 

Kenny Chesney, fresh off his stadium tour with Tim McGraw, came out as a surprise guest at Hersheypark Stadium in 2012. The late Pete Seeger — who ranks with Nelson as an American icon — made his final major concert appearance at Farm Aid in 2013 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. And last year’s concert at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C., featured Jack White, one of the hottest acts on that summer’s festival circuit.

Farm Aid is “eternally grateful” for the support of artists and the music industry, says Mugar. “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.”

But more than a concert, Farm Aid serves as an annual gathering of activists focused on the Good Food Movement, environmentalism and social justice battles.  Many farmers and activists travel to the event each year to network, share strategies, listen to music and eat great family farm food on a menu which Farm Aid has trademarked as “Homegrown.”

The social importance of family farms was recognized, at the 20th anniversary concert in Tinley Park, Ill., by one of the state’s rising political stars.

“We celebrate the family farm not only because it gives us the food we eat, but it also maintains a way of life,” said Barack Obama, then the U.S. senator from Illinois, who had come to introduce that night’s performance by Chicago’s Wilco. Those farms, he said, teach “the values of decency, and hard work and looking after one another.”

Farm Aid has its roots in the mid-’80s era of music activism. On July 13, 1985, onstage in Philadelphia at Live Aid, the concert for African famine relief, Bob Dylan remarked to the crowd: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for farmers right here in America?”

At the time, falling crop prices and rising debt payment had ignited a wave of foreclosures that were pushing family farmers off their land.

“I didn’t realize there was a problem until Bob Dylan said that,” recalled Nelson. “Then I started talking [to farmers] and found he was absolutely right.”

Nelson organized the first Farm Aid concert on an all-but-impossibly-short lead time at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Sept. 22, 1985. It is has been staged every year since, at venues around the country.  

But the words and music of Farm Aid would mean little without money and action.

Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised $48 million through its concerts and outreach to donors. Those funds have funded a crisis hotline, created the Farmer Resource Network and a deep network of farmer advocates, pushed for national policies to support independent farmers and promoted new markets for the produce of family farms.

Their efforts have taken root. Thirty years ago, only a niche market existed for organic food and local produce. Today, that market has gone mainstream via some of the biggest events and companies in America.

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Concessions at the Super Bowl in 2012 began serving organic chili, sourced through Farm Aid. The concert promotion giant Live Nation in 2013 began offering locally grown food at its amphitheaters. Wal-Mart in 2014 boosted its sales of organic food. And Target this year will increase its sales of grocery products sourced from small farms, via a deal with the Beekman 1802 Farm in upstate New York.

Willie Nelson once quipped that the work of Farm Aid simply affects everyone who eats.

But food culture and farming practices do, in fact, affect broader issues. Farm Aid’s advocates and artists have acknowledged links to concerns ranging from income and racial inequality — most significantly — climate change.

“The farmers are on the front lines of climate change,” said Neil Young at Farm Aid in 2013.  “And climate change is the issue of the 21st century.  It’s a bigger way of looking at what we’re doing here. It’s about getting the carbon out of the sky and back into the earth.”

While musicians draw the media’s attention, one of Farm Aid’s greatest achievements has been giving voice to the farmers themselves. At a press conference before each year’s concert, and in compelling videos presented between musicians’ sets, Farm Aid has presented the stories of those struggling to grow food in a sustainable manner.

Among those whom audiences heard from at Farm Aid’s 2014 concert in Raleigh were Dorathy and Phillip Barker, an African-American couple who bought land in Oxford, N.C., in 1981 to create Olusanya Farm. Besides the challenges facing all family farmers, the Barkers spoke of the racial discrimination they faced from bankers as they sought financing for their dairy farm.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize they were pissing in my face — and it wasn’t raining,” said Dorathy Barker.  

The couple became the leaders of Operation Spring Plant, a non-profit group advocating for minority and low-income farmers. And they are addressing perhaps the greatest need for the survival of family farmers — the need to ignite a passion for farming among a new generation, the concert-going generation.

“If you can’t show a young person that they can make a living” farming, says Philip Barker, “then you’re just wasting your time. “They have to understand the wealth of the land. That’s been our job. We’re trying to establish a lifetime thing for the next generation — a guide, a toolbox, for them to use moving forward.”