Farm Aid Celebrates Over Three Decades of Much More Than Great Music

by Siena Chrisman

Published: 9/27/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

For farmers, September means the beginning of harvest and of the winding down of the growing season. For some, it also means Farm Aid, the annual all-star concert and related events that serves as something of a family reunion for farmers and rural advocates. Last Friday marked the anniversary of the benefit, first held September 22, 1985. Thirty-two years later, the concert, and the organization that has grown alongside it, are still going strong.

This year’s show,  featuring headliners — and Farm Aid board members — Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson, was held outside of Pittsburgh on September 16. Among the 23,000 fans in attendance were farmers from nearly forty states, fishermen, urban growers, chefs, funders, policy advocates and organizers with dozens of grassroots and national organizations. Some have been to every Farm Aid festival and others are first-timers; for all, the days of Farm Aid are a chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues, learn from each other, and forge new relationships to strengthen their work in the coming year.

Active Support for Farmers

Farm Aid began at the height of the 1980s farm foreclosure crisis, when a quarter of a million farms went out of business and rural communities withered around them. After hearing the desperation of US farmers while on the road and inspired by international benefit concerts like Live Aid, Nelson, who is still the president of the board, organized the first Farm Aid concert in six weeks. With fifty acts, 78,000 attendees and a national broadcast, the 14-hour show raised more than $7 million to support farmers in crisis.

Farming has changed over the decades, both with the growth of consumer interest in organic and local food and the ever-increasing consolidation of agriculture from seeds to supermarkets. But Farm Aid continues to provide help across the farming spectrum, whether to small organic vegetable producers, contract chicken growers, or commodity grain farmers. Its advocacy supports policy for farmers markets and farm to school programs, and rules to protect large livestock growers from unfair contracts. Since the beginning, Farm Aid has believed in farming as an important economic driver for communities and families; as farm economics have tightened, the organization has turned to fighting the ongoing corporatization of agriculture, so that independent family farmers can continue to make a living from the land. The funds it distributes — over $50 million since 1985 — go to farmer support organizations around the country, which are often fighting similar battles on the ground, as well as making small emergency grants directly to farmers facing disasters.

Mississippi farmers Daniel Teague and Charles Houston, with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Photograph by Siena Chrisman.

A Commitment to Local Economies

The annual concert travels so that farmers don’t have to (though they do anyway), putting down temporary roots in Virginia or North Carolina or Illinois or upstate New York. The organization spends time in the region beforehand, getting to know the local issues and building relationships with local organizations, which are highlighted in events before the show. This year featured breakout sessions on some of the most critical issues in struggling communities today, including rural organizing in polarized times and building a just and sustainable economic transition from mining and manufacturing to agriculture in both rural and urban areas. Tours to a rural farming area impacted by new fracking wells and to urban farms in Pittsburgh gave participants a chance to talk with local farmers and be on the land. On concert day, the HOMEGROWN Village to the right of the stage featured nearly thirty interactive exhibits, games and opportunities for discussion, put on by local and national farm, health and environmental organizations.

The food at the show reflects these commitments to local farmers as well. Since 2007, Farm Aid’s HOMEGROWN Concessions brand has sourced all food based on strict standards, including environmental stewardship and a fair price for farmers. This year’s specialty vendors included  Pittsburgh-traditional pierogis and cabbage; Pittsburgh Ice Cream Company, made with local milk (motto: “farm to cone”); sustainably-sourced seafood; and pork chops and bratwurst from Missouri’s Patchwork Family Farms, a concert favorite. These connections demonstrate how food is also about community and relationships: Patchwork is a cooperative of 15 independent pork producers run by Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC), which received one of Farm Aid’s first grants and has been a partner ever since.

Roger Allison, MRCC’s founder and executive director, remembers the importance of the first Farm Aid concert to farmers struggling with the 1980s foreclosure crisis. Allison relates traveling by train to the show in Champaign, Illinois, and seeing farmers alongside the tracks holding signs saying, “Willie is our hope.” The economic condition of rural America hasn’t improved much in the last thirty years, and ever-increasing urban/rural divides have made many remaining farmers feel forgotten and alone. But Willie —and Farm Aid — still gives them hope. The organization gave West Virginia farmer Michael Buttrill of Bootstraps Farm an emergency grant last year after flooding wiped out crops, soil and most of the farm’s rabbit herd. The grant enabled him to jumpstart a crowd funding campaign, and the community support has enabled his family and the farm to survive. Walking through the crowd at this year’s concert, past farm-sourced concessions and photographs of barns and hay bales, Buttrill said, “I feel like a king today.”

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