Iowa Public Television


Farm Aid Still Helping Family Farmers 25 Years Later

posted on April 7, 2011

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Over the past 10 months corn prices have more than doubled. Now that's good news for grain farmers, but it's not a welcome development in livestock circles...

While record prices for beef have helped to soften the blow for ranchers and feedlots, there's little doubt high-priced corn will tighten already-thin profit margins for other livestock producers.

But the "problem" of high-priced corn would have seemed like a dream 25 years ago when America endured the farm crisis of the 1980s. In response to the downturn, a group of musicians held the inaugural Farm Aid concert -- a benefit that's raised tens of millions of dollars for the American farmer. Laurel Bower Burgmaier attended the latest installment last fall and filed this report.

In 1985, musicians Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young organized the first Farm Aid concert. Held in Champaign, Illinois, the event raised $9 million and helped generate awareness about the farm crisis.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "If nothing else, it got people thinking about it and farmers came forth telling their stories. And I knew we were on to something. If we could give these farmers a voice, then that would help them and that's what we've been trying to do."

Looking back, those involved with the first Farm Aid never imagined it would still be needed today.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "I figured this was such an important issue and I just assumed everyone else would realize it and do something about it and the smart guys in Washington would pass a law. They passed a law that took care of the corporate farmers, but they forgot about the little guy."

Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid: "When we realized we had to keep going because this was not going to be solved overnight, he said we should be playing at different part of the country so farmers could come to different places. It's given us a tremendous opportunity. We gather farmers and food advocates and farm advocates so we've often left behind sort of a web that's a little bit stronger than when we came there."

For 25 years, Farm Aid has served many needs. But its main mission is to build a family farm-centered system of agriculture in America. The organization promotes food produced by family farmers, helps grow the "good food movement," and takes action to change the agricultural system.

Perhaps, most important, Farm Aid serves as a network, putting farmers in touch with more than 500 resources nationwide.

Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid: "Since the first day Farm Aid began, we've been taking calls from farmers. And we always try to find someone in their area that can be of service to them that can connect them with the help they need or who can help them. So often, farmers are isolated or by nature the job is isolated and this has connected them with people who care. When you realize how many people have supported Farm Aid over the years, that's a lot of people."

In addition to organizing and performing at concerts, Nelson, like the Farm Aid staff, also is active off-stage. For example, in 1996 Market to Market caught up with Nelson when he joined a group of Iowa farmers protesting factory hog farms.

Nelson also writes letters on behalf of the organization and signs grant checks. To date, Farm Aid has raised more than $37 million for rural America, using the funds to support grass-roots organizations and its own program initiatives.

John Kinsman runs an organic dairy farm in south central Wisconsin. He founded Family Farm Defenders, or FFD, which has received grants from Farm Aid for several years. Created in 1994, FFD reaches out to farmers world-wide to help create a democratic, farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented food system.

John Kinsman, Family Farm Defenders: "A lot of what they do is messaging to tell the public what's going on with farmers and what they can do to help. For instance, if dairy famers are having trouble and they're desperate. They hear about Farm Aid and call the office in Boston and they refer the dairy farmers to our organization the Family Farm Defenders because we're in the dairy state. So we spend time on the phone referring them where they can get immediate cash help and counseling. Mainly, it's counseling."

Two other groups that receive grant money from Farm Aid are the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, created during the 1980s farm crisis, and Patchwork Family Farms. Both groups work to help family farmers thrive by advocating for fair policies and sustainable markets. Founder Rhonda Perry raises hogs, cattle, soybeans and grain with her husband Roger Allison on their farm in Missouri.

Rhonda Perry, Patchwork Family Farms: "The resources they've provided is great and they were one of the contributors to our starting up Patchwork Family Farms early on in 1993. But also our relationship with Farm Aid has been working with them to highlight the issues facing family farmers today."

Last year, Farm Aid distributed more than $503,000 to 72 family farm and rural service organizations nationwide. Funds also supported efforts to ensure legislation enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill is implemented in ways that serve the interests of family farmers. In addition, Farm Aid's Family Farm Disaster fund provided $67,000 in grants and emergency relief to families affected by weather disasters in 2009.

We've always worked with many different kinds of farmers. We work with commodity farmers, large farmers, and small farmers. And one of the really neat benefits of that is being able to get the farmers together so they learn from each other. A lot of farmers have changed their growing practices by coming into contact with other farmers at an event like Farm Aid or at other gatherings that happen during the year. We work with all kinds of farmers. There should never be the illusion that we only work with organic or small farms. We work with family farms.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture reported a loss of 80,000 mid-sized farms since the last census in 2002. Some researchers predict mid-size farms will disappear completely within a decade. According to Farm Aid, conventional wisdom has advised them to "get big or get out," but given the growing demand for local, family farm-identified food, mid-sized producers should be well-positioned to bring the benefits of direct markets to more consumers and communities.

Farm Aid's founder Willie Nelson calls America's family farmers the backbone of the nation. He says when farms thrive, main streets and local communities thrive.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "The farmer is the bottom rung on the economic ladder and when he goes under, everybody on the top falls in. And he's going under, so the only way this country will reverse and get back on a good economical road to recovery is if we turn it around and let the farmers grow us out of it. They have the experience and the knowledge to grow food and fuel. And people, out of necessity, are having to figure out different ways to take care of themselves. Local, sustainable agriculture is the way to do it."

More than 35,000 fans attended the concert this year, netting the organization more than $2 million from ticket sales alone. The theme of Farm Aid 25 was "Growing Hope for America," a sentiment reflected in the optimism the organization says it has for the future of family farmers.

Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid: "I am totally certain standing here today that our future is going to be one of many more family farms. I know people are coming to that. I think we're coming to a tipping point."

Rhonda Perry, Patchwork Family Farms: "They've really been there, out on the front lines and cutting edge of real issues that have been facing our members and hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country."

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "I think everyone, most everyone, wants to see it happen, to see the farmers better took care of. And that's what we're trying to do."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


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