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Farm Aid Celebrates 25th Anniversary

posted on March 31, 2011

It has been said that America was forced to endure the "Great Recession," in large part, because Wall Street failed to learn the lessons taught during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

In both periods, debt grew because of low interest rates and bankers' willingness to loan large amounts of money on asset value instead of cash flow. The agricultural economy withered under its debt load in the 1980s, and the housing bubble burst in 2008.

But some things ARE different this time around. Rural debt to equity ratios, generally speaking, are nowhere near the levels seen in the 80's. And favorable commodity prices are expected to boost net farm income considerably this year.

But that didn't stop a key agricultural ambassador from taking his show "on the road again" last fall, when Willie Nelson staged his 25th concert for the American farmer. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.

Twenty five years ago, family farmers faced a crisis the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Great Depression. The good times of the 1970s had given way to low crop prices, falling land values, high interest rates and mountains of debt in the 80s. For many farm families, the situation was becoming dire.

In 1985, Willie Nelson called on his friends in music to organize a groundbreaking concert called Farm Aid to help a struggling rural America.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "I'd heard some rumors in Texas about some of the farmers and ranchers having a rough time and I asked some of my friends who were farmers and ranchers. They said, "Well, it's really bad in the Midwest. It hasn't gotten that bad here yet, but it's on the way." So, we started talking about what we might do to call attention to it, to help the situation in some way. And, so we did."

The first Farm Aid took place in Champaign, Illinois, on a rainy day in September of 1985. Along with help from fellow founding members John Mellencamp and Neil Young, Nelson put the concert together in just a few weeks.

All told, 54 acts appeared before a crowd of 78,000 people, making the first Farm Aid the largest combined country and rock concert in U.S. history.

The first concert sparked a movement that continues to this day, and from it, came the Farm Aid organization, which works year-round to help America's family farmers.

Carolyn Mugar has been Farm Aid's executive director since the beginning.

Caroylyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid: "I don't think anyone cuold dip their foot into this without feeling how fortunate they are to work with the people we work with in the countryside. It's an extraordinary experience."

Farm Aid celebrated its 25th anniversary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last year. More than 35,000 fans filled Miller Park, home of the Brewers baseball team, on Saturday, October 2, to mark the historic event.

While the music at Farm Aid is the main attraction, concert days offer much more.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "You folks here showed up on a cold day to help us support the family farmers. We showed up. This is what we need to be doing and we need to keep doing it until somebody pays attention to us. The will because we're not going anywhere."

The day begins with the Farm Aid press conference. It's described by staff as part pep rally and part teach-in. Artists and farmers challenge the nation's leaders and all Americans to take action.

Dave Matthews, Farm Aid Board: "In this big industrial farm era, if the people producing the food for us have the sole goal of making money and cut as many corners as they can. How can we assume that they're going to produce the best food they can?"

Will Allen, Urban Farmer: "As we sit here today, we're losing farmland and we're losing our rural farmers. A lot are in the crowd today."

John Mellencamp, Farm Aid Board: "As the family farmer goes, so goes America."

Neil Young, Farm Aid Board: "What do we deserve? We deserve clean food. How can we get clean food? By looking for it."

Wisconsin was chosen as the host state, in part, to draw attention to issues facing the dairy industry. For nearly two years, producers have been paid prices as little as half the cost of production. According to Farm Aid, family dairy farmers have lost upwards of $200 per month during the crisis on each cow they own, while the largest dairy processors have made enjoyed record profits.

Sarah Lloyd, Dairy Farmer: "12,500, one hundred-cow dairies is fundamentally different than 255,000 cow dairies, and you can't tell me other wise. So, we really need to work on this."

Another key feature of Farm Aid is the HOMEGROWN VILLAGE, where concert goers can meet family farmers and learn about the roots of their food.

Last year's HOMEGROWN VILLAGE was bigger than ever, featuring more than 40 interactive exhibits from Wisconsin, and various farm, food and environmental organizations.

Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid: "The last four years, we've been having what's called home grown concessions and we've turned the food at the venue into food that's either locally grown, organically grown, humanely grown. And that's what the food at these venues is."

Rhonda Perry, Patchwork Family Farms: "We're the first local food vendor at Farm Aid and so we'd like to think we play some small role in Farm Aid moving towards this local food type of venue. I think it's really important because lots of times we put local family farm foods into a little box and there are certain places you can get it. You can get it at farmers markets and little grocery stores and those are great. We should support those efforts. But Farm Aid really took on a venue that no one thought could be done and said no concert venues can be farmer friendly and consumer friendly. You know, you can hear some good music and eat good, healthy food. And I think they're definitely doing that more and more."

For more than two decades, the concerts have been held all across the country –from the Heartland to the deep South, and from the West coast to the Eastern shores.

Likewise, Farm Aid's artists come from all over the musical map. Last year's line-up included Amos Lee, Band of Horses, Jamey Johnson, Jason Mraz, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, and Jeff Tweedy. The headliners were first-time Farm Aid performer Norah Jones, Kenny Chesney, Dave Matthews, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and, of course, Willie Nelson. Every artist donates his or her performance and travel expenses to Farm Aid.

Twenty five years after making its inaugural benefit, Farm Aid officials say there is still much to be done. The organization has grown to a staff of nine, along with its board of directors including Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews, who joined in 2001.

Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid Board: "I don't know, I guess I'm about half stubborn and when I start something, I don't like to quit. And I'm glad to see the Farm Aid organization feel the same way. Those guys over there are tough and they fight the fight every day, here and there, all over the farm industry with the big guys and the little guys. And it's important we stay with it because there's a lot of opposition to it from powerful people."

Next week, we'll examine the economic impact of Farm Aid. For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


Tags: agriculture charity history music news performances rural