Farm Aid turns 31 this week. On Sept. 17 in Bristow, Virginia, some of America’s greatest musicians will gather to continue promoting and supporting the livelihood of the American family farmer.
It’s an incredible mission: supporting the small family farmers whose labor helped, and continues to help, make America one of the most prosperous nations in the world. As Farm Aid notes, independent family farms have always been the pillars of American communities.
Even in 2016, the small family farm faces growing troubles. Economic pressures hamper production of clean, healthy, sustainable foods. Factory farms pollute the environment and threaten the quality and safety of our food.
And through it all, Farm Aid continues to rally support for the family farmer.
In 1985, the world got together to bring awareness to and remedy the Ethiopian famine. The famine claimed nearly half a million lives in three years. More than 1.9 billion people across 150 countries tuned in to the live concert event, dubbed “Live Aid.”
The worldwide event raised roughly $200 million. It inspired a whole new connection between live music and charitable giving. But perhaps the festival’s greatest legacy stems from a controversial statement by Bob Dylan while on stage.
During his performance, Dylan mused that maybe some of the money could be used to save American farms. The Farm Aid website claims Dylan said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?”
In reality, Dylan asked if they could use some of the money from Live Aid directly for American farmers. On stage, Dylan said, “I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it, maybe one or two million to pay the mortgages on some of the farms.”
The statement enraged Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof as a “crass, nationalistic” sentiment. He said there’s no comparison between the deaths in Ethiopia and the farm crisis in America. But what Dylan was hinting at was a very real problem: undervaluing the work of the American family farmer and failing to support a pillar of the American ecosystem.
By 1985, the number of midlevel farmers grew 250%. That means the number of farmers who made between $40,000 and $500,000 per year directly from farming hit around 675,000. The 1970s economy had been good to Americans, and farming proved a viable profession in the midwest.
But thanks to economic hard times in the 1980s, the boom quickly busted. Farmers were in serious debt to banks who were more than willing to lend in the 70s and eager to collect in a feeble market. In fact, the amount of debt owed by farmers in 1984 was $215 billion — twice the amount of debt in 1978. Not to mention, profits were declining by 36%.
Thousands were forced off their farms and even more faced unplayable interest payments. Suicides among farmers doubled. Levels of spousal and child abuse increased dramatically.
So, while it was nowhere near the loss of life of the Ethiopian famine, the Midwest farm crisis threatened to cripple an American infrastructure at levels not seen since the Dust Bowl. Something needed to happen, and somebody needed to help.
After Bob Dylan’s comments, the wheels for what would become Farm Aid set in motion. Along with Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young came together to create something truly special. And it happened all in six weeks.
More than 50 artists gathered on the University of Illinois campus in Champagne on Sept. 22 for the first ever Farm Aid. They spent their own money and time to get there. The event drew 78,000 people, from farmers to journalists to politicians to people who just liked to eat. And listen to good music.
Ironically, rain soaked the drought-stricken grounds for much of the 14-hour event.
A telethon coincided with the event, ultimately raising $9 million. The number was well short of Nelson’s original goal. But the event raised something much more valuable than cash — public awareness. It invigorated a new sense of urgency to deal with the crisis. Organizers and farmers knew the biggest change needed to happen in Washington.
Though Farm Aid ultimately decided against using the money it first raised to lobby Congress, artists continued to protest the treatment of American farmers in public forums. Neil Young took out a now-famous ad in USA Today asking Ronald Reagan if the family farm in America will die at the hands of his administration.
In 1987, Congress passed the Agricultural Credit Act, which helped save some small farms from foreclosure. It was the first major victory for Farm Aid — one that lit a fire and showed just how important the organization was to the American farmer.
After five years of Farm Aid concerts and persistent lobbying, Americans saw notable progress when Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act. Still in effect today, the act incentivized healthy and sustainable organic farming seen from many of America’s small family farms.
By 1994, America was losing 500 farms per week. Factory farms were dominating production at the cost of safety and health. Farm Aid stepped in again in protest in 1995 in Missouri. The rallies against factory farms continue to this day.
The funds raised by Farm Aid go directly to a host of different grants and programs that benefit farmers. One of them is Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network, which connects farmers to grassroots organizations that provide business planning, legal advice, technical assistance and more.
Additionally, Farm Aid supports advocacy work for fair farm policies and provides funding for Farmer Leadership grants, which enable farmers to be at the table whenever important decisions are being made about agriculture.
And some of Farm Aid’s greatest work in the recent years came in the form of disaster relief for farms effected by events like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the great floods of 2011. Every year, Farm Aid raises millions of dollars to tackle a huge list of issues facing the folks who make our food.
And that’s something every American — whether you’re a city slicker, country bumpkin, or somewhere in between — should care about.