Farm Aid At 20: A Look Back At What The Concert Series Has Accomplished

Concerts have raised more than $27 million in support of American small-farm owners.

There was much ado earlier this year when Bob Geldof revived the concept of the 20-year-old Live Aid concert for Live 8, which aimed to raise awareness and support for the various social and economic issues facing Africa. There has been much less fanfare for the 20th anniversary of a concert that calls attention to a cause in our own backyard.

On Sunday, when Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Wilco, John Mayer, Kenny Chesney, Los Lonely Boys, Dave Matthews and others hit the stage for the 20th-anniversary Farm Aid concert at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park, Illinois (see “Dave Matthews Joins Mellencamp And Nelson For Farm Aid” ), they were carrying on a tradition that began, like some less-worthwhile causes, with an offhand comment by Bob Dylan.

Farm Aid launched in 1985 after Dylan said, during his performance at Live Aid, that someone should organize a show to draw attention to the plight facing American small-farm owners, who are threatened with being forced off their land by large factory farms (or megafarms) that can churn out massive quantities of produce for less money. Nelson took Dylan’s words to heart and spearheaded the concert event, which would raise over $7 million in its first year and draw worldwide attention to the cause. The proceeds from the event are used to give farmers grants to help keep their family farms afloat — farms that often provide high-quality, organic food.

“The answer is to get the farmers back on the land, taking care of the land, as it was supposed to be in the beginning,” said Nelson, Farm Aid’s founder and president. “Eating organic, family-grown food is important to a lot of us, so that’s why it’s important to take care of the family farmers. They’re the backbone of the country.”

The September 22, 1985, show drew more than 80,000 people to the Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, and included Farm Aid co-founders Nelson, Young and Mellencamp, as well as John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, Jon Bon Jovi and Van Halen.

Farmers are also struggling against advancements in the globalization of food trade, where countries like the United States can import agricultural products at a cheaper rate, thanks to free-trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement. However, consumers may not realize that while they are acquiring low-cost products, it is often at a sacrifice of the food’s quality, and to the detriment of domestic farmers.

“For the people who founded Farm Aid, it’s probably in a much different place now than they thought it would be when they started it 20 years ago,” said Michael Solomon, director of communications for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. He credits the organization’s longevity to the broadening of its mission — not only to lessen the plight of farmers, but also to focus on the quality of the country’s food supply and where it comes from.

Organic-leaning outlets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have gained significant ground over the last few years due to a burgeoning movement toward less-processed foods, and farmers’ markets continue to sprout and gain support across the nation. However, nearly 70 percent of the U.S.’s 2 million farms lost money in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and Farm Aid has gone a long way toward preventing family farms from becoming a thing of the past.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would take this long [to solve the problem],” Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar said. “I think the artists thought that if we get together and do something, certainly there is a fast solution. But everyone has come to realize that it’s a long-term problem with a long-term solution, so to really get anything done, you have to dig in your heels and stick to it.”

Mugar says its famous board members have been “anything but quitters” and have managed to keep Farm Aid as one of the nation’s longest running benefit series.

“We’re not big — we know we’re small,” Young said during a 2003 Farm Aid press conference. “We’re David versus Goliath, and there’s an army of Goliaths against us, but we’re not going away. We’re going to keep going.”

Over its 20-year history, the 17 Farm Aid shows have drummed up more than $27 million to fund grass-roots organizations and its own program initiatives to support American farmers, according to organizers.

“Farmers probably couldn’t have asked for a more media-savvy and media-friendly group of people than these guys,” Solomon said. “They’re all very high-profile and have been able to draw a lot of attention to the cause — which is something farmers never had before Farm Aid came along, so just getting people to think about it has been a victory.”