Farm Aid celebrates 30 years of connecting soil, resources, community and music

By Jennifer Brantley

September 14, 2015

Thirty years ago this year, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young planned a concert at University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Their goal was a simple one: play some great music and raise awareness about family farmers losing their farms. The lineup for the evening included BB King, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Billy Joel. Little did they know back in 1985 what their concert, named Farm Aid, would eventually become. Their very first concert raised over $9 million for America’s family farmers. Since then the concert and even the days leading up to it have grown immensely, each year getting bigger and drawing more headliner acts. The concert in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1990 featured Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Hornsy and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The 10 year anniversary concert was held in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1995 with Dave Matthews Band, Hootie and the Blowfish and Steve Earle and Willie Nelson all performing amongst others. Today all remain extremely involved with Farm Aid as board members. Recently I had a chance to chat with Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s Communications Manager for the past 13 years to see where Farm Aid has been, what it has accomplished and where it is going. I can tell you this: Farm Aid 30, set for September 19 in Chicago this year, is about so much more than the concert.

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Inaugural Farm Aid 1985 Champaign, Illinois

CLTure: Tell me a bit about your organization and why the work it does is so important.

Jennifer Fahy: Let’s start with why we do what we do. We truly believe family farmers should be on their land. We go all the way to the roots of the food folks eat, looking at the food then following the chain back to the people who grow it. Everyone knows food is essential, but do people really get that the process behind it is, too? This is where we come in. Our focus is on the connection between the soil, natural resources, communities and the food folks eat. Through our work we have been able to help many farm families get operating credit to obtain everything from seeds to equipment so they can stay on their land. We back the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, whose initiative to have student loans forgiven for young farmers is gaining support in congress and in the senate right now. It is not easy to be a young farmer just starting out these days. It is a huge challenge for these farmers, just out of college, to find affordable land– let alone equipment. In year’s past, land was much cheaper and people could just donate to a farm to help out; our programs have caused people to see that now they can get even more involved by joining a CSA program, shopping at farmer’s markets or even having a dinner party with all local foods that they talk about. The connection between our farms and our food has finally been made.

CLTure: Can you give me some background on Farm Aid?

JF: Farm Aid was around long before the whole farm to table and real food movements. We began really as a response to human suffering. Farmers who had had farms in their families for years and years were homeless due to foreclosures, weather disasters and things like that and had zero ability to establish credit to buy back their land, let alone equipment. Following the success of our first concert in 1985, we realized we had an opportunity to create assistance programs for these farmers. Our programs help farmers learn how to better negotiate with banks to get their credit back up to where it needs to be, how to stop foreclosures and even more importantly how to earn better prices for their food.

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Farm Aid Communications Director Jennifer Fahy and Dave Matthews.

CLTure: How has Farm Aid evolved and what do you feel has helped it to do so?

JF:  In the 1980s we fought hard to get a credit bill passed to help farmers. It did help some, but farmers still had a tough time obtaining operating credit. In the 1990s we fought hard against factory farms that were trying to change how rural farms and families worked. Fortunately for us, an increase in education started to drive eaters– we call consumers eaters– to stop and think “is this really how I want to spend my money”,  and to push towards a good food movement that we saw take off in early 2000 and is ongoing. People starting to really care about and question their food and social media have helped, as well. I’d say the single most important factor in our growth is the tenacity and commitment by our board. They absolutely want to continue this journey.

CLTure: Tell me about the events leading up to the concert itself. It’s about a week’s worth of events, right?

JF: Right. In the beginning we thought we’d have a concert a year and put a few policies in place to help farmers. That’s it. Of course the more we dug into things the more we realized how much food and music are really the perfect combination. Public interest in food today has led us to now include a “Film2FarmAid” Festival for three nights at McCormick Place in Chicago during the week before the concert. Tons of great movies are about food and the stories associated with it. The Film Fest will run September 15 to 17 and feature 15 short and feature films about food and agriculture, with a brief Q&A session with the filmmakers, farmer and food activists and a rooftop reception featuring local foods at McCormick Place’s rooftop farm following each screening. Included in the film lineup are: “Century Farm” By Melissa Gregory Rue, “Food Patriots” by Jeff Spitz and “Isabelle’s Garden” by Jeffrey Palmer to name a few.

We have an Urban Farm Tour before the concert, as well, which in Chicago, should be amazing with all the roof top gardens and other innovative things they are doing up there. Also planned each year is a two-day famer meeting which is led by our Farm Advocates, who are folks that have been a part of the farm movement since the 1970s and actually went through the farm crisis in the 1980s. The advocates share with the group how they were able to keep their farms and heritage and what they learned in the process. Farmers take away such important information out of these meetings especially since the audience is multigenerational.

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CLTure: How is your staff involved during concert week?

JF: All Farm Aid employees pitch in. It’s almost like a big reunion week each year and is definitely a team effort. From year to year we see many of the same people from the community at large volunteering as well, which is great. We have never been short any volunteers, which says a lot. I still get chills every year when the concert begins. It never ever gets old and I still have moments where I have to pause and just soak it all in.

CLTure: What can you tell me about Farm Aid’s HOMEGROWN Village?

JF: HOMEGROWN Village is an area that is set up where concertgoers can go and engage in hands-on activities to help them understand how family farmers today are enriching our soil, growing the economy and protecting our water. Demonstrations like canning tomatoes, composting and how to forage in the city are going to be happening in the village. The HOMEGROWN Concessions Area is also a part of this. There is a wonderful partnership between the vendors and the concert that allows us to source the foods used for the show. Examples would be our organic hamburgers that are sourced from local Illinois farmers and our popcorn that is GMO free heirloom popcorn, also from an area farm. Food items are labeled with where they came from and contributing farmers are profiled online so folks can really see where their food came from.  In many cases the farmers themselves are on hand to meet people and chat with them. One thing that is really neat is all food items are served on compostable service ware that along with the leftover food scraps will be used to enrich the soil in the Chicago area later on. Conservation effort is all around us that week.

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Farm Aid Staff

CLTure: What lead you to pick Chicago for the venue this year?

JF: We wanted it in Chicago so folks could see the connection between a city with an amazing number of eaters and their food. Chicago is doing wonderful things with rooftop gardens and abandoned lots, using them to teach at-risk kids about food production.

CLTure: What would you like guests of this year’s event to take away from it?

JF: A big takeaway from concerts is always that people learn so much about pesticides, GMOs and organic eating. Our hope is that farmers markets and eating local become a part of their lives and that they encourage others to shop and eat local.

CLTure: What is your favorite Farm Aid performance of all times?

JF: Easy. 2013 in Saratoga Springs, New York. Pete Seeger was a surprise guest. Pete was always involved in his community and was an organizer of river clean-up projects-– quite the activist. He came on stage and all of us in the audience broke into tears when he sang “If I had a Hammer.” Then Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and John Mellencamp joined him to sing “This Land is Your Land”. Sadly Pete passed away about three  months later.

CLTure: Anything special planned for this year’s concert since it is the 30th anniversary?

JF: The lineup is pretty amazing: Willie Nelson and his family, John Mellancamp, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Neil Young, Imagine Dragons and Kacey Musgraves to name a few. In addition to these performances folks can expect a few special surprises in honor of the anniversary– which will stay surprises!

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Visit www.farmaid.org to learn more.

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