Behind the scenes at Farm Aid
For the first time in its history, Farm Aid comes to Central PA. And today, the group’s organizers continue their decades-old mission of lending a helping hand to America’s family farmers
By Michael Yoder
Fly Magazine Photo by Steve Kale
For nearly three decades, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp have helped highlight the faces of rural America through the daily struggles of family farmers.
Add Dave Matthews to the mix in the last decade, and the quartet of superstar musicians have used their celebrity to continue one of the most successful benefit concerts in the world – Farm Aid.
What began as an all-star fundraiser in front of 80,000 fans at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, IL, on September 22, 1985 has turned into an annual music festival and a year-round advocacy group aimed at helping family farmers stay on their land and transform the public’s mindset on how food is produced. This September 22 marks the first time the festival comes to Central PA, 27 years to the day of the first concert.
Although the four musicians are the most visible extension of Farm Aid, the organization is led by a coterie of dedicated professionals who lobby daily for the livelihood of family farmers. Take, for example, Carolyn Mugar, who has served as the executive director of Farm Aid since its inception in 1985, and Glenda Yoder, who came on board as the associate director in 1990. Over the past 27 years, the pair has led an organization that offers services as varied as a toll-free hotline for farmers contemplating suicide to promoting farmers markets and local produce.
Mugar says the original Farm Aid artists believed all that was needed to right the plight of America’s family farmers was the first benefit show, and that would be enough to force politicians and the public to wake up and solve the problem of farmers being run off their land. But Mugar says the group quickly learned how complex the problems in rural America are and instead decided to pursue a long-term path of activism that continues today.
“There’s so much more interest, excitement, enthusiasm and need for family farm food,” Mugar says. “Farm Aid has had a lot to do with creating that different environment and theater of activity.”
WORKING FOR FARM AID
Mugar, who has been politically and socially active for most of her life, was a trade union organizer in the mid-1980s when a mutual friend of Willie Nelson suggested she get involved in a benefit concert the country star was planning in the Midwest.
The seeds of Farm Aid were first laid when Bob Dylan made an off-handed comment at the end of the legendary Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, calling on the American public to help farmers suffering through economic hardships. Nelson, who grew up in a farming community in Texas, picked up the torch and ran with the idea.
Mugar says the first Farm Aid show was cobbled together “quite quickly,” pulling in more than 50 of the biggest names in music, including Nelson, Dylan, Young, Mellencamp, Johnny Cash and Tom Petty. Close to $7 million was raised at that first concert, and Mugar was personally asked by Nelson to head up the new Farm Aid organization and help dole out the funds to groups and farmers around the country.
Within a year, Mugar had traveled around the country, getting to know farmers, agricultural advocates and politicians. She says it didn’t take long to understand that the family farmer’s problems went well beyond not being able to pay their mortgages, and the scope of Farm Aid grew.
Yoder, an avid activist who grew up on a farm in Ohio, came to Farm Aid with a specialty in marketing and business relations. Her job is to help present Farm Aid and its goals to the wider public through partnerships with businesses and farming organizations and other opportunities that allow people to experience the life of a farmer and understand how food is produced. This includes everything from organizing agricultural displays at the festival to personally meeting with farmers and hearing their grievances.
“The mission of Farm Aid is to keep farmers on the land and to create a kind of agricultural and food system that serves everyone well into the future,” Yoder says. “But to do that we’re all going to have to change – and not just farmers.”
CHALLENGES FOR FARMERS
Farm Aid began in a moment of crisis, Yoder says, when the agricultural recession of the ’80s was forcing family farmers into bankruptcy. They were giving up their farms by the tens of thousands, and families that had tilled the same fields for generations were suddenly left homeless.
“The human toll of the problem was extraordinary,” Yoder says. “It was wrenching, it was horrific and much of rural America was depopulated from the 1980s onward.”
Today, the difficulty of dealing with agricultural issues has become more acute, Mugar says, as family farmers are still losing their land and now are forced to compete with large corporations moving into the farming arena and gobbling up swaths of farmland.
Add to that crops that have been genetically modified and sprayed with chemicals that can cause environmental damage, and the full extent of the farmer’s plight has yet to be seen.
Mugar says there’s a serious need to get more farmers and younger farmers back on the land. Right now, the average age of the family farmer is 57 and will only get older without access to credit with competitive loans and interest rates for younger people. Without a thriving agricultural community, getting food from the fields to the dinner table becomes an issue of national security and health.
Farmers are also being forced to look at their growing practices to see if they’re sustainable into the future, Mugar says. The current drought gripping most of the country has brought sustainability to the forefront and the need to create resilient soil and resilient farmers who can make things grow even under the harshest of conditions.
But Mugar views the current public climate in America as the perfect opportunity to create a new “vision of agriculture” with long-term solutions and the awareness that healthy food should be accessible to everyone.
THE GOOD FOOD MOVEMENT
One of the biggest problems farmers face, Mugar says, is the rising price of production and its relation to the price they get for their products.
To highlight farmers producing good food that uses ecologically sound farming practices, Farm Aid has supported initiatives such as the burgeoning local farmers market movement popping up around the country. Mugar says the wider public started to take notice of the “good food movement” in the early ’90s, demanding healthy food and cultivating a widespread awareness of the compromised food system we have today.
Farm Aid was one of the first agricultural organizations to give funds to new farmers markets as a tool to promote locally produced agricultural products.
Mugar herself says she shops at a market near her home in Cambridge, MA, every Monday between June and November, and her porch is used as a drop-off and pick-up location for her neighbors with a local community supported agriculture (CSA) program in which participants buy a yearly share in a farmer’s harvested crop.
Farmer’s crops are also incorporated into the music festival portion of Farm Aid. One of Yoder’s most important capacities at Farm Aid is overseeing the Homegrown Concessions program, which began at the festival in 2007. All the ingredients used at the festival concession stands are sourced from farmers in the region where the concert is being held and can serve as many as 30,000 people healthy and flavorful food at the concert.
“There’s tremendous possibility in food that’s presented to people with a story line,” Yoder says. “It tastes better, it’s more delicious. It matters where the food comes from, who grew it and how they grew it.”
Photo: Jen Bronenkant