by: Steve Brown
Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp have been the faces of Farm Aid since their first concert together in 1985, but organizers say the work of the organization goes far beyond a single annual concert.
Keeping family farmers on the land is the nonprofit’s primary mission. When crises arise — whether they are individual or more widespread — Farm Aid connects farmers with resources that can help.
Amid the current drought, program director Hilde Steffey said, “We’ve seen a significant uptick in calls and e-mails. Usually we get about 60 or 70 a month; we’ve had 90 so far this month.”
Most of the requests have been from farmers running out of feed. Their pastures have dried up, she said. Farm Aid does not provide the feed, but refers the requests to farmer-to-farmer networks that can meet the need.
Other effects of the drought include reduced crop yields and cash flow.
“Some growers are concerned about federal crop insurance,” she said. “They can’t afford it and wonder how they’ll stay on the land.
“We’re concerned about the immediate situation, but the response needs to talk about recovery. Some groups work on drought-mitigation techniques. The farmer needs to be better protected in the future.”
Farm Aid has responded to increased needs arising from floods and the economic climate.
“Dairy farmers in particular tell us about price volatility,” she said. “They need new farm policies for a fair price and fair access to the marketplace. Often they’re facing foreclosure or the lack of adequate credit.”
Because Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization, it cannot provide large grants and loans directly to farmers. Its incorporation with the Internal Revenue Service prevents it from making grants or loans to any for-profit business, including farms.
Instead, it funds farm support organizations of many kinds as part of its Farmer Resource Network. It connects farmers in need to direct services such as financial counseling, legal help and mediation, funding opportunities, direct marketing assistance, land access and activism.
Farm Aid has raised more than $40 million over the years. Most of those funds are raised by the annual concert, supplemented by smaller events, a major donor program and the sale of concert-related merchandise.
Between $350,000 and $1 million is given in grants to 60 or 70 organizations every year, she said. Farm families themselves can get $500 grants for household expenses, such as utilities, groceries and medical bills.
Emergency hotlines provide legal, financial and emotional counseling to struggling farmers.
“We hear from 800 (farmers) a year through the hotlines,” Steffey said. “Through different organization mediums and through the grant programs, that number increases hugely. We work with any farmer who calls us, any farmer who needs help.”
The Farm Aid 2012 concert will be Sept. 22 at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.
Headliners are Willie Nelson, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds, Kenny Chesney, Jack Johnson, ALO, Pegi Young and the Survivors, and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real.