September 6, 2017
By William Glanz, Senior Editor, SoundExchange
The 1980s were not kind to rural America. So Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp started Farm Aid to help family farmers struggling to cope with incredible debt and high interest rates.
More than three decades later, Farm Aid is still going strong and preparing to hold its 33rd annual concert next week in Burgettstown, PA. The first concert on September 22, 1985, attracted 78,000 people, who gathered in Champaign, Illinois. About 23,000 people are expected to attend next week’s concert (check out the lineup here).
A remark from Bob Dylan gave birth to the idea for Farm Aid. At a Live Aid concert in 1985, Dylan said “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?”
Nelson then pitched the idea to Young and Mellencamp.
At the time of the first Farm Aid concert, an estimated one-quarter of the nation’s 650,000 full-time farmers were under severe financial stress, according to the New York Times. The federal government had started foreclosing on farmers who couldn’t pay loans they secured through the Farmers Home Administration, the lending arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some of the $7 million raised at the first Farm Aid went to the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC), a nonprofit started by Roger Allison, who fought the USDA in federal court over their attempt to foreclose on his land, according to Modern Farmer. Farm Aid also helped fund the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG), a nonprofit law center that took on the federal government leading to the halt of 80,000 farm foreclosures, the magazine wrote.
The first Farm Aid alleviated some of the immediate economic peril facing rural Americans. Ultimately, Congress allowed farmers to restructure their loans. Farm Aid also raised awareness about issues facing rural America.
“Willie and John often say ‘we were naïve. We thought we would hold a concert and that we could tell people what the problem was and Washington would step up and solve the problem.’ They didn’t intend to create an ongoing organization… but that’s what Farm Aid has become because they saw a need to continue the concert,” Farm Aid Communications Director Jennifer Fahy said.
Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million and distributed $23 million in grants, Fahy said. They also use donations to fund ongoing programs to help farmers. This year, Farm Aid will use some of the money raised to help Texas farmers and ranchers affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Farm Aid has become one of the longest-running U.S. concerts. Farm Aid is two years older than South by Southwest, which began in 1987. Lollapalooza began in 1991 (organizers held the 21st U.S. Lollapalooza this year, although the first concert was held 26 years ago). Coachella began in 1999, and Bonnaroo began in 2002.
“We consider ourselves the longest-running concert for a cause,” Fahy said. “It definitely is a point of pride.”