Farm Aid: Activism Takes the Stage

Today’s musical atmosphere is a far cry from the 1960s, when artists of all kinds were critical players in efforts to end the Vietnam War, promote civil rights, launch the environmental movement, and take women’s rights to a new level. Britney Spears’ recent response to a question about Iraq tells how far backwards we’ve gone: “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that.”

Part of the problem has to do with well-funded conservative groups that launch an attack any time an entertainer speaks out. Groups such as the Media Research Center, Accuracy in Media, and RightNation immediately pounce on artists who dare take a progressive political stand. The Dixie Chicks, Susan Sarandon, Ani DiFranco, Martin Sheen, and many others have been on the receiving end of their venom. The uproar is usually furious and the ramifications often swift. Such attacks are intended to have an unmistakable chilling effect on other artists who may want to express their views. For many, the decision to not speak out comes down to preserving their career.

Fortunately this isn’t always the case. For the past 18 years some of the world’s finest musicians have come together annually to perform at Farm Aid, where they regularly espouse views that are controversial — and refreshing. Since Farm Aid began they have raised nearly $25 million to support family farmers, and their concert series is the longest-running event of its kind. This Thanksgiving Americans will have the opportunity to see for themselves what Farm Aid is all about. For the first time, “Soundstage” will air a two-hour Farm Aid special in a nationally broadcast PBS show. The show will include footage from the September 2003 concert, plus interviews with Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews.

“You couldn’t ask for a better day to connect with Farm Aid, because so much of the organization’s work centers on food,” Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson said. “I’ll be eating something organic on Thanksgiving and giving thanks for Farm Aid’s opportunity to educate Americans about the benefits of buying safe food from local family farmers.”

The show is produced by Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW-TV. At the press conference announcing the affiliation, WTTW Executive Vice-President Randy King said, “The marriage of public television and the mission of Farm Aid is a natural fit. Hopefully, this is the start of a long tradition of Farm Aid on Thanksgiving evening on PBS.”

Celebration With a Mission

Farm Aid Director Carolyn Mugar has been with the organization since its inception. “It’s an honor to work with such dedicated musicians who really give a tremendous amount to the organization,” she says. “Besides their time, all the artists also donate the time of their band and their travel expenses. It’s a major commitment.” Over the course of its history the concerts have included performances by many legendary performers, including Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, BB King, Roy Orbison, Steppenwolf, Leon Russell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Beck, Bonnie Raitt, and even the Grateful Dead via satellite.

Farm Aid has always been designed to help keep family farmers on their land, a daunting challenge in a country where five million farmers have left the profession in the last century and an astonishing 330 farm operators leave their land every week.

The numbers reflect the impact of post­World War II agricultural policies that have encouraged the growth of corporate factory farms at the expense of small family farmers.

“Farm policy is dominated by big corporations and all the federal laws in recent years have been structured to their benefit. The government hasn’t done anything for small farmers except push them off their land,” says Nelson. “As a result, we have had an ongoing farm crisis that has destroyed rural communities across the country. It’s a domino effect — when the farms go out of business so do the local businesses that were supporting them.”

Farm Aid has developed a mix of programs and grant-making to provide solutions and support in this extended farm crisis. They include educational initiatives to encourage the public to buy from family farmers, grants to groups that are working to change public policy in order to offer more support to family farmers rather than agribusiness, and direct support services for struggling communities and farmers. “One of the best tools we use at Farm Aid is a national hotline to assist people in need,” says associate director Glenda Yoder. “Our counselors assist farmers to get food and emergency aid, legal assistance, and credit counseling.”

On the policy side, the organization supports a wide range of local and national groups. One grantee, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, is building markets and providing services to African-American family farmers who have faced dramatic obstacles to success. Since the 1920s 95 percent of black farmers have left their land, spurring former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to admit that the USDA engaged in racist policies that contributed to this sad legacy.

Farm Aid was inspired by the successful 1985 Live Aid concert that raised millions to alleviate famine in Ethiopia. Willie Nelson decided that America’s small farmers deserved a similar benefit. Within a few months former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson donated the University of Illinois stadium for a concert, and Nelson teamed up with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to launch Farm Aid in front of 80,000 people.

In 2001, longtime Farm Aid performer Dave Matthews joined the board of directors and committed to performing at future concerts. This was a major coup, as Matthews and his band consistently rank at the top of the charts for CD sales and concert attendance. Matthews also meshes well with Farm Aid politically: He regularly speaks out on the environment, media consolidation and most recently, the war on Iraq. In addition, he has been a leader in the movement to promote the use of hemp and organic cotton by using the natural fibers in products sold on tours and on his Web site.

This year’s show in Columbus, Ohio, underwritten by Silk Soymilk, was a powerful celebration of music and activism. The day before the event, Farm Aid helped to publicize the formation of a new coalition of family farm groups, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Network. They held a press conference with the mayor of Columbus to unveil their Local Foods Pledge Campaign to encourage the use of Ohio-grown foods.

According to Mugar, this sort of initiative provides a perfect example of Farm Aid’s most important intangible: hope. “The continuing commitment of artists like Willie Nelson to work tirelessly on behalf of family farmers can give folks faith that they can make it, despite the hard times.”

Peaceful (but not quiet!) Protests

Some of the artists in Columbus relayed stories grounded in their own farm heritage. Sheryl Crow talked about her Midwestern roots. “Three-fourths of my town is made up of farmers,” she said. “I know what it means when the prices are low…and what it means to each small family in my community. As an artist it really propels the spirit when you are involved with something that is larger than yourself.”

Heidi Newfeld of One Trick Pony shared her own compelling story: “My family have been farmers and ranchers for many, many generations. And it hits home especially because we lost our ranch and our farm on the courthouse steps about 10 years ago, to corporate America. I was in Nashville working and I remember getting that phone call and it was one of the worst days of my life. So to be able to be here today with my partners and so many wonderful people for such an incredible cause means the world to us.”

The concert itself provided a platform for music and free speech. Dave Matthews dedicated his song “Too Much” to corporate and industrial farmers. During his set with Crazy Horse, Neil Young wore a blazing red shirt that screamed, “Stop Factory Farms.” He also implored people in the audience to buy their food from local organic growers. His closing song was the finale off his critically acclaimed new CD, Greendale, a “rock novel” that speaks out for community, civil disobedience, and standing up to a government “that’s bought and paid for anyway.” In the magical song “Be the Rain,” Young was joined by a passionate chorus singing “Save the Planet for Another Day.”

For many in the audience, John Mellencamp best captured the significance of the evening when he announced that President Bush had just gone on national television to request billions more for Iraq. He questioned if the money would be better spent in America to support many different needs, including the plight of family farmers. The bold statement inspired a cheering/booing tug-of-war in the audience.

The fun continued when he played a version of Woody Guthrie’s classic song “To Washington.” Mellencamp’s version, which is on his new CD Trouble No More, is a scathing indictment of President Bush, the 2000 election, and the war for oil. In his rendition of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” for “rovin’ gambler” he substituted “Texas gambler tryin’ to start the Third World War.” He finally silenced the boo-birds with smoking renditions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Little Pink Houses.” Those renditions were so hot, in fact, that two people in wheelchairs got up to boogie.

During the last few months, Willie Nelson has seen healthy signs that a new attitude is emerging. “For a while if you spoke out you were labeled a traitor,” he says. “I think the successful tour and strong record sales by the Dixie Chicks after Natalie spoke out against the president was a real turning point. We have the right to play and pick and say any goddamn thing we want to. This is America!”

Jim Slama is the co-founder of Conscious Choice magazine and the president of Sustain.

Farm Aid on PBS: The two-hour “Soundstage” show featuring Farm Aid will appear on Thanksgiving evening, November 27, 2003, on many PBS stations across the country. Please check your local listings for the time.

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