Farm Aid Celebrates 30 Years of Giving Farmers a Voice

From by Michelle Smolarski
Farm Aid Celebrates 30 Years of Giving Farmers a Voice

Started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp as a benefit concert in 1985, Farm Aid is celebrating its 30th anniversary this September 19th at Chicago’s FirstMerit Bank Pavilion. More than crowd-pleasing music, this concert spurred on a foundation that continues to give a voice to farmers across the country. Food Tank had the pleasure of hearing from Jennifer Fahy, the communications director at Farm Aid.

Food Tank (FT): Farm Aid is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Can you share with us a little bit more about its original inception? What was the inspiration or driving force for starting this nonprofit?

Jennifer Fahy (JF): When Farm Aid was founded in 1985, it was a human response to a human crisis. Hundreds of thousands of farm families were being forced from their land and these artists stood up to say, “We’ve got to stop this.” They used the tools they had—their voices, their music, their friends—to bring people together and raise money and awareness about the challenges family farmers face. These artists—Farm Aid’s three founders and Dave Matthews, who joined the effort in 2001—are a driving force of Farm Aid. The other driving force is the essential need we all have for family farmers to be on the land, growing good food.

(FT): Can you talk to us about some of the biggest projects or ways you have raised US$48 million over the past 30 years to support programs that help American family farmers?

(JF): Since day one, Farm Aid has operated a hotline for family farmers. In those early years, we connected farmers in crisis with farm organizations and farm advocates in the countryside who could provide financial counseling, legal advice, and mental health counseling. Today the largest percentage of our calls come from people interested in becoming farmers. They seek financing and business planning tools to help them get started.

After the first Farm Aid concert, Farm Aid joined with other farmer organizations to fight for the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which put a moratorium on farm foreclosures and required banks to restructure farm loans. This legislation saved untold numbers of farms and created rules to govern farm loans.

In the 1990s, we began to see an increase in the industrialization of agriculture, and rural communities were inundated with confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These factory farms drove down the price of meat for independent livestock producers and eroded the quality of life of their rural neighbors. Farm Aid was instrumental in helping family farmers and rural residents organize, in many cases, to shut down these factory farms.

In the 2000s we began to see a growing interest in people caring about how their food is produced. Farm Aid works to cultivate a greater understanding that we need to care not just about our food, but also about the people producing that food. Farm Aid supports and strengthens grassroots power and the essential connection between farmers and eaters.

Farm Aid’s Grant Program has granted nearly US$22 million to 288 farm and rural organizations since 1985. The grants connect family farmers, eaters and communities with the resources and information they need to support a family farm food system.

(FT): Running a consistently successful farm isn’t an easy feat. What are the biggest issues challenging farmers today?

(JF): The average age of family farmers in the U.S. is 58, and many farmers are getting ready for retirement. But selling their farmland could put that land at risk for development. At the same time, we have a new generation of young people who want to farm, many of whom do not come from farm backgrounds. But they face hurdles in affording farmland. Luckily great organizations are working on these issues: from Land Link programs that connect landowners and land seekers, to the National Young Farmers Coalition’s legislation to forgive student loan debt for those college graduates who serve our nation by becoming farmers.

(FT): What are the best ways we can see the impact of Farm Aid’s work today?

(JF): When Farm Aid started in 1985, there was not an alternative farm and food movement to point to. The Good Food Movement (that has given rise to an increase in farmers markets, CSAs, food hubs and farm to school programs) is an outgrowth of the work of Farm Aid since 1985. Every year at the Farm Aid concert, we see this movement grow larger and stronger.

(FT): Can you talk to us about the lessons learned or changes in farmers’ and consumers’ needs over the years that the nonprofit has existed?

Many of the root causes of the Farm Crisis remain as challenges for farmers: access to land and credit, earning a fair price, corporate power in our food system. At the same time, eaters are more concerned about food issues than ever before. Great promise lies in bringing these movements—farmer and eater—together, so that we all ask the deeper questions about corporate power, farmer livelihoods, and the impact food production has on our planet. When we accomplish this we’ll truly have a Farm and Food Movement that can shift the power back to the people.

(FT): What does the future look like for the American farmer? How can Farm Aid innovate or evolve to better serve their communities and engage supporters?

(JF): An interviewer asked Willie Nelson recently, “What does the future look like for Farm Aid.” Willie, in his way of just boiling it down to a simple truth, said, “We’ll be here. We have work to do.” That’s true for farmers too… we can’t have a Good Food Movement without family farmers. Study after study points to local, democratic, sustainable food systems as the answer. Farm Aid will evolve as we have over the last 30 years, as we hear from farmers what’s needed. We’ll keep our ear to the ground; continue the grassroots work to strengthen a family farm agriculture that pushes back against corporate power, and use our stage to amplify the voices of family farmers.

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