30 years of Farm Aid

Interviews

Carolyn Mugar, Executive Director, Farm Aid

How did you get involved with Farm Aid?

I started with Farm Aid shortly before the first benefit concert in 1985. Willie Nelson and I had some friends in common and when he was looking for someone to help him distribute the funds that would be raised at the concert, I was lucky to be the one to do that. I came to Farm Aid from a background in organizing, which was a helpful skill for my work with farmers.

How would you describe Farm Aid’s mission?

Willie Nelson started Farm Aid to keep family farmers on the land because he knew that they are essential to the well-being of each and every one of us. Our mission is to keep family farmers on the land and thriving. Farm Aid works to put the family farmer forward as a position of power and importance. We need family farmers! And farmers have even more power when they are united with the people who need them: all of us who eat.

What do you see as Farm Aid’s major accomplishments since its founding?

Farm Aid can claim credit for the growing number of people who care about where their food comes from, who grows it, and how. When Farm Aid started in 1985 it was a humanitarian response to help people in crisis. Today, support for the work to keep family farmers thriving is not just about stopping people from suffering, but to secure a healthy future and planet for all of us.

What do you see as the major changes in the issues confronting farmers over the last 30 years?

Farm Aid started during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, when family farmers were being pushed off their land. Hundreds of thousands of independent family were lost. The next phase we saw was the rise of factory farms in the 1990s. This was enabled by the loss of independent family farmers in the 1980s. Thankfully, in the early 2000s, we began to see a rise in the number of people concerned about their food and who grows it. We call this the Good Food Movement. It has grown enormously in the years since, giving rise to increasing numbers of farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), farm to school programs that bring good food to school cafeterias, and other direct markets. We’re at a very hopeful point, and yet many of the root causes of the Farm Crisis that Farm Aid started to address still exist today.

Rhonda Perry and Roger Allison, Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) and Patchwork Family Farms

How did you get involved with Farm Aid?

Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) has been involved with Farm Aid since the beginning. Both of our organizations will be celebrating our 30th anniversary in 2015. MRCC leaders were part of the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985. And in 1986, MRCC received our first grant from Farm Aid for $10,000. That grant was used to start an emergency food program to help provide good food to low-income farm families. That program has now grown into a food cooperative that helps more than 1,000 rural Missouri families each year access affordable healthy food. In that same year, Farm Aid also stood with Missouri family farmers who were facing illegal farm foreclosures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farm Aid and John Mellencamp came to a small town in North Missouri to highlight this fight for justice. This campaign eventually led to the passage of the 1987 Agriculture Credit Act which forced USDA to provide due process for farmers.

What do you see as Farm Aid’s major accomplishments since its founding?

Farm Aid has always been on the cutting edge of working with farmers, rural communities and organizations like MRCC to address both the short term and long term challenges that we face in rural America. Farm Aid has been very successful at listening to the folks on the ground and helping to expose and highlight the problems they are facing, as well as the solutions that can move us all forward.

A few key accomplishments on which we’ve been able to work with Farm Aid include:

  • Passing agriculture credit policy that enabled thousands of farmers to keep farming and contributing to their local economies and communities;
  • Providing on-going farm financial counseling and hotline programs for farmers;
  • Challenging and exposing the negative environmental, economic and health impacts of corporate industrial livestock production;
  • Promoting local healthy food and significantly contributing to the “Good Food Movement” and on-the-ground community food security efforts;
  • Supporting efforts to bring together like-minded organizations in ways that collaboratively increase their power and capacity to achieve policy wins that are good for farmers and consumers;
  • Using Farm Aid concerts and surrounding events to highlight the work of their partner organizations, promote local food and create real dialogue and learning opportunities for farmers and consumers to learn about food production challenges, solutions and success stories.

What do you see as the major changes in the issues confronting farmers over the last 30 years? In some ways, the issues look very different than they did 30 years ago, and in other ways they are very much the same.

In 1985, we were facing farm foreclosures; farmers being systematically forced off their land by banks, USDA, and insurance companies; rural families in the heartland who could not afford to buy food for their families; and a sense of hopelessness for rural communities.

Today, many of the challenges faced by farm and rural families are related to the corporatization and industrialization of agriculture. From lack of competitive markets, to pollution from factory farms, to economic decline in our rural towns, to food safety and security issues—concentration of agriculture and our food system presents very real challenges. And we will be addressing these issues far into the future.

But Farm Aid and groups like MRCC are providing hope—and real solutions to meet some of these problems. By building our power to more effectively have a voice in policy debates, by demonstrating economically viable alternatives to the corporate system, and by engaging thousands of consumers in the fight for good food that is accessible to all—we are, together, building a future for family farm agriculture.

How did you get involved in “alternative” agricultural practices?

In 1993, when the first corporate hog factory farm came to Missouri, MRCC members saw the writing on the wall in terms of what that would mean for the future of independent hog farmers in our state. So, we started an economic development project, called Patchwork Family Farms. Patchwork is a cooperative production and marketing effort of MRCC hog producer members that raise hogs using sustainable growing standards, and get paid a premium price for the great care they take with their hog production. Patchwork has not only been a critical way for producers to stay in the hog business, but also a great opportunity to demonstrate the economic viability of raising pork to meet consumer demand for non-factory farm meat.

Farm Aid was an early supporter of our commitment to independent family farm pork production with standards. And in 1998, Farm Aid began featuring local and family farm raised products at the annual concert. Patchwork was one of the first vendors to sell family farm food at the concert that year—and we’ve been selling great pork at every Farm Aid concert since. We bring 25 volunteers (farmers, chefs and supporters) who help us sell thousands of pounds of pork chops and brats (sausages). Farm Aid has made the concerts more than just a music experience, or a fundraising experience (although those are important), they’ve also made them an opportunity for consumers to use their own wallets to determine what the agriculture and the food system will look like in the future. Congratulations to Farm Aid for leading the charge in this arena.

David Senter, farm historian and former family farmer

How did you get involved with Farm Aid?

I am originally from Burleson, Texas, where I grew up on a fourth-generation family farm. In the late 1970s I was one of the founders of the American Agriculture Movement, Inc. (AAM). AAM was a group of family farmers who protested agricultural policy and the demise of small family farms across the country. AAM organized the historic 1979 tractorcade to Washington, D.C., which brought thousands of tractors and tens of thousands of farmers to the nation’s capital.

Beginning in the early 1980s, a major farm crisis was developing which led to devastating farm foreclosures and suicides throughout rural America. In trying to stave off the crisis occurring, AAM attempted to stop these sales through ‘penny auctions’ (where farmers and neighbors would put small bids in on equipment being auctioned and then return the items to the farm family) as well as staging protests across the heartland to educate the American public of the tragedies unfolding across our farms.

In August of 1985, I received a call from Willie Nelson. He asked what I was hearing from around the country, he said he understood how bad the situation was since he saw it every day as he traveled the country roads. Willie asked if I would come to a meeting in St. Louis to discuss having a benefit concert for farmers. I told him I thought it was a great idea and would be glad to help in any way possible. He asked me to contact other leading farm activists I knew and invite them too. The following week, farm activists from across the country came together for a discussion with Willie and Neil Young. Their idea was to have a concert in Illinois to help raise money to assist farmers and increase awareness of the farm crisis in Rural America and it would be called Farm Aid.

Within a month, the first Farm Aid Concert was held in Champaign, Ill., where a 12 hour concert with over 50 acts raised millions of dollars. The support and press coverage was unbelievable. We received letters and calls from farmers that said, “I thought I was alone, now I know others care about what is happening on our farms.”

How would you describe Farm Aid’s mission?

Farm Aid’s mission has always been to focus on supporting local family farm agriculture. In the early days the primary goal was to deal with the crisis for farm families. We quickly learned of the glaring disparities in support networks—in our cities, there are food pantries, counseling services and emergency help for families in trouble, but in our small towns and rural communities those services were virtually non-existent.

Farm Aid worked with churches and other organizations to set up food pantries for rural families that could not feed themselves. When farmers lost their farms they also lost their homes—families were torn apart and many communities saw a significant increase in farm suicides with little ability to assist those left to grieve. Farm Aid also provided a platform for members of different organizations to come together and work for a common good.

Farm Aid has led the way for Americans to buy local and know where and how their food is produced. Through local markets, people get to know who is producing their food and how it’s grown. This is creating new opportunities for young and beginning farmers to enter into agriculture as well as veterans returning from protecting our nation.

How do you see the future for farmers and agriculture in the United States, both the problems and promise?

Farm Aid has always maintained that food production decisions should not be made in corporate boardrooms focused on maximizing profits; it is about protecting the soil and water and producing a safe healthy food for consumers. America’s family farmers are now on the beginning edges of a new farm crisis because of higher input costs and lower commodity prices. We may see another further consolidation of our production into fewer and fewer hands. The result will be small farmers where many have to work off-farm jobs to survive, and a proliferation of large corporate farms with 10 to 50 thousand or more acres under their management.

Farm Aid’s outreach to our children and grandchildren is very important to make sure they understand the importance of the family farmer and locally produced food. Corporate agriculture, through political contributions, has an increased ability to get what they want and need from Congress. However, the consumers control what food they buy and have the final say in the marketplace. That’s where Farm Aid’s work is so important reaching eaters, giving the ultimate end-user, each one of us who eats, the necessary information so many are desperate to get.

I’m honored to have been working with Farm Aid for 30 years and having never missed a concert, and am excited about this year’s 30th anniversary and the amazing work the Farm Aid team will accomplish in the next 30 years.