Farm Aid is an advocacy group that, since the mid-1980s, has called attention to the plight of the American family farm through a series of high-profile live concerts that feature many of the music industry's leading performers. Led by its president, country-music star Willie Nelson, and based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Farm Aid was created in response to a comment by Bob Dylan at the 1985 Live Aid for Africa Concert: "Wouldn't it be great if we did something like this for our own farmers right here in America?" At the time, poor markets and high operating costs were driving an estimated 500 family farmers out of business every week. Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp responded immediately, and six weeks later the first Farm Aid concert, in Champaign, Illinois, attracted some 80,000 fans and raised over $7 million for the cause. Farm Aid II (1986) took place in Austin, Texas, and Farm Aid III (1987) in Lincoln, Nebraska. Participating artists have included performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Steppenwolf, Hootie and the Blowfish, Wilco, Loretta Lynn, the Beach Boys, Steve Earle, Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, Ringo Starr, Martina McBride, and Phish. Over the years, Farm Aid has raised $14 million and evolved into a two-part organization, one that produces the fund-raising concerts and another that administers support programs for family farmers and lobbies for political change. Farm Aid has also provided a forum for some exciting musical collaborations, such as Bob Dylan's work with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which led to a substantial tour.
Farm Aid began to affect U.S. farm policy in 1987 when Nelson, Mellencamp, and a group of family farmers were called to testify before Congress, which later passed the Agricultural Credit Act. This act mandated that the Farmer's Home Administration could not foreclose on a family farmer unless the organization would make more money through foreclosure than it would by investing in the farm to make it profitable. Farm Aid saw this as a significant step forward.
In 1989, Nelson took Farm Aid on the road with 16 of his own shows, asserting that "The fight to save family farms isn't just about farmers. It's about making sure that there is a safe and healthy food supply for all of us. It's about jobs, from Main Street to Wall Street. It's about a better America." In 1991, Farm Aid focused on dairy farmers who had experienced a sharp drop in prices and teamed with ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's. In 1993, Farm Aid raised money to aid farmers affected by the Mississippi River floods which destroyed 8 million acres of crops and damaged 20 million more. In 1994, Willie Nelson, on behalf of Farm Aid, successfully urged President Bill Clinton to pardon Nebraska farmer Ernest Krikava, who had been imprisoned for illegally selling hogs during a bankruptcy proceeding to feed his desperate and starving family. Farm Aid has also continued to emphasize the environmental responsibility of family farmers who, according to the organization, are more conscientious about land, water, and food purity.
Farm Aid's mega-concerts during the 1990s were produced in Indianapolis (1990), Dallas (1992), Ames, Iowa (1993), New Orleans (1994), Louisville (1995), and Columbia, South Carolina (1996). Even though the 1997 Farm Aid concert in Dallas was unsuccessful due to poor ticket sales, it rebounded with its 1998 concert in Chicago. According to its own literature, since 1985, Farm Aid has "granted over $14 million to 100 farm organizations, churches, and service agencies in 44 states. Nearly half of those grants are used for direct services such as food, emergency aid, legal assistance, and hotlines." Other funds are "distributed as 'Program Grants' to promote out-reach, education, and the development of long-term solutions."
—S. Renee Dechert
"Country." http://www.country.com/tnn/farm-aid/farm-aid-content.html. March 1999.
"Farm Aid." http://www.farmaid.org. March 1999.