For the past 32 years, Willie Nelson, along with Neil Young, John Mellencamp and now Dave Matthews have gathered with other musicians to throw a concert to raise money for family farms. It’s called Farm Aid. The artists come on their own dime, and raise millions of dollars for farmers.
Farm Aid began in 1985 when U.S. farms were in the worst financial crisis since the Depression, and family farms were being auctioned off in large numbers. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan were among those playing the Live Aid concert that year.
“Bob Dylan said, ‘We should be doing something for American farmers. Willie heard it, picked it up, said, ‘Yea we should.’ And he did,” explains Carolyn Mugar, the executive director of Farm Aid.
Mugar says Willie invited his musician friends to get together for a show, and they threw the first Farm Aid together in just a few weeks. These days, it’s a much bigger production that takes months of planning and it’s not just music. Last weekend, The Allegheny Front moderated some of the discussions that took place throughout the day around farming issues.
LISTEN: “Local Farmers Take the Stage at Farm Aid 2017”
One well-known farmer in the region who was in the spotlight at Farm Aid was Don Kretchman. He got a lot of applause on stage for choosing to become an organic farmer decades ago, instead of a physicist.
“I love being a farmer. I’ll never be ashamed about what I’ve done,” he says.
Neil Young applauded that sentiment saying, “America is already great. We don’t need to apologize. We don’t need to feel bad. If you watch TV, you’re going to feel bad because all they they talk about is what’s wrong with this, what’s wrong with that. And how they can defeat it, how they can kill. That’s not what farming is about. Farming is about real people working together.”
Farm Aid organizers say one of the reasons they enjoy holding the show in this region is that not only are there many rural farms, there are also a good number of urban growers.
Ayanna Jones, who leads the Sankofa Village Community Garden in Pittsburgh, was featured in a special video at Farm Aid.
“We’re in a community where there isn’t a grocery store. What, black people don’t eat? We need to take responsibility, doing for ourselves,” she says.
WATCH: “Pennsylvania Urban Farmers: Growing Resiliency”
The Avett Brothers sat on a panel that The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant hosted about farm innovators. They grew up on what their website calls a hobby farm. But Scott Avett says that description isn’t accurate.
“It wasn’t really a pleasurable hobby as much as it was a necessity. . . that if you’re going to think about what you need, in case you have to rely on your own resources, what do you need? Well we would have a cow, some chickens, a variety of vegetables.”
The Avett brothers did not think farming was cool back then. They say they were called to make music. But now they understand why farming can also be a higher calling.
“I always say these farmers are the real rock stars of our country. For young people thinking ‘what am i going to do in my life?’ This road to being something very respectable, it’s there, and it’s really hip.”
WATCH: Pennsylvania Organic Farmers: Growing Sustainability
Ohio farmer Kip Rondy appreciated that message. But he also drove home how tough it can be to make a living running a family farm. He and his wife run Green Edge Organic Gardens. They have figured out a system of high tunnels, so they grow vegetables year round to sell locally. He said they sell a half million dollars in produce each year, and farms like theirs could improve the struggling rural economy. But he said they need stores like Whole foods and Kroger to carry local produce.
“We’re not that small. We’re a game player, and we need you all to say, ‘Doggone it get some local stuff in here. And push them, please push them. Because you’re not only helping yourselves and your families, but you’re helping your entire community. And we can change this that way.”