Musicians have long served as messengers for change. Rockers of the 1960s urged ending the war and racism, and they championed environmentalism and women’s rights. Today in the United States, politics and music often find themselves intertwined, from presidential candidates branding their campaigns with theme songs, to musicians declaring their political views or presidential preference during a show.
Stadiums are packed with concert-goers on any given weekend, and their ears are open to hear not only songs, but messages coming from the stage. With a microphone and a guitar comes great power.
Legendary musicians Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp started the benefit concert Farm Aid in 1985, with one mission: to keep America’s family farmers on their land. The trio wanted to serve the good food movement the best way they knew how: by creating awareness that there even needed to be a movement. In its 27 years of music, the concert has attracted audiences of over 25,000 annually, and it has procured over $40 million in funds to aid its cause.
Ben Wenk is a seventh generation farmer, growing alongside his father and uncle in the apple-region of Adams County in Central Pennsylvania. He says: “There was a time when the phrase ‘family farm’ wasn’t in our lexicon. In my grandfather’s generation, a family farm was every farm in America. Farm Aid is eager to preserve the family farms that remain and support those who would like to start one.”
According to the 2007 US Census of Agriculture, less than one percent of Americans claim farming as an occupation (about 960,000 persons). In the 1920s, Wenk’s grandfather’s era, 27 percent of Americans were farmers.
In a video interview on the Farm Aid website, Dave Matthews, who joined the Farm Aid board in 2001, says: “If we lose the family farm, we lose the caretakers of the land.”
By definition, a family farm is one where the owners and operators come from the same family. Outputs of a family farm can range from cheese to beef to vegetables. Today, in the US a family farm comes in a few different packages.
As is the case with the Wenks, farming was once a livelihood passed down through generations. Yet today, you can also see young families undertaking the huge responsibility of running a farm as the first in their lineage to do so. College farms are too becoming more commonplace, with a dozen students (family-like) stocking their cafeteria with food for the whole student body to eat; good examples are pioneer Yale University in Connecticut and Dickinson College, Pennsylvania.
Yet how are farmers supposed to feed eaters like you and me what we want – food that is grown close, grown clean, and tastes great – without support? Farm Aid wants to connect farmers with training on sustainable growing methods and accessible markets, as well as help them to receive a fair price for their goods and protection from the damage of natural disasters.
With the funds raised through the annual concert, donations and membership, Farm Aid maintains a system of strong resources, like the Farmers Resource Network database and the 1-800-FARM-AID call line.
Those who don’t farm can also benefit from Farm Aid’s resources by accessing recipes and food preservation techniques on HOMEGROWN.org, as well as making their voice heard on issues like the 2012 US Farm Bill and labelling GM foods in America in Farm Aid’s Action Center.
All of these resources wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the bread and butter benefit concert. When Willie Nelson sings, when Jack Johnson strums and when Jason Mraz talks, apparently, we listen.
Jennifer Baugher Snavely, whose family owns Adams County Nursery and who attended the Farm Aid concert in Hershey, Pennsylvania this September says: “Music is a powerful thing; it brings people together and it moves them. Farm Aid has been so successful because they have done a good job at staying true to their mission over the years. They involve artists that care and really get it, and they bring in the local farmers they’re supporting to engage (and feed!) the concert-goers.”
But are these efforts enough to save America’s family farms? Some camps will argue that, yes, voting with our forks is the most important thing we can do. Others see it as a soft political move, incapable of affecting the policy that needs to be in place to keep good farmers in business. The good food movement, as it stands, is running parallel to big agriculture, not overturning it.
Yet the good food movement is young, and organizations like Farm Aid are stimulating the demand for farmers to keep producing great food and helping them to deliver it to their own adoring fans. It’s this building of motivation and resources over time as well as the creation of real communities – kinds that talk to each other and even sing together – that have longevity.
But how long can the good food movement last? Willie Nelson says: “As long as there are a few farmers out there, we’ll keep fighting for them.”
For more information about Farm Aid, visit www.farmaid.org. US Farmers can visit the Farm Aid Resource Network to be connected with organisations providing services, tools and opportunities for family farm profitability and sustainability, as well as immediate support. Or, they are invited to call 1-800-FARM-AID.
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