How Willie Nelson Helped Build Farm Aid

In the mid-1980s, American farmers faced economic difficulties unknown since the Great Depression. The droughts of 1980 and 1983 wreaked havoc on the corn belt, the Midwestern states and the northeast. Land values ​​and commodity prices have plummeted as interest rates on loans have skyrocketed, unfair lending practices have flourished, and millions of people have been forced to leave their lands, going bankrupt and foreclosure. According to a study done at the time by the National Farm Medicine Center, suicides among male farmers in the Upper Midwest were double the national average.

Willie Nelson, a country artist who grew up in rural Texas during the Great Depression, felt that something had to be done. Building on an idea from another musical artist, Bob Dylan, Nelson began working on a plan that would feature something he knew better than anything else – music.

Live Aid inspires Farm Aid

It was the live aid delivery from 1985 that initially sparked the idea of ​​hosting Farm Aid’s first concert. Dylan suggested doing something similar to help American farmers during their performance at the JFK stadium in Philadelphia during Live Aid. The spontaneous remark settled into Nelsons’ brain and became what would become Farm Aid.

Unlike the one-off rally in response to the famine in Africa, the Farm Aid rally, which aimed to “raise awareness of the loss of family farms and raise funds to keep families on their land,” started what would become an event. annual spanning four decades and raising $ 57 million.

With the help of musical artists Neil Young and John Mellencamp, as well as Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, Nelson set out to organize what would be the first Farm Aid benefit concert to be held on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois . Then the largest combined rock and country event in American history, it drew a crowd of nearly 80,000 and presented performances by Dylan, Young, Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, BB King, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, June Carter and Johnny Cash, among others. The first event raised $ 7 million.

Willie Nelson, 1975

Willie Nelson, in 1975.

Photo courtesy of Sony Legacy Recordings

The plight of American farmers was now at the center of the scene, with Young going as far as placing a full-page ad in USA today October 4 with an open letter to President Ronald Reagan asking, “Is the family farm in America going to die because of your administration?” Its purpose was not only to raise awareness, but also to help solve the problems by advocating for a change in agricultural laws from Washington, D.C.

But for Nelson, more action and activism was still desperately needed. “It didn’t stop there,” wrote the singer of “Georgia on My Mind” in his 2015 autobiography. It’s a long story: my life. “The plight of the little farmer was something I could not ignore. The more I read, the more motivated I became to publicize their plight.”

The hardships endured by American farmers deeply affected Nelson, who grew up in rural Texas. Raised by his paternal grandparents, he helped raise pigs, grow vegetables and pick cotton, and was a very young member of the Future Farmers of America, an organization which at the time had a solid support in rural areas.

Congress adopts agricultural credit law

Nelson and Young had personally appealed to Congress three days before the first Farm Aid concert. But it was in 1987 that a massive campaign to reform the agricultural credit law led Congress to pass the agricultural credit law, saving thousands of family farms from foreclosure.

Along with the farmers, Nelson testified before Congress, saying, “If we abandon the farmer, we are abandoning the core values ​​that made America great.” In support of the new legislation, Nelson sent letters to nearly 90,000 family farm borrowers explaining where to find financial and legal advice.

This political activism continued alongside the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the United States continued to decrease, from 8.6 million in 1935 to 2.04 million in 2017. Although small farms (less than $ 350,000 in gross farm cash income, GCFI) account for 90% of all U.S. farms, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, large family farms ($ 1 million or more in GCFI) accounted for only 3% of farms, but 46 % of the value of total production.

In 2019, Farm Aid distributed more than $ 1 million, including grants to farming families and 95 family farms, rural service and urban agriculture organizations, and scholarships for students who study agriculture.

“I am not saying that my friends and I alone saved the farmer or put an end to the sufferings of those who seek to live off the land. We didn’t do it, ”wrote Nelson in 2015.“ In this postmodern world of corporate greed and government indifference, the family farm continues to struggle. But the struggle is noble. ”

Faced with unexpected consequences due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Nelson set up a virtual concert to raise funds and spirits for American farmers. The April 11 “Home with Farm Help” benefit included performances by Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews and raised more than $ 500,000 to help family farmers affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Check out Willie Nelson’s latest album, “First Rose of Spring” from our sponsor, Legacy Recordings.

Willie Nelson, first rose of spring

Photo courtesy of Sony Legacy Recordings

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