The 16th Anniversary Farm Aid benefit was held September 29th at the Verizon Wireless Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana. Farm Aid concerts have been held since 1985 to raise money for America's struggling family farmers. As in past years, the show featured performances by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp; also included this year was a special solo performance by Dave Matthews.
Farm Aid is more than a concert. The music becomes more poignant, the message more important, if you know the stories told beyond the gates. Farmers work together under the stress and financial loss of taking time away from their farms to add to the weekend in ways that most never see.
There is a lot of gray hair in the group. Family farmers, those who have survived, are getting up there in age. Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and long-time supporter Arlo Guthrie are getting pretty gray too. But Willie announced that they have added Dave Matthews to the Farm Aid board -- a good move, for he has the right spirit and is very popular with young people. If today's young adults don't start supporting family farmers with their letters as well as their choices in the marketplace, there won't be any young farmers for Farm Aid to help.
At the media tent, the stars as well as family farmers tell their stories. It is no celebration. It can, if you stay there to listen, bring tears to your eyes. You can't listen without realizing how many hats these farmers wear. Most are active members of their communities and farm organizations: presidents, board members and volunteers. Some have off-farm jobs, necessary to keep the farm from bankruptcy. Many have diversified, become entrepreneurs, expanded beyond what grandpa's farm looked like in order to offset base crop market prices that are lower than they have been since grandpa sold his corn or soybeans.
At the beginning of the 21st century, most family farmers are past "retirement" age. They are in debt, and their futures are uncertain. They do not have the benefits that other jobs offer. Retirement is not an option without a younger generation to take over. But they are there because they still have faith, and because for them this is a vocation that has been in their family's blood for as long as they remember.
We need to think of these folks and their contribution when we purchase our food. Until the minds of the largest segment of agriculture -- consumers -- are changed, there is little hope. National farm policy will not change the way people choose what they eat. This can be done only through greater consumer awareness.
Farmer activists have been saying for years, "If only there was a label that told you a product was grown by U.S. family farmers. Then people would know how to support them." Neil Young, long a supporter of organic food, said, "In a supermarket you see a bunch of food, but you don't know where it came from. Now you can go into a store and buy organic, and it's almost always from a family farmer. We need labeling. We need to know where our food comes from."
The organic label tells us more about the source and method of production than other food labels, but it alone is not enough. International trade, NAFTA, the WTO, corporate agriculture and factory farming have impacted even organic agriculture. Farm gate prices for organic commodities have dropped -- in several cases by 50% since 1994. Some organic farmers are being squeezed out of business by corporate "farms," and organic farmers have reason to be just as concerned about their futures. We do need a label that tells us more. The challenge is to find ways to save what may be one of our most endangered species -- the American family farmer -- to elevate him or her from the downtrodden to a national treasure. That challenge is directly before this publication's readers. Tell your customers, your friends, your families to think about how powerful is each plate of food they eat. From the producer to international policy-makers, the choices on that plate can literally change the world.
For more information on Farm Aid: 1-800-FARM AID or http://www.farmaid.org