Music and message at Farm Aid

Once again, pop luminaries put the focus on the plight of the family farm

Pop Music

September 12, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Willie Nelson is tired of Farm Aid.

Nor is he the only one. "I think that Neil agrees with me," he says, referring to Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young. "We're sick and tired of Farm Aid. We don't think there should have been the first one, much less that we should have to still be doing it years later."

Unfortunately, he can't quit just yet. Because even after 14 years of fund- and consciousness-raising by some of the biggest names in pop music, American farmers are still struggling. So Nelson and Young are gearing up for Farm Aid 15, which takes place today at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va.

Inspired by an offhand remark Bob Dylan made at a benefit for African famine victims, Live Aid -- "Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?" -- Farm Aid began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Ill. In addition to Farm Aid founders Nelson, Young and John Mellencamp, that first show included performances by such acts as Johnny Cash, Van Halen and the then up-and-coming Bon Jovi.

Since then, the organization has put on one show a year at various locations around the country. At this point, Farm Aid concerts generate about half the program's annual budget (the rest comes from donations), and over the last 14 years, Farm Aid has granted $14.5 million to farm organizations, churches and service agencies in 44 states.

Nelson knows that Farm Aid is little more than a Band-Aid when it comes to dealing with a problem as enormous as the farm crisis. "We knew that we couldn't raise the billions of dollars that it would take to bail out the farmers," he says. "The reason for Farm Aid was to raise the awareness of the world, and the American people especially, about what's going on in the farmland, and how it affects them."

That's not to say Farm Aid doesn't try to send money where and when it's needed. Recently, the group made a grant to the Virginia Council of Churches to offer assistance to drought-stricken farmers in that state.

"We always work through organizations," says Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar, during the Farm Aid teleconference. "We don't give money to farmers for the farm operations per se -- we're not allowed to by the IRS -- but we give money to farmers in every other way [so] that we can help them stay on the land."

Although most people associate farm life with country music, Farm Aid has always had a wider stylistic range. This year's lineup is no different. In addition to Nelson, Young and Mellencamp, the bill boasts jazz rockers the Dave Matthews Band, wry alt-rockers Barenaked Ladies, country divas Deana Carter and Trisha Yearwood, rootsy songwriter Steve Earle, grunge rockers the Supersuckers, and retro bluesman Keb' Mo'.

For Nelson, the issues are as obvious as the food on his plate. "I see the changes in the restaurant where I go to eat," he says. "Where I used to get good tomatoes, where I used to get good vegetables, I get different things now. It doesn't taste like a vegetable anymore."

Nelson blames the blandness of most produce on production methods that use chemical fertilizers and genetic manipulation to eke the most out of every acre of farmland. "We're trying to get more and more out of an acre than that acre is designed for," he says.

"And the reason that's happening is that agribusiness is in control of it," adds Young. "They're making the rules."

"Agribusiness" -- the intertwined network of food producers and massive, corporate-managed company farms -- is Farm Aid's Public Enemy No. 1. "They're the ones with the power," says Young. "They make the rules, and they keep the prices down so that when they do their processing to make raw product into a process product, like [wheat into] Wheaties, they take the cut right there. The [family] farmer gets a very small amount."

As Young and Nelson see it, the only solution is for family farmers to lobby Congress to revise the current Freedom to Farm Act. That's why this year's Farm Aid is being held just outside the nation's capital, in suburban Virginia.

"We have a farm bill in this country now that is, basically, killing the family farm," says Young. "We've got farmers going to Washington right after the Farm Aid concert. They'll be going there Monday, trying to introduce new ideas -- or old ideas, as they may be -- to legislators, trying to make some changes in the farm bill."

The two know that this won't be a quick or easy fight. But even though Farm Aid has gone on a lot longer than either ever dreamed would be necessary, they're not about to give up now.

"Farm Aid is going to be around for these people," says Young, "and we're going to represent them the best we can."

Farm Aid '99

What: Farm Aid '99, featuring Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews Band, Trisha Yearwood, Barenaked Ladies, Deana Carter, Sawyer Brown, Steve Earle, Susan Tedeschi, Supersuckers, Larry Gatlin, Keb' Mo', Mandy Barnett and Bare Jr.

When: Today, 2 p.m.

Where: Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge, Bristow, Va.

Television: Live on CMT, starting at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $42.50 and $27.50

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 703-754-6400 for information

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