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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Farm Aid’s Changing Crusade

The benefit concert celebrates its 25th anniversary in Milwaukee

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Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young founded Farm Aid a quarter century ago in response to a crisis. Organized in just six weeks, the inaugural 1985 Farm Aid benefit concert raised millions of dollars for family farmers who were losing their lands in an epidemic of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Though the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which the Farm Aid organization helped lobby for, provided farmers with additional relief, by the ’90s family farms were still folding at an alarming rate. Farm Aid began to take on a new role, not just supporting farmers but also cautioning the public about the health and environmental dangers of the industrialized agriculture that supplanted the family farms of yore, and challenging government policies that favored big food manufacturers over family farmers.

A decade later, the situation no longer seems quite as bleak for family farmers. As Farm Aid hosts its 25th anniversary concert in Milwaukee at Miller Park on Saturday, Oct. 2, the event’s first time in the city, the organization sees new opportunities for farmers as consumers educate themselves about the origins of their food.

“We’re seeing the beginnings of what we call the ‘Good Food Movement,’” explains Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s communications director. “We’re seeing more people take an interest in the implications of what they eat, and more people are seeking out family-farm food, whether it’s local, organic or humanely raised, so we’re at a hopeful point.”

One of Farm Aid’s new missions is to spread the message that family-farm food is better for our health (because it’s not processed like commercial food), our environment (because it’s more sustainable) and our economy (because money spent on local food stays in the community). As Willie Nelson proclaimed several years ago, “We started out trying to save the family farmer, and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.”

Among those who have recently taken to the “Good Food Movement” is Philadelphia jazz-folk songwriter Amos Lee, who is among the performers at Saturday’s Farm Aid concert.

“I had been feeling the push to better understand where my food has been coming from for a while, but it hadn’t come to the forefront of my thinking until the last two or three years,” Lee says. “There are people who are doing a lot of work and putting the idea out there that it is possible to improve the way we eat. In Philly, especially in the last three years, a lot more people have taken an interest in farming, and there’s a sense that urban farming is going to become big in a lot of cities. I think that this is a really important step, because what’s more important than what we put into our bodies on a daily basis?”

Among the pioneers of the urban farming movement is the Milwaukee organization Growing Power, a longtime partner of Farm Aid and one of several Wisconsin organizations that Farm Aid has funded, along with Family Farm Defenders, Organic Valley and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

Those alliances are part of the reason Farm Aid chose Milwaukee for its 25th anniversary concert, Fahy says. Another deciding factor was the size and convenience of Miller Park, with its retractable roof in case of rain. The stadium allows for a concert capacity of about 34,000, significantly larger than the roughly 21,000-person capacities of the amphitheaters where Farm Aid had held its most recent benefits.

Farm Aid’s 25th anniversary lineup pairs perennial headliners Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Dave Matthews (who also serve on the Farm Aid board of directors) with artists including Jeff Tweedy, Kenny Chesney, Jason Mraz, Norah Jones, Band of Horses, Robert Francis and, in a nod to the hosting city, The BoDeans. The concert’s format allows for plenty of interaction between the performers.

“Willie, John, Neil and Dave tour throughout the year and invite the artists they want to play, so those four guys frequently come on stage and collaborate with the other artists on the bill,” Fahy says. “Willie has recorded this year with Amos Lee and Norah Jones, so I think we might see a collaboration there. We encourage everybody to get to the concert early, because you never know when Willie or Neil will come out and play with someone. It’s really a full day of music.”

Farm Aid tickets are still available, and cost between $39.50 and $97.50. The event begins at noon, and will be broadcast live on DirecTV’s The 101 Network beginning at 5 p.m. It will also stream on www.farmaid.org, where more information about the event is available.