When most people hear the names Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp, small family farming may not the first thing that comes to mind. But for the past 28 years, these three musicians have been supporting family farms through the non-profit organization Farm Aid. In 2001, the founders were joined by another music industry icon: Dave Matthews. Under their leadership, Farm Aid raises funds to support small family farms growing sustainable, organic food throughout the country.
The ultimate goal of Farm Aid is to keep family farmers on the land, according to co-founder Willy Nelson. “We’ve been losing [small farmers] by the millions for several years, and the small family farmer should stay on the land and take care of it because they know how to take care of the land. We need to keep the small family farmer on the land for us, for our food supply.”
Farm Aid’s flagship initiative is the annual Farm Aid concert series that the “Big Four” – Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews – headline each year. It is the longest running benefit concert series in the United States and has raised over US$43 million in funding to support local family farms. The concert—which was held this year in Saratoga Springs, New York in September—is also a venue for local family farmers to sell their produce and for concertgoers to learn about the importance and work of small-scale sustainable farms.
In addition to the annual concert, Farm Aid operates a grant program that distributes support funds to family farms and rural service organizations. According to Farm Aid, the grant program awarded US$527,800 “to 66 family farm organizations in 38 states and the District of Columbia” in 2012. The organization has also established the Farmer Resource Network, a community of over 500 family farm organizations that “support farmers seeking to make transitions to more sustainable and profitable farming practices, and also provide immediate and effective support to farm families in crisis.”
Outside of the Farmer Resource Network, Farm Aid provides family farmers with resources for transitioning to or maintaining already-established organic, sustainable practices on their farms, including guides on organic certification. The organization also operates help hotlines that provide farmers with support, referrals, and assistance. HOMEGROWN is Farm Aid’s online campaign: it is a web forum for farmers and eaters to discuss and share experiences, recipes, techniques and information about small sustainable agriculture. HOMEGROWN also partnered with local family farms to offer all local, family farm-sourced produce at concession stands that served the more than 25,000 concertgoers at this year’s Farm Aid concert.
Farm Aid also works through its star power and public appeal to keep family farming and small-scale sustainable agriculture popular topics among the American public. “We just have to keep focused and we have to keep talking about it, and people have to keep eating good food,” says co-founder Neil Young of family farms in the United States. “It’s not about how big it is; it’s not about how shiny it is; it’s not about how long it lasts. It’s about where it came from and how it was grown.”