Dirt merchants

Farm Aid crops up in Massachusetts
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  September 16, 2008

COUNTRY FEEDBACK: “We started out to save the family farmer,” said Willie Nelson, “and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.”

In the hegemony of mid-’80s mega-rock-star benefits, Farm Aid stands as the American blue-collar uncle to Live Aid’s international whiz kid. The first one was held in 1985 in Champaign, Illinois, and the franchise has since been personified by its three founders and main headliners: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and a small-town kid from Indiana named John “Cougar” Mellencamp. (Dave Matthews joined the Farm Aid board in 2001.) For those Americans becoming increasingly disillusioned with the real-life burden of Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Mellencamp and Farm Aid consolidated, in ’80s pop culture, a working-class populism that never seemed pandering or patronizing.

Farm Aid’s annual concert has since been wending its way around the country, and it will make its inaugural New England appearance this Saturday at the Comcast Center — with the aforementioned four as well as Nation Beat, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Steve Earle, the Pretenders, and many others. Why Massachusetts? Farm Aid spokesperson Jennifer Fahy: “Willie has always wanted to be sure that we reach out to farmers across the US and to make sure that farmers can come to the shows because, really, we do it all for them.”

What many may not realize is that Farm Aid is a year-round organization that has adapted and grown with the changes in the lives of American farmers. Fahy goes on: “Back when it was started, it was the era of benefit concerts, and the message was easy: ‘These people need our support.’ In the ensuing years, we’ve had to increase the depth and breadth of our project and change what we do to stay in line with the changing opportunities out there for farmers. This has meant embracing direct marketing, farmers’ markets, supporting the transition to organic or sustainable growing methods, etc.”

Whoa, hold on there, organic or sustainable? No question that, in the years since “Rain on the Scarecrow,” America’s perception of its farmers in the popular culture has altered. Fahy: “The message of the event has significantly changed. Initially it really was an urgent humanitarian response to a crisis. Willie and John and Neil thought that they would do the one show and call attention to the issues, and that, you know, the government would step in and take care of it. But things have changed, especially in the last 10 years. Willie came up with great quote that we often use, which is ‘We started out to save the family farmer, and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.’ We started out calling attention to the problems that family farmers were facing, and now we’re calling attention to problems that the entire nation is facing, and we are looking to family farmers to provide solutions to those problems.”

Farm Aid, along with other big rock benefits, ushered in a new era of rock-star earnestness that continues today. But how personally involved is someone like Willie Nelson with the mission of Farm Aid, aside from stepping off a jet and onto a stage with a guitar? Fahy: “Willie meets with farmers across the country while he’s on tour. Just this summer, he was in Iowa and Missouri to meet with and respond to family farmers who were affected by the terrible flooding they experienced. In addition, every grant that Farm Aid makes is approved by Willie, and he personally signs all the grant checks.”

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