“We need transparency and land owner’s involvement, as they’re the ones mostly affected,” says Jennifer Fahy, communications director for the nonprofit organization Farm Aid.
Fahy is speaking on behalf of independent family farmers working under contract with corporate industry players. In the United States, 2.2. million farms take up land according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, with 45 percent of the farmers claiming farming as their main occupation. That means 55 percent hold secondary jobs or farm while “retired.” Why? Because wages for farmers aren’t really moving up, despite rising food costs. Plus, many have been stuck in industry contracts for decades now.
“I have gotten to know the farmers—one in particular who is under contract with a corporation for poultry-raising,” Fahy explains. “The system of the industry contract puts them in constant debt. The farmers make no decisions: They’re delivered birds, told what to feed them, when they’ll be picked up, and what they’ll get paid for them. They can’t share contract info—not even with their family—and they can’t break it. Farmers get in so much debt because they take out loans to build poultry houses up to $250,000 each. Contracts won’t even be considered if farmers don’t have proper equipment and at least four poultry houses.”
Worse: Contracts can be canceled by the corporation at any time but never by the farmer. The farmer Fahy speaks of was two years away from his 1992 contract expiring, one for which he had recently paid off his loans. Yet, the corporation to which he was tied, without notice, told him he needed to upgrade his houses for a hefty sum—and they wouldn’t buy poultry from him until those updates were made. So, the farmer had to go back to the bank to take out more loans because he wasn’t making enough money to pull out of pocket.
“Most people don’t know about the ins and outs of the farmer’s story when they go to the grocery store and buy chicken,” Fahy says. “Farmers are kept in a constant cycle of debt.”
Farm Aid has been working since 1985 to help family farmers gain greater knowledge, network, receive help via grants, and continuously take pride in a job that’s losing its way in modern society. It all began when its founding member, Willie Nelson, toured 250 days a year some 29 years ago (today, at 81, he tours 150). He talked to people day and night in diners and truck stops, all of whom spoke about losing their businesses and homes because of debt from a family farm. Combined with hearing Bob Dylan make a comment during Live Aid about American farmers being endangered of losing their land from mortgage debt, Nelson began thumbing through his rolodex. He asked friends and musicians who shared his concerns to help with the first Farm Aid in Illinois. Among the players were John Mellencamp and Neil Young, as well as 59 other artists. During the first year, they raised $9 million, which equaled to around $11 per farmer in the U.S. Since the IRS doesn’t allow nonprofits to dole out money to for-profit businesses, Farm Aid set up a larger network, building a hotline for farmers, offering farming resources, and creating the largest U.S. database to help farmers with financial, legal or technical needs in their areas.
After the first concert, Mellencamp and Nelson went to Washington to support family farmers who testified in front of a Senate committee about mortgage debt. It resulted in the passing of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 which helped save farmers from foreclosure by restructuring their loans. Today, Farm Aid continues its mission by providing grants and resources, and spreading awareness and fundraising, especially through the 28 concerts they’ve held annually (except 1988 and 1991). Cumulatively, Farm Aid has raised $45 million to date, and each year the artists invited to play pay their own expenses and donate their performances. The mega show has welcomed legends like Lou Reed, Arlo Guthrie, Johnnie Cash, Elton John, Paul Simon, Beck, and the Dave Matthews Band. In 2001, Matthews even joined the board of directors with Mellencamp, Young and Nelson.
For the first time in its history, Farm Aid will land in Raleigh, NC, at Walnut Creek Amphitheater on September 13th. The show will feature performances by Jack White, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jamey Johnson, Delta Rae, Carlene Carter, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, and Insects vs Robots.
“We have long wanted to be in NC because of relationships with our partners and a number of farms,” Fahy says. Farm Aid works with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) in Pittsboro, NC, as well as Carrboro’s Carolina Farm Stewardship Alliance, and Land Loss Prevention Project in Durham. (A short trip down the road at Duke University, Mellencamp’s son, Hud, also plays football.) In 2013, Farm Aid donated $17,500 to RAFI to help with financial counseling and mediation services for farmers, as well as to ensure contract fairness for farmers and ranchers through the Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform. They also donated $500 to support a family farm affected by flooding in North Carolina, and gave $10,000 to the Land Loss Prevention Project to help provide legal services and technical support to farmers and ranchers.
While monies raised annually at the concert are important nationwide, the camaraderie it provides and ongoing awareness it reaches has just as great of an impact. Fahy says farmers look at the event as a vacation, even. Many reconnect and discuss shared experiences and issues.
“We make meeting spaces available and help facilitate them coming together,” Fahy says. “They socialize, network, and interact about what they’re facing in their own states. Some take farm tours, and many greet Neil’s, Willie’s and John’s tour buses as they arrive.”
Farm Aid is as much a festival as a concert. Not only do ticket holders learn about active organizations in their regions and local issues from farmers, but they’re offered indulgences by local farms as part of Farm Aid’s Homegrown Concessions. Every year, the food court of the chosen concert venue is transformed into locally sourced “restaurants.” The 2014 event will feature regional goods, like shrimp ‘n’ grits (with partnership from the American Prawn Cooperative out of Clinton, NC); boiled peanuts; roasted corn; salad from Eastern Carolina Organics (a farmer-owned distribution center which works with 17 or more area farms); Italian ice using local fruits, like elderberry, paw paw, and blackberry; and of course whole-hog barbecue as provided from Adam Grady Farm in Kenansville, NC.
Plus, the event hosts a Youthmarket, wherein teenagers are taught entrepreneurial skills. On event day, they set up a farmers’ market, and learn to source produce; peaches, apples, muscadine grapes, tomatoes, and watermelon will showcase NC crops. The teens also learn how to merchandise, market and sell. “The teenagers from NC will be drawn from youth involved in the Interfaith Food Shuttle and Operation Spring Plant,” Fahy explains.
Neil Young’s annual environmental speech is always a standard at Farm Aid. Just last year it focused on resisting fracking efforts and supporting biofuels. “I am sure he will mention fracking again,” Fahy says, given the timely passing of it along NC shores just this year.
Throughout the day, family farmers also speak. Attendees will hear many of the same burdens as heard 29 years ago in Champaign, Illinois. “Debt and contracting is still a main issue,” Fahy states, “[as are] the challenges of making a living, in part due to corporate concentration and power, accessing credit [instead of credit cards] to get started with land and equipment costs, for young and new farmers.”
Farm Aid 2014
Feat. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Jack White, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jamey Johnson, Delta Rae, Carlene Carter, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Insects vs Robots
Walnut Creek Amphitheater
Saturday, September 13th, noon