Among those listening were fellow headliners Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, who decided Dylan’s idea to help struggling farmers was a pretty good one. A few months later, on Sept. 22, 1985, they combined forces to stage the first Farm Aid concert at the University of Illinois. In addition to Nelson, Young and Mellencamp, performers at the inaugural Farm Aid included Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King and the late Roy Orbison. The event raised more than $9 million.
But the Farm Aid organization that will arrive in Hersheypark Stadium for a concert on Sept. 22 has evolved into much more than just a musical fund-raiser for struggling farmers. While family farms remain a focus, the organization also provides resources on farm issues such as the Good Food movement, answers online questions from farmers and lobbies for fair prices and better food policies. An online Action Center helps farmers register their opinions with the government on subjects ranging from genetic engineering of food to overuse of antibiotics.
“Farm Aid is a big tent,” Carolyn Mugar, who has served as the organization’s executive director since the very beginning, said. “Our focus has not changed, but what has changed is that people are realizing what’s happening to their food.”
Farm Aid Inc. also supports a nationwide network of rural and farm groups through a grant program that last year distributed $307,710 to 42 organizations, including $5,000 to the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture in Millheim, Centre County.
Bryan Snyder, executive director of PASA, which has 6,200 members, said he’s eager to help Farm Aid organizers stage a successful event. That includes giving concert-goers a chance to interact with real farmers before and during the daylong event. “They may have 20,000 people coming to this concert who don’t know too much about what Farm Aid does or about family farmers,” Snyder said.
Family farming remains a big slice of Pennsylvania agriculture. According to the state Department of Agriculture, more than 91 percent of Pennsylvania’s farms are family-owned, including more than 2,000 that have been operated by the same families for more than a century.
Nelson, who still serves as president of Farm Aid’s board of directors, said keeping farm familes on their land remains a major challenge. “Farm Aid works to keep every family farmer on the land, no matter what extreme conditions they face,” said Nelson, who will again perform at this year’s Farm Aid concert in Hershey.
Joining Nelson will be fellow Farm Aid stalwarts Young and Mellancamp, along with relative newcomer Dave Matthews, who signed on in 2001. All serve on the Farm Aid board in addition to performing at the annual benefit concert, which serves as the major fundraiser for an organization that has raised more than $39 million since its inception.
A newer generation of entertainers will also be on hand, performing for free to help farmers. They include country superstar Kenny Chesney, plus Jack Johnson, ALO, Pegi Young and the Survivors, and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real.
Previous Farm Aid concerts have been staged in many states, including Indiana, Nebraska, Texas, Iowa, Lousiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Missouri, Wisconsin, New York and Kentucky. This year’s concert marks Farm Aid’s first visit to central Pennsylvania, although previous events have been held near Pittsburgh (Burgettstown, 2002) and Philadelphia (Camden, N.J., 2006).
Mellancamp said the Farm Air effort remains important, despite a much different landscape for farmers nearly three decades removed from that inaugural concert in Illinois. “We all see what’s happening with agriculture, what’s happening to our small towns,” the 60-year-old rocker said. “They are going out of business. That’s a direct result of the farm problem. We’re still doing Farm Aid because it is contributing. It’s doing a job.”