Farm Aid began as a rallying point for the farm protest movement during the depths of the farm crisis in the 1980’s. The farm organization for which I worked in 1985 even chartered a bus to ferry cash-strapped farmers to the first benefit concert in Champaign, IL, where Willie Nelson, John Melencamp and other musicians exhorted the crowd to fight to save the family farm.
Last night, as I circulated through the crowd at this year’s pre-concert gathering in Raleigh, NC, the atmosphere was much more like a homecoming reunion than a farm protest rally. Conversations that years ago focused solely on political strategy were peppered last night with comments about children’s weddings, the arrival of grandchildren, and just a few references to impending retirements.
Cynics would say that the struggle to save the family farm since 1985 was largely futile. After all, the conventional agricultural landscape is dominated by a handful of chemically-intensive mega-farms.
I see it a bit differently.
Walking into the event, I ran into an old friend who has been at the forefront of legal and political fight to halt the erosion of Black and Native American farmers. His group successfully lodged a legal challenge that resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement to displaced minority farmers, and in several provisions in the last few Farm Bills to provide economic opportunities for farmers still on the land.
Inside, I caught up with several folks who waged the political battles in the late 1980’s that resulted in the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act; the foundation of today’s organic labeling program. The fact that organic food sales have reached $35 billion is due in part to the farm policy seeds these pioneers planted decades ago.
And, I made new friends with a North Carolina family who shared the story of how they built their North Carolina farm into a profitable enterprise with grass-fed beef and pastured poultry.
The American public is increasingly seeking out healthy food produced by organic and other environmentally sustainable farmers. Many of the people chatting over the locally-brewed beer last night are part of the reason those choices are available in today’s marketplace.
That’s something for the musicians to sing about.