Farm Aid: America's Farm Crisis 2019
Farm Aid works side-by-side with farmers to stands up for the people upon whom we all depend. They strengthen the voices of family farmers and inform farmers and eaters about issues like genetically modified food and growth hormones.
50 years ago, Max Yasgur made a living running a family dairy farm in New York State
Phew… We all survived this weekend’s 50th Anniversary celebration for Woodstock. It looked bad for a while but in the end, nobody cared about recreating anything. All anyone wanted was a sunny day on the (still beautiful) field where the magic happened in 1969 and a little music. Amazing how easy it was.
Going back up to Yasgur’s Farm reminded me that 50 years ago, the Yasgur’s made a nice living running a family dairy farm in New York State. Those days are gone. Driving through that area today you see a lot of open space, but not much farming. The destruction and disappearance of family farming is another one of our big challenges in this county. Here in the Northeast states, it’s the family Dairy Farm that is especially threatened with extinction.
The crisis farmers are in now is even worse than 1985, because there are fewer farms left to lose. They have a whole system stacked against them, and time is running out for Americans to demand a fair playing field.
- -John Mellencamp, Farm Aid co-founder
Thanks to Carolyn Mugar and Jennifer Fahy I’ve learned a lot about family dairy farming and none of it is good. Carolyn is the executive director and Jennifer is the communications director of Farm Aid. They’ve devoted themselves to addressing the dire challenges facing family farmers all across this country, and they do it brilliantly.
Last year Farm Aid brought their annual concert to the Northeast and used it as an opportunity to reach out and help at-risk farmers in New York and New England.
Let’s Do the Milk Math
Let’s start with the Milk Math. Milk is a commodity. It gets priced by commodity markets controlled by, well, controlled by the folks who control everything else. But that’s a different story. Milk gets sold by farmers in 100-pound units. In 2014 the price for 100-pounds of milk was $24. Today the price fluctuates between $13 and $18.
Cheap milk seems like a good thing. Except that every time a family dairy farmer sells their milk to the marketplace, they lose money.
Huge factory farms use production-inducing drugs, genetic modifications, and inhumane practices to churn-out milk for $15 per 100-pounds. Unfortunately, it costs family dairy farmers $20 to $24 per 100-pounds to produce their milk. Operating on much smaller farms, obeying organic farming practices, and raising animals in humane conditions costs money. Money they need to feed and care for their cattle. The money they need to maintain their farms. Money they need to feed and care for themselves. It’s not sustainable.
After 30 years, we are still here, you're still here, and together we're still fighting for the farmers. The fight ain't over yet but we're gaining on those suckers, so stay with us.
—Willie Nelson, Farm Aid co-founder
That’s where Farm Aid comes in, the Coolest Charity in the World This Week.
Farm Aid works with local, regional and national organizations to promote fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns designed to defend and bolster family farm-centered agriculture. Farm Aid’s Action Center allows concerned citizens to become advocates for farm policy change. They do it with great passion and Farm Aid is having an amazing impact.
Since 1985, Farm Aid has answered 1-800-FARM-AID to provide immediate and effective support services to farm families in crisis. Now Farm Aid’s online Farmer Resource Network connects farmers to an extensive network of organizations across the country that help farmers find the resources they need to access new markets, transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices, and survive natural disasters. Farm Aid does exactly what the very best nonprofits are supposed to do -- fill the gaps to serve vulnerable populations and do it in ways that drive changes to the paradigms of pain and create self-sufficiency.
For anyone previously unfamiliar with Farm Aid, the nonprofit’s hands-on board of directors includes some high profile folks, founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, as well as Dave Matthews.
The Farm Aid origin story goes back to the mid-80s -- a particularly tough time for farmers in the US. In response to the crisis, during 1985, Indiana native John Mellencamp recorded and released Scarcrow an album largely devoted to stories of victimized and distressed family farmers. The album was released on August 5.
A few days earlier, on July 13, all eyes in the music business were focused on Live Aid, the mega-concerts organized by Bob Geloff and Midge Ure to raise awareness and money for famine relief in Ethiopia. During his performance at Live Aid, Bod Dylan noted "I hope that some of the money that's raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it, maybe … one or two million … to pay the mortgages on some of the farms."
Maybe not the coolest thing for Bob to talk about from the stage of an African relief fundraiser, but he had a pint. A damn good one. The story goes that Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young were inspired by Dylan’s words; they took it upon themselves to create a platform to get the farm crisis into the news and get resources to family farmers.
Willie, Mellencamp, and Young worked quickly.
One of the first things that struck me was the special bond that a farmer has with his or her work.
— Dr. Michael Friedman, Psychology Today
On September 22, 1985, at the stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, these three artists and humanitarians put on their own fundraiser -- Farm Aid. The plight of the American farmer became a call to action.
Less than two weeks before Farm Aid, I showed up on the Urbana-Champaign campus. I was passing through on a completely unrelated rock tour that was playing the campus basketball arena. They were happy to have our show that night; they were even happier to have us help with the massive show they were building at the football stadium next door. Crew volunteers were organized, gear was shared, and plans were made to return for the show on the 22nd.
That first Farm Aid concert activated a movement that now includes millions and has become the longest-running concert series in America.
It’s not at all surprising that Farm Aid provides direct aid to family farmers in the form of grants and loans. What might be surprising is the demand for mental health care that Farm Aid provides. “Some farms—particularly smaller family farms—cease to be economically viable, such that farmers face not only severe financial distress, but also the emotional distress
of losing their livelihood, home and community,” writes Dr. Michael Friedman, distinguished clinical psychologist and author.
I invited Dr. Friedman to join me at Farm Aid 2018, where he had an opportunity to meet with farmers and the Farm Aid team providing emotional health care for them. “One of the first things that struck me was the special bond that a farmer has with his or her work. Farming is often a family business passed down through generations, in which the farmers both work and live on their land. The connection to one’s farm runs deep,” Dr. Friedman noted in his piece for Psychology Today.
“What’s different about farming is that farmers have to pay money up front to get through the season. You can’t farm without credit up front. And in order to get credit, you have to leverage all of your land—all of your assets—in case you can’t pay the bank back. So they have to get credit. They have to have operating loans every year to survive.
“The vulnerability of farmers—they’re powerless to the forces that control their stability. Any weather event could wipe out a year,” Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid’s farm advocate, told Dr. Friedman. “And it’s hard to come back from one year of crisis. It’s almost impossible to come back from two years of uncertainty. “Most of us at work don’t have those types of pressures.”
It’s sad, and not surprising that rural farm communities have a scarcity of mental health care providers and suicide rates among agricultural workers are among the highest of any profession.
What can you do? Neil Yong has a message: “When you’re driving down the street in your car you should never pass a farmers market without going in and taking part in humanity. You have to go in and buy something. If you drive by a farmers market without stopping in to buy something, you’re killing a farm.”