Farm Aid 25: Coming Home to Wisconsin
By David Bruce | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
In 1985, Willie Nelson listened to Bob Dylan, on stage at the Live Aid concert benefitting AIDS victims in Africa. Bob said, “We need to do something for the farmers right here in America.” And with that, Farm Aid was born.
Twenty-five years later, Farm Aid comes home to Wisconsin, to the Heartland, where dairy farmers are struggling as much as ever, yet showing equally strong evidence of rebirth and renewal. Wisconsin is at the heart of what Farm Aid refers to as the Good Food Movement, as Americans reach for locally produced, humanely raised, family farmidentified and organic food.
The core artists and board members gathered for a press conference in the blustery Milwaukee wind the morning of the concert: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews—the driving forces of Farm Aid. They were joined on stage by politicos, including Russ Feingold who has been a tireless supporter of family farming, and by farmer heroes who represent the face of the new agriculture: Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, dairy farmer Sarah Lloyd, and third generation CSA farmer Tony Schultz. But nowhere was the enthusiasm of the crowd and the face of a renewed agriculture better represented than by the two and a half year old son of Schultz, the CSA farmer. Playing in the grass in the front row, his carrot top hair and striped bib overalls embodied the mood of the event, and his cheerful wave to his father on the stage shone with the hope of the day and the promise of tomorrow.
The theme for the morning’s press conference was “health, environment and the economy.” Musicians and farmers took turns bringing that message home, speaking with passion and hope after 25 years of working toward their mission to keep family farmers farming. “We have to take care of our farmers, because they take care of our land,” said Willie Nelson. “We should be interested in learning where our food comes from. We know that organic agriculture is better for the land than chemical agriculture. Thank you organic farmers!”
“Southwest Wisconsin continues to be the world center of organic agriculture,” said Senator Russ Feingold, to cheers from the crowd. Dave Matthews hit home with a personal message, saying, “The health of my family and of all of our children is the most important thing. People producing food for us can’t have money as their main goal. We need to know where our food comes from. We need to know, if we choose to eat meat, that it comes from one cow and not 1,000 cows.”
“My vision is that we have to become more tribal,” John Mellencamp said. “And I want to nominate Willie Nelson for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
“That should be the ‘No Bull’ Peace Prize,” quipped Willie in response. Neil Young, usually the serious man, was smiling at his friends’ statements.
“Look for clean food,” he said. “Teach your children not to believe everything they see on TV—that’s not real. Processors need to say what is really in our food.”
Will Allen, Milwaukee’s revolutionary urban farming leader, brought the issue of food justice to the table when he said, “Everybody should have access to good food.”
The concert venue at Miller Park also highlighted the Homegrown Village, which featured local organizations working for sustainable development and agriculture. Wisconsin has always been a leader in this area, as evidenced by numerous CSA farms, a burgeoning local and regional food movement, and the headquarters of the nation’s largest organic farmer-owned cooperative, Organic Valley. The organic farm of the Oneida Nation, Tsyunhehkwa, had a booth, lending depth and diversity to the Village.
The sheer number of farm advocacy organizations gathered was a testament to the movement’s strength in Wisconsin. Special attention was given to the fact that Southern Wisconsin is the home of the largest producer- only farmers market in the nation (Dane County Farmers Market), as well as the groundswell of the local farm to school movement, which has garnered strong support throughout the state in recent years. A highlight of the Homegrown Village was Neil Young’s Lincvolt, his overhaul of a gas guzzling 1958 Lincoln Continental—a classic boat of an American car—into a zero-emissions electric vehicle. Fans clustered in awe, with distinct pleasure in knowing this was Neil’s new rig.
Music rang out all day long, enthusiasm building throughout the afternoon as fans anticipated the headliners, the Farm Aid board members, that evening. The smooth transition between artists showed what a well-oiled machine the Farm Aid crew truly was. Farm Aid is the longest running benefit concert in history. Historical agriculture and farming highlights were outlined in the program, bringing to light some of the Farm Aid board members’ revolutionary actions—from participating in emergency hay-lifts for farmers stranded by storms, to protests against huge factory hog farms.
The musical diversity was also reflected in the audience, with concertgoers ranging from young children to seasoned Farm Aid supporters who had clearly been to many concerts before.
Willie Nelson may be 77 years old, but he remains tireless in his outspoken support for family farms, for change in policy and for a new future for agriculture in America. Having the Farm Aid concert at Miller Park in Milwaukee felt like a homecoming, a true celebration of the Heartland, farming and rural renewal.
In the end, Neil Young summed things up perfectly, saying, “We’re all hopeful. Never give up. We’re still on a mission. There is no where else to go.”