Since 1985, Farm Aid has had concerts in 18 states from sea to shining sea. This year, North Carolina makes state No. 19. Farm Aid’s 2014 concert will be Sept. 13 at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheatre.
All four members of Farm Aid’s board will perform – founder Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews – along with Jack White, Jamey Johnson, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Durham country band Delta Rae and others.
Mellencamp, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, actually let the news drop informally last December at ceremonies for the Peach Bowl football game in Atlanta. “The good news is we’re bringing Farm Aid to Durham,” said Mellencamp, whose son, Hud, is a member of Duke’s football team. He had the state right, but not the city.
“I think North Carolina has always been an important part of small family farms dating back to the Civil War,” Mellencamp said in an interview this week. “We come down there with respect for the hard work people have done there.”
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Farm Aid goes back to 1985 and another offhand remark. Onstage at the Live Aid benefit festival that July, Bob Dylan said he hoped some of the money raised would go to help American farmers facing foreclosure. Inspired, country icon Nelson pulled together the first Farm Aid concert, which happened just two months later in Champaign, Ill.
“It’s all because of Willie, to be fair about it,” said Mellencamp. “Willie is the driving force for Farm Aid, and I still don’t understand why he’s not been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.”
Over the years, Farm Aid has raised more than $45 million for family farmers with benefit concerts almost every year, pulling everyone from Lou Reed to Julio Iglesias onstage. Dylan, Kenny Chesney, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Paul Simon are among the many acts to play Farm Aid shows.
There have been 26 Farm Aids since 1985, as close as Virginia and South Carolina. Last year’s show was in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“This is our 29th year of Farm Aid,”said Mellencamp, 62. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? Willie and Neil and I were much younger then, and more naive. We thought we’d just point out the problems as we saw it, people would pay attention, and lawmakers would go, ‘They’re right.’ We were naive to think we could change things, but we did have an effect.”
When Farm Aid first formed in the mid-’80s, America was in the depths of a foreclosure crisis forcing many family farmers out of business. Although the money raised is still an important part of its mission, Farm Aid has shifted focus toward building awareness about the virtues of locally sourced organic produce versus factory-farm food.
“In some ways, it’s changed a lot and in other ways it hasn’t,” said Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar. “It’s always been about the centrality of the family farmer. We do feel like we’ve had something to do with the huge change of consciousness and availability of organic food. One time Willie said, ‘We started Farm Aid to save the family farmer, and now it looks like the family farmer might save us.’”
‘A heckuva concert’
One of the local groups that will benefit from Farm Aid coming to Raleigh is the Rural Advancement Foundation International. A Pittsboro-based nonprofit that works with small farms on sustainability issues, RAFI has been one of Farm Aid’s partners since the very first event in 1985.
“Farm Aid coming to North Carolina gives us a chance to show off the great things happening in agriculture here with entrepreneurship and creativity, and also to reflect on the challenges we still have,” said RAFI Executive Director Scott Marlow. “We’re very excited to welcome Farm Aid here. It will bring in agricultural folks from across the country and allow us to discuss things with them. Plus it’s a heckuva concert.”
As for Mellencamp, he sees Farm Aid as a way of reclaiming something more fundamental.
“Most of the processed food you eat is killing you,” Mellencamp declared. “You have to identify real food now by calling it ‘organic.’ When I was growing up, it was just ‘food.’ But there have been so many pesticides, chemicals and things to enhance production on factory farms that we have to identify real food as ‘organic’ now. The chemical companies are the only people really prospering from this. You’re not, I’m not, small family farmers are not.”