30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp are still at it

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 30 ©Ebet Roberts

By Nick Krewen | www.samaritanmag.com

Posted on September 23, 2015

CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.

Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.

Neil Young at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.

The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”

Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”

Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.

“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”

Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”

“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.

“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.

“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.

“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”

Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”

Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.

Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.

Dave Matthews at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.

Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.

For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.

“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.

Jack Johnson at Farm Aid 2015
©Sabine Carey

“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”

Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.

“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”

Jamey Johnson at Farm Aid 30, 2015

For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.

“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”

Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.

The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp Still at It | Samaritanmag.com – The Anti-Tabloid

Violinist Lindsey Stirling credits YouTube with meteoric rise

In four short years, the classical crossover sensation reached the top with the help of viral videos.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 13 2014

In four short years, classical crossover sensation Lindsey Stirling has gone from anonymity to star stature without the help of the usual star-making machinery.

There is no major label, prominent manager, radio station or concert promoter that can claim responsibility for the elfin dubstep violinist’s meteoric rise to fame. Even her 2010 appearance on America’s Got Talent, which averaged 7 million viewers a night and saw her reach the quarter-finals before getting turfed by judges Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne, had a negligible impact on her career.

So what is the primarily catalyst that has allowed the Santa Ana, Calif.-born Stirling, who appears at the Kool Haus on Saturday night, to independently release two best-selling albums (her latest, Shatter Me, entered The Billboard 200 retail chart at #2, debuting the same week on the Canadian album charts at #5), tour the world, collaborate with stars like John Legend and Christina Perri and snag Lady Gaga’s former manager?

YouTube.

Since the May 18, 2011, launch of the California native’s Lindseystomp YouTube channel and her first original song, “Spontaneous Me,” Stirling has amassed more than 600 million views and almost 5 million subscribers with a 64-video mixture of originals, cover songs (her rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” has been seen more than 72 million times) and downright tomfoolery.

It’s certainly an unexpected windfall for the 27-year-old Stirling, who admits her career was in tatters, especially after America’s Got Talent, before YouTube kick-started it into overdrive.

America’s Got Talent has this huge audience around the world, and when I was on the show, I thought it would change my life,” Stirling recounted Tuesday over the phone from a Louisville, Ky., tour stop.

“But after that, the world had completely forgotten that I had existed and I went back to square zero. I kept hustling for six months and doing things like getting really low-key gigs at college campuses, playing at noon in cafeterias.”

Fate intervened when filmmaker Devin Graham, known professionally as Devin Super Tramp, a YouTube viral video maker, reached out.

“He said, ‘Hey, I would love to make a music video for you — I think you’re really talented and I want to put it on my YouTube channel,’ ” Stirling remembers. “I didn’t quite understand what the incentive was for him and I didn’t really know what YouTube was and what it could do for people.

“But we did the video (“Spontaneous Me”) and I was amazed. As soon as he put it up on his channel, my music, which was just sitting around on iTunes, suddenly started to sell. People were requesting more of my songs and they were loving and sharing them.

“I was amazed that putting out that one video on a YouTube channel by some random guy would do more for me and sell more tracks than America’s Got Talent. It all just blew my mind.”

It helped that Graham and Stirling, who both studied filmmaking at Utah’s Brigham Young University, made world-class videos on shoestring budgets.

“For the first year, I didn’t have any money,” says Stirling. “So luckily, I went to BYU and made a lot of talented friends. I helped them on their projects; they helped me on mine.

“Also, I had the skills: I knew how to produce; I knew how to edit. All I needed was a cinematographer and pretty locations. If you notice, the first year of my videos are almost all shot outside, because I lived in Utah, which is beautiful. I’d go to these hiking trails that were 15 minutes from my house. And I’d go with Devin, who was my boyfriend for the first year, and he’d film all my videos for free. Then I’d direct, edit and produce them. So pretty much for the first year of my channel, my videos were all free.”

Stirling’s fan base grew like wildfire, charmed by her self-choreographed vignettes that showcased music incorporating elements of hip-hop, Skrillex-influenced EDM, dubstep and electronica, as well as her charismatic and photogenic personality, as her songs “Transcendence,” “Electric Daisy Violin,” “Shadows” and “Crystallize” began racking up impressive numbers.

Corporations began to take notice and offered to underwrite certain videos.

“Once we started to make a name for ourselves, people started to reach out and offer to fly me and Devin places,” Stirling explains. “They saw us as a team. A travel company paid all our expenses and paid us on top of it to make a video and go to Kenya. The same thing happened in New Zealand. That was the amazing thing — once we were creating such high-quality content, we were able to fund our travels.”

The couple has since split personally and professionally, but the Stirling juggernaut keeps rolling, with videos that alternate among her own originals, covers of pop hits and video game scores. The videos are often tagged at the end with personal endorsements for products provided by her sponsors.

Stirling, who first picked up the violin at age 5, says she has no issue with pushing brands.

“I don’t have a problem with it and my fans don’t have a problem with it, because they all know I’m an independent artist,” Stirling explains. “This is just my way or being able to do what I do, and my fans are very supportive of that. They know that’s the way a lot of YouTubers survive. As long as it doesn’t taint my art, or it isn’t some shameless promotion in the middle of a video, and as long as I can create my art the way I want and I’m not ashamed of the brands I’m promoting, I’m good.”

She may have a point: YouTube income has gifted her with artistic freedom and allowed her to bypass major labels.

“It’s kind of funny that when I was starting out and trying to make it, I went to all the labels and I was turned away,” Stirling recalls. “Nobody was interested. Now that I’m doing it and I’ve been able to prove that it works, they’re all knocking down my door.

“But I don’t need them anymore, I really don’t, because I’ve figured out how to do it by cutting out the middleman, and I love it. I love the fact that I have 100 per cent creative control. I love that I can self-fund everything. I don’t have anybody I’m indebted to. No one colours what I do. It’s awesome. I love it and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I stumbled upon YouTube because I didn’t know what else to do, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Violinist Lindsey Stirling credits YouTube with meteoric rise | Toronto Star