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

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

Actor Musicians

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

October 2003

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

There may be a sizeable increase in the number of actors pursuing their muse as recording artists these days, but trying to earn respect from the masses, the music industry and critics is still an uphill battle.

Some, such as Hilary Duff or Jennifer Lopez, are talented television and movie multi-taskers who seem to have no trouble climbing the Billboard charts and finding millions of fans to buy their albums.

But others, such as the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and ex-Party Of Five ingenue Jennifer Love Hewitt, are still struggling to find an audience for their music.

While public choices concerning such matters as talent and material may be subject to individual tastes, at least one fledgling actor musician feels there’s a bigger obstacle to overcome.

“People just don’t take actors seriously,” says Crazy/Beautiful star Taryn Manning, who is simultaneously pursuing a career as singer of Dreamworks recording act Boomkat.

“It’s been one of my biggest hurdles. The whole deal is the perception that anybody can act, but not everybody can play instruments or write songs.”

Manning, whose Boomkatalog.One was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, says the notion that acting is an easier profession to conquer doesn’t help.

“If you have a pretty face and a nice body, you have a chance to make it as an actor unfortunately. You really do.”

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton, who recently released his sophomore album The Edge Of The World on the Sanctuary label, also feels actors are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing their musical legitimacy.

“We’re definitely under a microscope,” says Thornton, revered for his starring roles in such films as Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There and his self-written Sling Blade. “I don’t think you have as fair a shake.”

He says the perceived glamour of Hollywood lifestyle often creates suspicion both within public and music industry circles.

“I think that people think that the only reason actors have the opportunity to record music is because they’re rich guys who can get what they want, or that maybe they have an ‘in’,” Thornton explains. “And maybe that’s true to a degree. But there’s a downside – there are people within the music business who have a prejudice against actors doing it.  They watch you with one eye kind of squinted – ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing in my yard?’”

He also feels that much of the bias is media-driven.

“The media creates it and perpetuates it,” says Thornton, who has toured with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. “A critic may be slamming your thing for many reasons. You may have slept with his girlfriend, or whatever he thinks you did. If you get a critic who’s got a bee in his ass about you and they want to talk about you in that way, that’s the only way a guy in Wichita, Kansas hears about that. There are people out there always looking for this angle that’s easy for them, a soundbyte.”

And then there’s the residue from the “Golden Throats syndrome,” the ‘60s and ‘70s era of big-name movie and TV idols that regularly savaged pop classics through ill-advised recordings. Remember Leonard Nimoy’s “I Walk The Line?”

However Rhino Entertainment A&R manager and staff producer Gary Peterson, co-creator of the four-volume Golden Throats series for Rhino Records, says a return to such an ear-cringing movement would be unlikely.

“When an artist from the movies or television or another type of entertainment field wants to do a recording now, there’s a safety net of recording technology at hand to fix up the mistakes because the production values are higher,” says Peterson.

“Of course with these artists now, and the high profiles that they maintain, they’re much more guarded about what comes out.”

“The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to look at people for what they’re doing and not who they are,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who received critical acclaim for his Marty Stuart-produced first album Private Radio.  He says he considers music and acting equal priorities.

“I consider it all the same thing,” he says. “ It’s all about telling stories and moving people in some way or another. But there are different feelings you get from it. What movies do that music doesn’t do for you is put you into a different world for a long time, whereas a song might tell a story and put you in another world, but you’re not able to develop it that far.

“What music does for you is more immediate. You can write a song and go cut it that night. If you’re writing a movie, it’s going to take you awhile, and then you have to go get it financed or set up in a studio.  Then they’ve got to cast it, so it’s a long process.”

Boomkat’s Manning says she shouldn’t be pigeonholed.

“I like to dabble in and hone all my talents, which range from singing, acting, and dancing to making clothes, doing hair and makeup.”

Manning, who has begun working on Boomkat’s second album, says she’ll honor her musical commitment through action.

“You’ll have to start believing in me when I’m five records in, because I never plan to stop making music. People should open their minds and not be so judgmental.”

Postscript:  This was published by Grammy.com in either October or November 2003. The site has since been upgraded and some of the archival files are no longer available.

I also remember Billy Bob Thornton telling me during this interview that he wrote the script for his Academy Award winning Sling Blade while Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich served as the soundtrack.