Many of America’s family farms are in crisis. Since 1985, Farm Aid has been there with resources, services and other support to keep smaller, more ecologically-minded farming operations growing. Co-founded by country-music legend Willie Nelson, along with rockers Neil Young and John Mellencamp, with Dave Matthews also now on the Farm Aid Board, the benefit concert Farm Aid is as much a musical extravaganza as it is a testament to the perseverance, hard work and hard-scrabble determination of family farmers across the US and a celebration of what they do: Feed America. Farm Aid’s mission is to build a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America.
Who could turn down the chance, in Wisconsin, to listen to John Mellencamp retell the story about Jack and Diane, “two American kids growin’ up in the heartland”? He brought the sold-out crowd of 37,000 riotously to their feet to sing along.
And he wasn’t the only performer to do so. Over the course of the nearly 12-hour benefit concert, some of the best performers and music legends brought standing ovations and cheers. Besides Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews, the 2019 Farm Aid line-up included such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Tanya Tucker, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Yola, and Jamestown Revival, among many others.
The location of the Farm Aid concert in Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, couldn’t be more fitting. It’s estimated that dairy farms in America’s dairyland are going under at an alarming rate due to depressed milk prices and a host of other factors including destructive weather and farm or trade policies. In 2018, Wisconsin lost 700 dairy farms at a rate of almost 2 per day, according to the USDA.
As a result, Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a signature tune at the annual Farm Aid concert, touched a particular chord for many in Wisconsin. According to Farm Aid, since 2013, America’s farmers and ranchers have weathered a nearly 50 percent drop in net farm income, the largest four-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.
At the press conference that kicked off the event, farmers joined the founders and performers on stage to bring focus to the issues and celebrate some of the resilience of some family farmers who prioritized community, sustainability, and the soil that provides the essential foundation for farming. “Nature calls for diversity, diversity, diversity,” chimed in Mellencamp. One group of farmers featured on stage were the “soil sisters,” represented by Kriss Marion, Lisa Kivirist and Dela Ends, who shared how a group of women-owned farms were banding together to build a stronger local and organic food system in Wisconsin, with their Soil Sisters event.
A Farm Aid Regular, Jamey Johnson
A Farm Aid regular, singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson’s commanding performance of “In Color” and his own version of Wood Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” captivated the audience. For more than 30 years, Farm Aid, with the support of the artists like Johnson who contribute their performances each year, has raised $57 million to support programs that help farmers thrive, take action to change the dominant system of industrial agriculture and promote food from family farms.
Amazing Performances by Margo Price
The amazing performance by Margo Price brought the issues home when she shared her personal story. “My folks lost their family farm in 1985, the year Farm Aid was started,” she explained. “So, it means a lot to be here.” From Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” to “Long Live the King,” Nashville-based, country singer-songwriter Price tore at emotions and enthralled the capacity crowd.
Homegrown Concessions at Farm Aid
Consistent with Farm Aid’s commitment to the farmers, the Homegrown Concessions at the venue featured sustainably produced food by family farmers for festival attendees. For the past five years, Sonya Dagovitz, Farm Aid’s Culinary Director, has been working with Legends Hospitality to source all food from local and sustainable farms.
“Farm Aid and Legends Hospitality together will present the biggest family farm restaurant in the country for one day at Farm Aid 2019, serving 30,000 festival-goers extraordinary food,” said Farm Aid Associate Director Glenda Yoder in a release. The tasty menu included Milwaukee Pretzel, made from locally grown wheat flower milled by Lonesome Stone Milling, fish and chips featuring Lake Superior walleye, and pickled eggs made with Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs. Besides burgers made with organic beef, numerous vegetarian options were available that included a marinated roasted beet sandwich. Only compostable serviceware was used, a first for the event.
Also at the venue, the HOMEGROWN Village was packed with farmers and organizations based in the region, celebrating the culture of agriculture with hands-on activities that engaged attendees in the ways family farmers enrich the soil, protect the water and grow the economy.
“Helping the farms, that’s the bottom line,” summed up Matthews at the press conference, capturing all of the performers’ dedication to the cause and the plight of American farmers. Farm Aid is about “how much we need them,” echoed Willie Nelson.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Both are speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, a 10.8-kW solar power station and millions of ladybugs. Read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.