Late last week I traveled to Chicago to take part in a number of activities surrounding the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid. These are quick thoughts, put together on a cramped and bumpy flight home after several days with little sleep.

The concert – which is America’s “longest running concert for a cause” – always provides a stellar and diverse line-up of musicians. These talented artists give their time to the organization, but that’s just part of the story. Because Farm Aid is not just an event. It’s also a non-profit organization. And it has become a vital convening place for the “good food” movement: for those who seek to advance the work of family farmers. The organization’s work is helping to reshape America’s food system so that it reflects values including justice, diversity, democracy and sustainability. It encourages stronger connections between farmers and producers and supports local and regional food systems. You can read more about the issues Farm Aid engages in by visiting this page on the organization’s website.

In the run-up to the concert, there was a gathering that brought together diverse stakeholders to explore how change is made, to encourage inter-generational exchange, to look back at what’s been done…and to organize for the work ahead.

Most of us know about the genesis of the organization. In response to the farm crisis in the early 1980s, musicians Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985. They hoped to raise awareness about the loss of family farms. The concert and their work raised funds to keep farm families on the land. Musician Dave Matthews joined the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001. The Farm Aid organization has raised a whopping $48 million for family farmers. More importantly, perhaps, it has educated and connected a broad range of consumers to family farm issues. And not just Americans: I met people from all over the world who had traveled to the event to celebrate small producers.

The organization accomplishes its work, in part, through storytelling. I heard some great ones.

The two-day gathering was held at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Farm Aid is a big tent organization: I was struck by the diversity of producers and stakeholders. There were young people of color who are leading vibrant urban agriculture enterprises. I was particularly moved by the work of Stacey Kimmons, who runs an enterprise operation at Windy City Harvest (a project affiliated with the Chicago Botanic Garden). He said, “I’m putting into the earth what I want to get out of it.”

I spoke with farmers in their 70s and 80s from across the South and Midwest. One of the highlights of the trip was hearing from farmer advocate Mona Lee Brock about her work – and her road trip to Chicago in a new Honda Odyssey with lots of electronic features. I also met producers from the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. I met a group of young people who fish and advocate for sustainable fisheries. I learned from them that the challenges facing small-scale fishermen are similar to those facing family farmers. (I’ll be sharing their story in the next week or two).

The big-tent philosophy of Farm Aid and its inclusive message serve our food system well.

Despite the differences in where they farm, what they produce, differences in age and race…there is much more that unites small producers. First, there is consensus about the need to encourage young people to enter agriculture…and an understanding that this should occur in both rural and urban spheres and that policies must be enacted that more fully support these efforts. There is a commitment to inter-generational communication. I wouldn’t call it a passing of the torch, because I expect many of the older producers I spoke with to continue their work, but there is space – and a sense of welcome – for the voices of younger, newer producers.

The populist messages Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shares with his audiences might resonate in this space: the notion that the deck is stacked against the “small” guy, in this case, small producers. Former USDA appointee Shirley Sherrod summed it up well: “Big farmers will be taken care of – they have lobbyists. But family farmers are what have sustained us through the years…”



Note: Some books I re-read to provide context for this momentous Farm Aid anniversary? William Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” and “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town”, written by Nick Reding. Reding links the failure of small farms and the rise of “Big Ag” and “Big Pharma” with the methamphetamine drug crisis. Not a new book, but I had forgotten how many pages he devotes to analyzing and critiquing the consolidation of the food system and its impact on family farmers. #goodreads