Nelson, Mellencamp, Matthews & Young: The Supergroup That Chairs Farm Aid
Advocacy We sat down for a roundtable with the music icons behind the fundraising music festival to learn about their personal connections to American agriculture.
We appreciate you taking the time to tell us about what Farm Aid means to you and what family farmers should mean to America. We’d like to start with you, Willie. What did you experience in 1985 that made you launch Farm Aid?
Willie Nelson: Farming is in my blood. I grew up picking cotton with my family in the summer. I raised pigs for the Future Farmers of America (now called FFA) when I was in high school. I understand how difficult farming is and how hard farmers work to make a living and grow good food for us. In 1985, we were in the middle of a farm crisis in this country. Farmers were struggling to keep their family farms intact. John, Neil and I wanted to do something to help them, use our voices to make a difference in farmers’ lives, so we decided to do it the best way we knew how: We invited our artist friends to join us and we played music.
John, what made you come on board when you got that call from Willie?
John Mellencamp: In 1985, the small towns I had grown up in were collapsing. I didn’t have to dig very deep to find out it was because family farmers were going out of business. So when Willie called me about doing something to help, I immediately got on board because I wanted to make a difference.
“At Farm Aid I get to be honest with our audience about the state of our farms, the corporate controls farmers are subjected to, and the problems they face.”
And do you see the difference you’ve made?
John Mellencamp: Well, when we first started Farm Aid, I thought it would be a one-time thing and we would make a huge difference. Thirty-one years later, we’re all still at it, fighting for family farmers and their way of life. Change takes time and I think we are seeing progress. We’re beginning to think about the food we eat and the people who grow it. We see more demand for local, and more demand for organic. There’s still a lot more work to do. And as long as I think I can help the family farmer, then I will do so every year. If you want a better world, it starts with you.
Neil, you’re known for being one of the most outspoken advocates for farmers in the country. When you first got that call from Willie, what was it about the issue that spoke to you?
Neil Young: The countryside is where I come from, it’s easy for me to relate to people who work the land. I understand their way of life and believe in it. At Farm Aid I get to be honest with our audience about the state of our farms, the corporate controls farmers are subjected to and the problems they face. I take my responsibility very seriously, to make sure we celebrate the successes, but also that we don’t lose sight of why we do this every year.
Dave, you played at Farm Aid for the first time in 1995, and became such a committed and thoughtful voice for American agriculture that in 2001 Willie personally asked you to join him, Neil and John on Farm Aid’s board. Why was this movement important to you?
Dave Matthews: About the time I joined, I became more interested in the quality of food my family and I were eating. So becoming involved in the larger picture of what it means to have healthy food from healthy farms was a natural progression of that interest. It’s an issue that affects every single person in our country and one we need to pay very close attention to.
You personally own farmland in Virginia. What have you learned from that experience?
“What we need all Americans to realize is the family farmer has to survive in order for all of us to survive in the way we want to live.”
Dave Matthews: I believe there is a sustainable way of farming we can pursue that benefits the farmer and the environment. And from experience we know that one of the best ways to preserve that ideal American vision we have of a farmer working the land is to bring more young farmers into the fold. We need to find creative ways of supporting young farmers, either by helping them lease land or developing systems that give them financial stability. One of the organizations I work with is Local Food Hub, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It connects farmers in Virginia to eaters by distributing their products to local restaurants, grocery stores and colleges and hospitals. I’m really proud of the work we’re doing and ways we’re helping farmers navigate around issues of supply and infrastructure without adding additional costs to their operations.
Neil, where do see the future of farming in America and what do we need to do to get there?
Neil Young: If we want to save the American farm and the American way of life, we need to change the way we do business in this country. The American farm is disappearing because we have so few young people involved. And when farms change hands, it leaves the door open for big corporations to take control. We need to stand up to corporations, we need to think long and hard about what we’re putting in the soil, and we need to pay attention to where our food is coming from. By buying from sustainable family farmers, you’re not just supporting farmers, you’re also helping preserve our soil so future generations can thrive.
Willie, did you still think you’d be playing at Farm Aid in 2016?
Willie Nelson: I had hoped I wouldn’t need to, but I’m very grateful to these guys, John, Neil and Dave, who’ve lent their support to the movement for so long. Because of their work and the great work our farmer partners do every single day, I think farmers are doing a little better than they were. We still have many issues we have to fix, but we’re making progress. What we need all Americans to realize is the family farmer has to survive in order for all of us to survive in the way we want to live.