By the time loyal Sunday readers get to this, I hopefully will be westbound and down heading across Kansas for the higher altitudes and cooler nights of Colorado.


The reason I’m in Kansas is Farm Aid. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Mathews had 25 Farm Aids under their belts before I caught up with them for No. 26.

For anyone whose taste in music runs on that line that includes outlaw country and rock, Farm Aid should be on your bucket list. From its beginnings, Farm Aid has been about rural politics and conditions in the agricultural economy.

A farm debt crisis not unlike what the rest of the economy is going through now was behind Willie Nelson’s call for the first Farm Aid.  Farmers were losing their farms, often without much notice.

This was 1985 and still a time when a Republican President (Ronald Reagan) and a Democratic Congress could pull together and accomplish something. 

After the first couple Farm Aids, federal ag credit was restructured, and one of the top experts on farm credit tells me that is why farm land values and financing have been largely immune from the “credit crisis” facing the non-Ag economy today.

Farm Aid has continued, raising north of $40 million in 26 years mostly from annual one-day concerts involving the founding four and others they enlist.  

I am driving across Kansas, however, because of the Farm Aid 2011 “festivities” and the “Good Food Movement” politics. Farm Aid wants to “change the dominant system of industrial agriculture and promote food from family farms.”

My guess is everybody cheered for that, even though most in the Kansas City crowd are probably employed by the “system of industrial agriculture.”  But that’s OK, because when Willie and John Mellencamp are around, it’s easy to suspend reality of the workday world.  

I wanted to see who came out for the “biggest family farm restaurant in Kansas” with HOMEGROWN Concessions ® at Farm Aid.  Its menu included local, organic, family-farm sourced ingredients.  I went for the  “the “grass-fed beef brisket” over the “family farm pork BBQ ribs,” but it was a close call.

The HOMEGROWN Village provided “a chance to meet farmers” and get one’s hands dirty. There were games, with one farm trivia challenge for players being “guess which country the food in your grocery store comes from.”

Ever since they shared in the victory of seeing the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 signed into law, Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Mathews have used Farm Aid to push ag policies they favor.   From the passage of the Organic Food Production Act in 1990 to the filing of the largest class action lawsuit ever brought against USDA on behave of African-American farmers, Farm Aid has been a consistent force for these past 26 years.

Certainly, Farm Aid rhetoric tends to get overblown.   It’s always good family farmers versus evil corporate agriculture.   Having grown up with farmers, gone to college with farmers and ranchers at a Ag university, I know many.  What I hear mostly is they feel like they have feet in both camps.  

Kansas is a big corporate Ag powerhouse, yet 85 percent of its farms are family-owned.

Food safety either goes un-mentioned or it is assumed that all organic/locally grown food is safe, period.   One gets the impression that unless you bring it up, the Good Food Movement would prefer not to talk about food safety.

Still, Farm Aid 2011 provided one of the best mixes of music and food politics this side of a state fair.  

We went to look and listen to both in hopes that some food safety consciousness would also be in there, somewhere.

  • Doc Mudd

    According to USDA “…the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2007 Census of Agriculture reported that family farms account for almost 96 percent of the 2,204,792 farms in the United States.”
    That’s a preponderance, over 2 million family farms across America. Apparently no shortage of “family farmers”, certainly no crisis of extinction at the hands of evil “corporate farms”.
    With its dubious battle cry of ‘rescue the family farm’, FarmAid has taken in $40 million, but where has it all gone? (None, not one of my family farmer friends can recall any relief from FarmAid, ever – it’s a morbid joke we recite to lighten the tension when the chips are down)
    According to FarmAid:
    “Some people assume Farm Aid provides large grants and loans directly to farmers. In fact, we can’t and never have.”
    But, FarmAid does not report who, in fact, is pocketing the $40 million in cash (go to their website, click on the few links promising an explanation and you are directed to a splash screen bluntly informing you “page could not be found”).
    OK: great music, wild concert, feel-good illusion, little else.
    A fool and her money are easily parted.
    Willie Nelson is a marketing genius!

  • Steve

    Most likely the Farm Aid money trail is not currently posted because the list of recipients has been removed for the moment for updating because the Farm Aid grant deadline was the first of August.
    And while it’s true Farm Aid doesn’t lay money on farmers, directly anyway — their organization has created an effective competitive grant program where awards go to a wide range of farmer and farming organizations — who have the policy expertise and programs to effectively address farm problems and assist farmers at the grassroots level.
    With the total farmer population brought down under 1% of the population this demographic has very very little clout and the lion’s share of the resources and huge farm subsidies) are passed through (laundered) farmers’ pockets directly into the coffers of the petrochemical ag input corporations year in and year out, in good years and bad.
    With a major 26 year commitment, Neil, John and Dave have done an incredible amount of good for real family farmers all across the country. Their concerts help open the eyes of eaters who act like food comes from supermarkets and convenience stores. They could of course keep these concert proceeds for themselves, like any mega entertainers, but have chosen otherwise and put their money where their (tuneful) mouths are. Bless them.

  • Steve

    And — on that statistic that 96% of farms are “family farms”… well, it depends on how you want to define and categorize family ownership…
    Thanks to the industry-friendly “Get Big or Get Out” ag policies under Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, protracted top down policy shifts have led to the rise and consolidation of agribusinesses and large scale farms — as well as the concomitant financial decline and eradication of smaller scale farms.
    With the US farmer population down to 1% of the US population (average age, 56) the legal entities that are now farming the owned and rented acreage of the large scale industrialized commodity crops (cotton, rice, soy, corn, wheat, canola, sugar etc) are mostly family-held corporations.
    Take a drive out into commodity country and you’ll see a rows of mailboxes in front of each mega farm — to receive separate subsidy checks for each branch of the family. Three-quarters of taxpayer subsidy money goes to the top 10% biggest farms — which they have used to buy out smaller farms (along with the subsidy base) to further expand their holdings. “Farming the Government”, it’s called….
    And increasingly investors and speculators are stepping into the lucrative subsidized commodity market via multinational corporations, food conglomerates, manufacturers, energy and ethanol corporations, etc. — giving even the biggest farmers a run for the money.
    Meanwhile, real non-commodity crop family farmers (growing (fruit, vegetables, nuts, small grains, horticultural products, etc) that Farm Aid assists get no subsidies at all.

  • Michael Bulger

    Perhaps Mudd’s internet connection is spotty. I easily accessed an independent accounting audit on Farm Aid.
    Scholarships to agricultural higher learning for those intending to return to family farms, disaster relief, informational and networking websites. It seems Farm Aid has garnered a high rating from the American Institute for Philanthropy.
    From the Farm Aid website: “In 2010, Farm Aid distributed $408,100 to 60 family farm and rural service organizations nationwide.”
    Information on the 2010 grant recipients can be easily found on Farm Aid’s website:
    It could be noted that many of the grantees are organizations that specialize in assisting family farms that could also be classified as small or mid-sized. While it is true that there are many small and mid-sized family farmers in the United States, their share of the market has been eclipsed by the output from large farms. According to USDA ERS, between 1982 and 2002, the market share of farms with $1 million or more in sales more than doubled. By 2004, some 10% of U.S. farms were considered large. These large farms still managed to control 75% of the value of U.S. agricultural production. (

  • Doc Mudd

    We can disingenuously whine over the imagined plight of what USDA terms “lifestyle farmers” another time — right now let’s have a look at the FarmAid financial statements Bulger has so graciously released to us…
    Last year (2010) we find this accounting:
    Total revenue and support……….$4,053,515
    Salaries, benefits, tax, travel….$ 982,938
    Other business expense………….$2,640,149
    Grants to “farm” organizations…..$ 430,428
    That works out to 10.6% or, put in plain lanquage, fewer than 11 cents from every dollar are delivered to organizations who claim to “help” farmers (nearly 25 cents out of every dollar goes to paying and pampering FarmAid staff). Not a very efficent transfer of funds to “farmers” by anyone’s reckoning!
    It would make an interesting survey to learn how much of the measly 11 cents that passes into the hands of other organizations is sucked away by them into wages & benefits & cushy traveling around disseminating anti-agriculture propaganda. Probably about 90% of it again, as we see with FarmAid. So, maybe about one penny from every dollar FarmAid takes in ever benefits any farmer…and then it’s intended to placate only a USDA “lifestyle farmer” (you and I recognize them as hobby farmers).
    Looks like we’ve uncovered a vast network of parasitic organizations callously feeding off popular romantic sentiment for the farm community.
    My family farmer buddies make a pretty good joke, after all, when they tell how they moved some of the bigger machinery back up into the side yard to make it easier for Willie to steer his big ol’ tour bus into the driveway and drop off the sacks of money…but Willie never showed up…delayed somewhere…on the road, again.
    Oh well, at least we get a fun concert once a year out of the wasteful mess.

  • Doc Mudd

    This whole excited FarmAid money shuffle reminds me of Jerry Reed’s lighthearted take on deals of this sort…
    Dang, the got us again this year!
    RIP Jerry. You are missed!

  • > it’s easy to suspend reality of the workday world.
    There’s a whole lot of suspension of reality going on in Farm Aid’s Good Food Movement, not the least of which is economic and production realities. Here’s one perspective on why:

  • Doc Mudd

    Thanks, Mike, for helping us get a grip on reality.
    I’ve bookmarked the truthinfood site you linked to — and I’ve printed out these two pages, in particular, that so beautifully explain the anti-agriculture cult crusade.
    Used to be the non-farm public only flipped you off when your slow-moving equipment impeded their speedy progress along their public roadway. Now, it seems, they don’t need even that much cause to spuriously trash and malign American agriculture. Mystery solved!!

  • Doc Mudd

    While we’re waiting for “Steve”, our paid NOFA propagandist and “Michael”, his NYU masters student sidekick to reply we may as well keep this little impromptu concert rollin’.
    How ’bout a little ode to the struggling “lifestyle farmer” we are all so, so worried about…

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, still waitin’ for our expert anti-agriculturists to return and get us straightened out, once and for all. I’d offer them a penny for their thoughts, if it would help, but I’d have to donate a whole damned dollar to FarmAid for them to receive the penny.
    Might as well play another one while we’re waitin’…this time a sad ballad of a proposed farm merger, just more evil agricultural consolidation hastening the certain ruination of us all:

  • Doc Mudd

    Seems the crooning anti-agriculture duet tag team of Gilman & Bulger has left the building.
    So, we will close out our little impromptu concert with a tribute to Gilman’s “row of mailboxes” (one for each hard-working farm family on large successful family farms across the nation). Turns out “Steve” has an impressive ‘row of mailboxes’ of his own (all sponsored by his bosses over at NOFA, no doubt)…let’s see, there’s “Steve”, “ICBM”, “DM”, “BB”, “Max”, “Sleuther”, “JustTheFacts”, probably several more I’ve forgotten, and my all-time favorite, “Ruby”. Let’s drop a postcard in Ruby’s box, shall we?
    Good night folks. Be safe out there. Don’t take any wooden nickels…or waste any donations on FarmAid.