We are hard at work on some brand new episodes for you, so in the meantime, we’re bringing you this rebroadcast of our interview with Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar and associate director Glenda Yoder, in honor of the 30th annual Farm Aid benefit concert happening on September 19, 2015.
Farm Aid may be best known for bringing in some of the biggest-name bands of the year, plus performances by founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. But outside of concert season, Farm Aid works persistently toward its mission of keeping family farmers on the land.
Let’s hear about it from Carolyn and Glenda.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Glenda and Carolyn, Farm Aid
June 1, 2015
Rebroadcast on September 14, 2015, in celebration of the annual Farm Aid concert on September 19.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Welcome, food and music lovers! You know the saying, “Behind every great man is a woman.” Well, in this case, it’s two women. And it is my great pleasure to introduce Carolyn Mugar and Glenda Yoder, who organize Farm Aid, best known for its long-running annual benefit concert. First organized by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp back in 1985, Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on the land. Carolyn, in 1985, was handpicked to be executive director by current board president Willie Nelson. Glenda has been working with Carolyn since 1990. Here are Carolyn and Brenda.
CAROLYN MUGAR: Well, you know, Farm Aid, I think people know that it was Willie Nelson who was the impetus behind Farm Aid. And Willie came from a rural area, he picked cotton as a boy, and he laced the country in his bus, playing all over the place. And he would stop at truck stops, and he’d talk to farmers, and he began to feel and see their pain, and hear their pain. He would be chatting with farmers at the truck stops.
So it’s a great lesson, I think, for all of us, because he did what he does. He’s an artist and he said, “All right, I’ll invite a few of my friends to come together to play,” because that’s what he could do. And we like to use that as an example of how anybody can do something from where they are. So he called a bunch of friends together and they put on the first concert in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985. The governor gave the stadium, blah blah blah, it’s all—everybody’s happy. The governor was having a bowl of chili and a beer with Willie and said, “Well, I’ll give you the stadium.” So it was put together in really just a very few weeks.
And there were, what, 79 acts? No, I’m sorry—50 acts, 79,000 people—I should say 50 artists. Everybody only got to play about three songs, including Bob Dylan and all the big acts. They got three songs, and it was a revolving stage, and they would start moving the stage around if you didn’t finish. So it was all hand-done. The stage was moved by hand with big crowbars. And it’s changed quite a bit since then.
Willie saw what was happening also. It was on the front page of papers. People were watching these sales, these farm sales, where farmers would come together and only bid a penny so that they would stop the foreclosure sale from happening. And it was a very moving time, and I went to several of those auctions. And those were on the front page of the papers, if you check from that period of time. So it was in the air. And Willie knew something was wrong. He said it’s something wrong with our country if we’re throwing our family farmers off the land. He understood the importance of family farmers in terms of community, in terms of production. So he just said, “Something’s wrong, and I’m going to do something.” And very, very quickly Neil Young and John Mellencamp came on board and, as I say, about 50 artists at that first show.
They realized, after Willie called this show, they said, “Well, what are we ever going to do with the money?” because Live Aid had just been held in July of that year. And so they realized that they would probably raise some money, and what would they do with it? Before you know it, I was sort of starting to poke around in farm country and find out what was happening, and I just immediately started talking to farmers and going and visiting farmers at their kitchen table. And really, that’s kind of how it started.
When Willie started Farm Aid, he and Mellencamp and Neil thought, you know, we’ll be able to solve this problem and we won’t have to ever have another concert, because they thought that the minute people saw the tragedy and the wrongness of forcing farmers off the land, they thought everybody…that Congress would change. And they realized gradually that it didn’t happen quite that fast. So over the years, they have become more and more and deeper and deeper committed.
TM: Did Congress—were they aware of the concert? Did that elevate the awareness and amplify the problem?
CM: It did. And they went to Congress and testified, and what have you. But, you know, we have a very, very powerful agribusiness lobby in this country, and that…you know, it’s a complicated situation, what was forcing family farmers off the land. But there were very strong powers, and those powers are still here. And that’s why a Farm Bill has never been passed that is a family-farm-oriented farm bill. There are elements each year in the Farm Bill which people work very hard on to make gains, but it is still, our farm policy is still really at the behest of the very strong agribusiness lobby.
And it’s not a vision of agriculture. At Farm Aid we talk a lot about trying to establish, trying to offer people a vision in agriculture. And that’s what the farmers talk about that we work with.
TM: So it’s five years, and Glenda, you are joining Farm Aid. And I’m assuming by then you’re realizing, we need to give some of this money to farmers. And so tell us, Glenda, how you got involved.
GLENDA YODER: The truth is that the money went out to the farmer organizations the day after Farm Aid, the first concert. So there was a very robust grant-making operation in place when I got to Farm Aid. So Farm Aid had delivered millions of dollars already to family farmer organizations. And there were organizations in most states, and we had really deep roots already by the time I got to Farm Aid.
It was really a pleasure to come into a situation with such passion. And as you know, music brings people together. And the spirit and the energy that everyone demonstrated, and still does, it’s really actually like something that’s gathering steam. And the community is very large and very vibrant.
Farm Aid began with listening. Carolyn talks about going to the kitchen tables of family farmers and walking the fields with farmers and listening, and listening is built into the DNA of Farm Aid. And that has made Farm Aid extremely resilient and attentive as times have changed. And times have changed! So it’s so wonderfully remarkable that now family farmers have more friends than ever, thanks to the people who are really seeking out family-farmer-identified food.
So in the early days, the work was really getting money to the countryside to those family farmer organizations that could stand side-by-side with their neighbors and help stop those foreclosures and help farmers stay on the land. A lot of work was done on credit and lending issues and making sure that farmers’ land was protected for them.
As the “good food” movement evolved, probably in the early 2000s, the organic rule came in in 2002, in its final form. And so it was a wonderful opportunity to begin to galvanize eaters to be good friends to family farmers. And Farm Aid began to ponder, what could we do to invite more eaters into the work?
Well, Farm Aid is family farmer centered. Farmers, we want an agricultural system that puts the family farmer at the center, the independent family farmer who can make good decisions about the care for the soil and water and is free to do those production practices that are good for the land. So the invitation to eaters evolved as we began to see that, you know, food and farming got kind of divided at some point. Why should we not know where our food comes from and who grew it and how they grew it? And that was the wonderful thing: as people became more conscious that an industrialized, chemical-intensive kind of production was harming people and harming their health. And so, as both the negative impact of industrial agriculture became evident and the opportunity for family-farmer-identified food through organic and other local food, people began to see there was a real choice.
And so what we did was we started something called Homegrown. We started first, as Carolyn says, we started at home. So we started to change the food at our own concerts, and by 2007 all of the food that [was] served to all of our concert-goers, front of the house and back of the house, was family-farmer-identified food.
The other thing about Farm Aid is that it likes to create an invitation for all of us as eaters to participate in the “culture of agriculture,” as we call it. So we have something called a Homegrown Village, and we have Homegrown.org, and those are opportunities for people to get their hands dirty, to learn how to cook and learn how to grow some of their own food, and learn how to engage in the practices that farmers do, so that we can all better understand what it’s like to be a farmer and what it’s like to have access to the knowledge about family-farm foods.
TM: I love the name “Homegrown,” and a good one, and so needed. I’m just wondering though, in the beginning, wasn’t there a hotline? And do you still manage the hotline?
CM: Yes, actually, from day one, inadvertently there was a hotline, because Willie had set up the 1-800-Farm-Aid number for people to call in for donations on the first show. The first show was pretty widely broadcast all over the country, and it was picked up by networks and stuff in the later part of the day. So we had an 800 number that farmers started calling because they needed help. So right away we started, the company that was taking the 800 calls for donations started referring all the farmer calls to us—and “us,” it was sort of like a few of us. And we started calling farmers back and recognizing the tremendous need that was there.
So we started quickly identifying the practices around the country, the organizations that had hotlines for farmers. And we found actually the whole sort of hotline movement started in a way, we found people that were often helping from their kitchen table. They might have gone through foreclosure, they might have lost the farm, or they might still be fighting [for] the farm. And then neighbors knew that they knew a little bit more than they did, so they started calling this person. And before you know it, that person had a $400 phone bill for that month. So we sought out these people and we were able to get money to them to offset some of their expenses they were just having because of helping neighbors. So that’s really… A lot of the hotline—I mean, all the hotline people in those days and I think mostly today were people that had faced some kind of farm problem themselves, most likely foreclosure.
I think Farm Aid has… I mean, one of the programs that we have is, obviously, our hotline and everything that it takes to do that kind of service work around the country. And we worked with people that we found, and then we’ve been very active trying to train new advocates for this job. And one of the things that we are pretty intent on is making sure people are connected. When they call the hotline, it’s not… We give them the best advice possible by mostly referring them to people that know about debt restructuring and FSA laws and what have you, rules. But we also want to make sure that they’re connected to as many people as they should be connected to, because we’re really about creating networks of farmers around the country so that people can all be stronger by working together.
TM: So these would be a lot of farmers helping farmers?
CM: It is. In many cases it’s farmers helping farmers. And it’s another thing that we’ve discovered, is that the best way to bring about any change is farmer to farmer, you know.
GY: Well, again, it’s a privilege to work with everybody. But I want to say that the concert itself is kind of a rallying place too. There are lots of events now associated with it. There are farm tours and there are gatherings of our loyal families, the sponsors and the donors and the farmers and the volunteers and the people who see themselves as part of the Farm Aid family. It’s a wonderful gathering.
The folks who do production, our producer of our show has done every show, including the first one. There is a kind of element that has resulted in, when people start getting involved, they don’t ever want to not be involved. And there’s usually a farmer-oriented gathering as well in the days leading up to the concert, because so many farmers come to the concerts.
TM: You know, I’m looking at the 1980s again, and farming. And you two have been watching farming for a long time. Do you see some changes going on in the family farm in the last 25 or 30 years?
CM: I think we have to be very conscious of who’s going to be the face of farming in the future. I mean, we work with an organization in California, ALBA, who actually works with migrant farmer workers so that they can become their own farmers. And maybe they’re farming an acre of land at first. But it’s an amazing organization, and it’s an example of, I think, the possibility of future wealth in this country in terms of the knowledge, the know-how that a lot of immigrants have, from coming from other countries and knowing how to farm in different ways. We are facing some serious climate change situations in our country right now, and people are going to have to adapt and grow differently and use water differently, and look at the soil as a far more important thing to grow. We’ve worked with this guy that says, you know, you don’t grow food—you grow soil.
GY: That’s right. The farmers of the future are going to be a surprising group, and already are. We’re seeing so much more urban agriculture, which creates a far more diverse pool of potential farmers.
One of the things we’ve worked on over the years is the tragedy of discrimination and racism that resulted in black land loss. And throughout the South in particular, so much of a community’s wealth was lost through discriminatory practices. So that’s an issue we’ve worked on and continue to work on because it’s so crucial.
In the cities, there are really innovative things happening, as cities themselves make land available, as soil is remediated, as young people and communities that don’t have access to fresh food are beginning to grow their own and also sell food in their own neighborhoods that they’ve grown.
One of our most exciting projects, again, is from our adventure in New York City. Part of our Farm Aid concert presentation is something we call the Homegrown Youth Market. And that involves young people selling fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farm Aid Concert. So why shouldn’t you have a beautiful fresh apple at a Farm Aid concert, or a peach? And those young people love to come and sell that food. And we’re actually exploring, seeing if we can create more Homegrown Youth Markets around the country. It’s an exciting time.
CM: One of the things that’s both wonderful and difficult for us is that Farm Aid moves around every year. Willie’s intent was to be able to play for farmers no matter where they were, and so he wanted to keep lacing the country. It means we have to acquaint ourselves with a whole new set of details, putting on a concert in a different venue every year. But we also learn so much, because we go very early to the area and start working with all the people there that we can find. We know a lot to start with, and then one leads to another.
So last year, as a result of being in North Carolina, we met with a woman who’s running a city program in one of the poorest districts of the United States, and she has access to land, and she wants to teach youth how to farm. And we also know that not far from there is a lot of farmland that belonged to African American farmers that the people there wish people would farm still. It’s a complicated situation in terms of how a farm gets distributed when there’s a lot of heirs.
But our wish is that through some of these urban projects, that you can have people identity as a farmer and then we don’t know where that’s going to take them. We don’t know where that’s going to take agriculture. But we want to encourage this wherever we can, where there’s youth that want to farm. And it’s up to all of us to figure this out in our communities.
TM: Going back to this idea, though, of how farming has changed. So the average age of a farmer right now is over 60, I think. You all are seeing more youth come in, but a huge problem for the youth right now is being able to afford land.
GY: Well, it’s a challenge. The price of land is expensive and it’s very difficult. But there are a lot of interesting formations of people who want to help farmers invest in land and gathering of funds in communities. So we’ve seen the effort of Slow Money, we’ve seen the effort of certain food companies who are also helping ensure their own supply chains by investing in farmland for their farmers who are going to be growing food for them. And there are farmer cooperatives.
One of the groups that we’ve funded is the Carrot Project, which makes loans available to farmers for either acquiring land or expanding in ways that they need to expand to become more profitable. So there’s all kinds of creative formations afoot.
CM: I mean, one of the things that we’re very keen on—and maybe this sounds a little obscure—but we want to be sure that access to land is not only by people that might have privilege of access to land. And again, it goes back to what is the best vision for the basis of farming in our future? So we want to be sure that… There’s been decades of discriminatory practices with lending, and there was a lawsuit in the southeast that gave back lost money to African American farmers, the Pigford lawsuit.
TM: Yeah, I followed that.
CM: Right. And that is on the heels of years of discriminatory practice, which the people we work with have fought very hard to change. And so we want to be very careful to look at how people are getting access to land. One of the problems is, new farmers coming along—which we work a lot with new farmers, it’s hugely encouraging—but after several years of renting, it’s very difficult for them to get access to land. And then they don’t have the equity. And we’re in the middle of these problems right now, we really are. And so again, we invite people to be a part of the solution here.
TM: And how would you recommend that folks can be part of the solution? Of course eating, and eating from family farms. But can they also donate to Farm Aid?
GY: Farm Aid has always welcomed donations. And it’s only thanks to the donations that Farm Aid exists today. So that’s part of the really big, loyal community that rallied around Willie and Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and then Dave Matthews. So the music carries us forward, and the donations, and the support from both companies and individuals have really carried the day.
One of the things I wanted to add here is how inspiring farmers’ stories are to everybody. More and more people are interested in the food and where it came from and who grew it. And we’re finding that farmers are telling their stories in interesting ways. And we’re really committed to putting out the stories of “farmer heroes,” and we have that on our website and we distribute that through our social media. But also the stories of farmers who are struggling and who are brave, up against what they have to face every day. And that’s really encouraging, that farmers want to tell their stories—and we want to help them get their stories out.
TM: We lost so many farmers in the 1980s, and of course we’re still losing farmers. But it turns out that the farmers markets and CSAs are actually growing the number of smaller farmers. And agribiz, of course—the Earl Butz line, “Get big or get out”—they’re pretty stable too. And it turns out that the endangered farmer right now is this ag-in-the-middle farmer. Do you have any comments on that?
GY: You’re exactly right. It’s been difficult for farmers in the middle, particularly dairy and corn and soy and cotton. All of those growers have really struggled to stay on the land, and they’ve been pressured to acquire more land or rent more land and stretch themselves. One of the most saving graces, however, again, is this food movement. So we have seen farmer livelihood stabilized and go up once they get into organic production supply chains. Or one of the things we’re working on now is helping farmers transition to non-GMO corn and soy. And this kind of identity-preserved effort, we hope, will help keep more farmers in the middle thriving on a family-sized farm, and that it can be good for their livelihood.
TM: I’m really pained to say that some of the farm stories I’ve heard recently have been about, in the Midwest, a lot of cancer in the farm community and in the farmworker community.
CM: Well, we know this is a reality. And one of the things that we do with our farm resource network or the hotline is there are resources on there for farmers to go, to put their farm on a trajectory of less chemical farming. And it’s one of our keen interests. We are a big tent—we work with all kinds of farmers. But we particularly are very desirous of reaching more farmers who recognize the cancer problems for themselves and for the people that are eating their food and living on the land. So we recognize that hopefully that will be an interest, and that’s why we have the resources. So we are aware of this, and it’s something that we all need to work on.
And people need to… I think another handshake here is eaters saying we want our food grown that way. I mean, when eaters buy food that supports that kind of environmental agriculture, that encourages farmers to grow more of that. So that’s the kind of handshake.
TM: It’s exciting to have you guys in, doing that and supporting that, because it seems like the food system is broken and that there is a real big denial on the agribiz side about that. And so, if you don’t mind me asking more about agribiz, Carolyn, you mentioned about the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill has never been about family farmers, you said. And can you speak a little bit more about that?
CM: Well, I’m the worst expert on the Farm Bill, but it isn’t about family farmers. But the fact is, the Farm Bill is not, as I mentioned before, anything about a unified vision of agriculture for this country, which really has to do with our future. It’s really what we…if we really want to survive into the future, and our children and our land and our water to survive, we really have to understand what that’s going to take. And the Farm Bill doesn’t encompass that. There are aspects of the Farm Bill that people, as I mentioned, have tried to…there are sections of the Farm Bill which people can take advantage of in terms of changing the way that they grow and their access to land. But it’s minuscule compared to how the major forces in agriculture in this country are operating.
BY: I think food and farming is too important to be left in the hands of a handful of corporations. And if you have an agricultural system oriented pretty exclusively toward the profits of both the input agribusiness and a very consolidated purchasing system, it doesn’t serve the farmer, and it certainly doesn’t serve the eater.
TM: You know, one of the things that I love about Farm Aid is that you’re combining art with something very practical: food. And that, I think, gives a dimension to activism that I think is really important. Talk a little bit about what are the new programs or current programs that you see coming on the horizon for Farm Aid?
CM: You know, one of the things that I think is unique about Farm Aid is that artists, such as Willie, John, Dave, and Neil, they always have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening next. They know immediately, from the response of their audience, how their audience responds to things. And at Farm Aid we try to be that agile, and we try to have our antenna up as much and our ears open.
So I would say that there are great things on the horizon in terms of people in this country recognizing that they want change and recognizing that there are ways to do it. And that’s why we offer ourselves as a place where people can form those partnerships. I really think that through Farm Aid, eaters can connect to farmers, that they can understand that what they want… You know, people know that they want something different, but they, I think, they inherently know that they have to support the farmer and understand that situation. But I think that we can help people make that connection a lot better.
So I have a lot of hope that people are so open to this change, and I think that we’re right on the cusp of them recognizing how crucial the farmer is.
TM: I hope you enjoyed getting to know Carolyn and Glenda and hearing about all the amazing work Farm Aid accomplishes for family farms. Farm Aid’s 2015 concert will take place this September 19 and will mark Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary. If you’re able to make the event, you won’t be disappointed. Thank you for joining us this week.
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