Farm Aid Drinks the Kool Aid

Published on: 13:29PM Sep 08, 2008

In my last post, I blogged about being back in Nebraska in the 1980s, during the farm crisis.  One of the responses to that crisis was the creation of a benefit concert in 1985, known as Farm Aid.  It had plenty of big-named entertainers all working together to publicize the dire economic conditions facing farmers, and raise money for the good of the cause.


In 1987, when I was a cub TV reporter in Nebraska, I covered the Farm Aid concert in Lincoln.  It was a heckuva show, which is saying something, in that it was held in a place – the University of Nebraska’s famed football stadium– that typically housed maddening crowds of 70,000 plus red-clad football fans.  Farm Aid was a unifying event designed to spur public support for farmers, whether in Nebraska, or across the nation.  FA’s founding fathers – Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, among them – were rightly viewed as doing the Lord’s work for farmers and rural communities.


So, two decades later, it’s somewhat sad to see what’s become of Farm Aid.  Read this description from a recent Boston Globe story reporting on this year’s upcoming Sept. 20th Farm Aid concert in Mansfield, MA: 


Farm Aid, the Big Kahuna of farm-relief benefits, was also founded on the belief that music has the power to raise consciousness as well as money - and not just among audiences. Attendees will be able to experience farm life firsthand in the Homegrown Village and eat local, organic, family-farm food at the Comcast Center's concession stands.


If you look through the Farm Aid website, it provides a list of laudable services for “family” farmers, if in fact your farm is in the business of producing “sustainable,” “local” and “organic” foods – what the site in no uncertain terms says is Good Food.  I guess that means if you’re just a normal family dairy farmer in the U.S. who is among the 98% that are not certified organic, and has trouble defining sustainability with a straight face, you’re out of luck.  You’ve become the problem, buddy – and Farm Aid doesn’t like your Bad Food.


In fact, if you look at the bottom of the Good Food page, it makes it sound like our domestic, conventional food supply – which is what the vast majority of American farmers produce – is a hazard, not a benefit, to the rest of America.  GMOs and mad cow disease; since when were these real threats to farmers or consumers?  BT corn traits this year may be the only thing between the public and $10+ bushel corn this fall – why would Farm Aid say we’re threatened by that?


Indeed, 98% of dairy farms are family owned, even if an identical percentage are not organic.  For that matter, a significant portion of the nation’s organic milk supply is not produced by the small, family-farm types extolled by Farm Aid.  Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to serve the niche markets that seem to be FA’s bread and butter, but it’s such a small sliver of both production and consumption that it hardly seems to be relevant.  How helpful can any charity be if the litmus test for its largess raises the arbitrary bar to such heights?


And perhaps, in the end, that’s the logical denouement of Farm Aid after 23 years:  what began as a mainstream, unifying effort to amalgamate support for agriculture has become a tool to separate good vs. bad farming and enforce a political correctness about how and where food should be produced.  Isn’t that what Whole Foods used to be about?