Natural Foods Merchandiser

Two decades strong, Farm Aid rocks organics

"We keep stressing that people get a conscience about what they buy, and to look at what the label says. Recently, we've turned a lot of our energy toward highlighting organic and sustainable agriculture because we know that these guys—you organic farmers, you sustainable farmers—you're out there. You know who you are. You cannot be duplicated by a machine. You cannot be replaced by a corporation. Because you are farming the land the way it was meant to be farmed, creating products that are meant to be eaten by healthy, young, growing bodies. And that's what we need."

—Neil Young, Farm Aid 2005

Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave MatthewsThe Earth—and its bounty—may sustain us, but in 1985 a group of musicians decided it was high time people started returning the favor by sustaining the soil, as well as the folks who farm it. Farm Aid was officially born from the efforts of Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. In 2001, Dave Matthews joined Farm Aid's board of directors. The nonprofit organization has a simple (though not easy) mission: keep family farmers on the land and promote family-farm-centered agriculture in the United States. It's a challenging goal considering the growth of the mega-farm, and manufacturers' and retailers' institutional bias to work with larger farms.

Farm Aid 2007: A Homegrown Festival will be held Sept. 9 on Randall's Island in New York City.
Recently, organic farming has begun to loom large in the Farm Aid plan. Ellen Feeney, vice president of responsible livelihood at Broomfield, Colo.-based White Wave Foods, says Farm Aid is doing a great job helping farmers survive in tough times, as well as bringing them together to work on issues—and even help them transition to organic. "I'm a big fan of the people involved with Farm Aid. Not just as an organization, but as people. They are the real deal," she says. "The cause is so pure, and the people are passionate about solutions, real-life solutions."

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., says that while there are a lot of "negative things" happening out in the countryside, Farm Aid shines by bringing awareness about farm issues to the urban consumer. "What's unique about these artists is that they've walked their talk for so long … and have never backed down," even to the point of being farmers themselves, he says. "Neil Young has his farm. So does Dave Matthews. And Neil's is certified organic by [California Certified Organic Farmers.]"

Feeney says Farm Aid gets an important message across to those who might not otherwise think of it: Where does our food come from? Who is making it? "It's born out of that long history—from the '60s and even before—of affecting change through the power of music."

Scowcroft says Farm Aid stays true to its mission. "They really do support grassroots-based farm groups." He says more recently that support has taken a real solution-based direction.

The Farm Aid group carries out its mission statement with a four-pronged approach: promote food from family farms, grow the "Good Food Movement," help farmers thrive and take action to change the system.

According to Mark Smith, Farm Aid's campaign director, a large part of promoting family-farmed food is to inform the general public about critical food and farm issues. "We do this through the annual concert, which is a big media event, in addition to [being] a music event. We do lots of media to highlight the good work being done in that area and state," he says. Through this media blitz, the group hopes to increase support for family-farmed food and the systems that help bring it to the public, such as farmers' markets.

As for the Good Food Movement, Smith says Farm Aid supports many organizations and projects across the country aimed at building local food systems and linking farmers with institutional systems working for change. More importantly, the public is asking for a change from the traditional food system, says Ted Quaday, Farm Aid's program director. "They're ready for change, and it's percolating through multiple areas of society," he says. "Everything from high-end restaurants down to farmers' markets in the inner city of Camden, N.J."

When it comes to helping farmers thrive, Farm Aid supports a farmer hotline to field calls about everything from financial issues to ways that a farm can become more diversified and sustainable. A national network of farm advocates is waiting to help. The group also developed an online tool with which farmers can search by region or state to get connected with the resources they seek. "Through this, we can help them be more economically and environmentally viable," Smith says.

According to Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid, another way farmers are finding a leg up is through organics. "Organic has been very good for family farmers," she says, calling organic a "bright spot" in the quest for farmers to remain on the land. "The artists have paid attention to that," she says. In fact, she admits that economic justice for farmers and environmental stewardship haven't always overlapped, but "the family-farm justice movement and the organic and sustainable movements have come together."

Says Quaday: "If [farmers] see an opportunity, most will start looking for ways to make the transition. In fact, there is broader and broader acceptance of organic as a viable production method, and that's good."

Changing the current political and economic system takes an integrated effort. The group works on the local, state and federal levels to promote fair farm policies that serve the interests of family farms. The pressing issue at hand is the Farm Bill. "It's the blueprint that lasts five or six years determining much of how food is grown and by whom," Smith says. "We're really working with a variety of organizations to make sure the Farm Bill supports the interests of family farms, the consumer and the environment."

Through its farm lending programs, sponsorship of National Organic Action Plan meetings, its well-known Farm Aid concerts and its suicide-prevention hotline, Farm Aid has been a voice and re?source for family farmers for more than 20 years.

Looking forward, Quaday says continuing development of the grassroots movements aimed at solutions is important, especially those that focus on the future needs of the organic community.

Smith says the results will reach well beyond the farm. "I think if you look at many of the pressing issues today—climate change, energy independence, obesity—they all have strong roots back on the farm: how food is produced and who produces it. The solution can be derived from our food and farm policies," he says. "Take packaged food, for instance. It takes about 40 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. Something's wrong with that equation."

Bryce Edmonds is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Editor's note: Delicious Living, a sister publication of The Natural Foods Merchandiser, is a Farm Aid sponsor.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 52

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