Natural Foods Merchandiser talks with Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid, a national nonprofit that raises money for and supports family farmers, primarily through its annual concert featuring board members Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, along with many other artists. This year’s show is Saturday, Aug. 13, at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What are Farm Aid’s primary goals?
Glenda Yoder: First, we need to address the issue of corporate agribusiness, which does not create a competitive marketplace for farmers. Consolidation thwarts innovation, and farmers are among the most innovative and entrepreneurial people out there. In the policy arena, Farm Aid works a great deal on the issue of credit—helping farmers find it, negotiating bankruptcies, etc. When crop prices and operating costs skyrocket and then plummet, those are impossible market conditions. Credit structure is set up to reinforce an agriculture that doesn’t allow farmers many choices—and we hear frustrating examples of this every day. We’re incredibly hopeful that so many entrepreneurial efforts are underway to help farmers succeed. When family farmers can independently make decisions about how to use the land they’re deeply connected to—that kind of enterprise is the bedrock of a healthy economy.
NFM: How does the organization help farmers?
GY: We’ve had a hotline open every day for 26 years, and we have a staff member dedicated to answering the phone. We address all types of problems, from what to do when there’s not enough grocery money for the week to how to transition a farm to organic. From this, we’ve built a network of farm and rural-services organizations—we’ve compiled the very best of everything that can help farmers survive. Now we’ve created an online tool, the Farmer Resource Network, that’s used primarily by new and younger farmers. We also make grants to farm organizations around the country.
NFM: Does Farm Aid lobby the government?
GY: We’re taking action to change the system, but we’re not lobbyists. We’re mostly grassroots, working to get groups together to offer clarity on which policy changes are necessary. There isn’t enough money for us to be significant lobbyists.
NFM: How does the annual benefit concert help to forward Farm Aid’s missions?
GY: Bringing music and inspiration to the cause of family farming has had an enormous impact in raising awareness of the good food family farms produce. The concerts provide a platform to promote this idea to the widest possible audience. If we create a connection between farmers and eaters, we create market demand.
NFM: Beyond the concert, how involved are the artist board members?
GY: They’re very involved and deeply committed. Farm Aid is the longest-running concert for a cause, because Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp—and Dave Matthews after he joined the board in 2001—have dug in and built this program for the past 26 years. These musicians have major respect for farmers, because artists and farmers both love what they do and will do it no matter the circumstances. Willie, in particular, meets with farmers all over the country throughout the year.
NFM: Is food from family farms sold at the concert concessions?
GY: We have Homegrown Concessions, which means our food is family farmer identified. We love that when we introduce a food supplier into a venue, we show that venue that natural how products can be incorporated. We’ve been pioneers in introducing family-farm food service to the entertainment business.
NFM: How has the natural products industry’s colossal growth over the past decade impacted family farms?
GY: I might say it’s the other way around: Natural products businesses can succeed when there’s a healthy family-farm sector, which is what we work toward ensuring. Keeping families on their land contributes enormously to a healthy natural products sector.
NFM: How are family farmers and natural products manufacturers and retailers similar?
GY: Farmers and the natural products industry both represent innovation and creativity in creating products that people really want—and farmers are the basis of that.