Is Farm Aid Still Relevant?

Farm Aid's original mission is a good one. But some of the policies it supports are less appealing.


Today marks the twenty-eighth edition of the annual music festival Farm Aid. The roving concert, which takes place this year in Saratoga Springs, NY, has its roots in the 1980s U.S. farm crisis, when a credit crunch, drought, and other factors pushed many American farmers off their land.

This year's concert will be the first Farm Aid to be held in rural New York State. It will feature pro bono performances by Willie Nelson (who founded the nonprofit that puts on Farm Aid), John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and Kacey Musgraves, the fantastic young country talent whose brilliant Same Trailer Different Park is my favorite album of 2013.

I'm on board with the overriding mission of Farm Aid—both of the concert and of the nonprofit that runs the festival.

At a time when the traditional family farm is fast becoming a thing of the past, a nonprofit like Farm Aid that believes in and supports "keeping family farmers on their land" is a noble cause. And Upstate New York dairy farmers—like those around Saratoga Springs—are among those struggling to stay on their land.

But Farm Aid's mission has also changed over time. Today the group wages "much more of an anti-corporate fight[,]" according to Rhonda Perry, a rural farm advocate quoted in a Time magazine profile of the concert's history in 2010.

According to Time, Farm Aid's organizers "didn't want a 'bail out'" for farmers in 1985, when the concert first took place. But by 2008—and probably earlier—the group's leaders did quite literally want a bailout, having sent "an open letter urging Congress to invest in family farms when considering the recovery package." A bailout, in other words.

Other policies that Farm Aid supports aren't exactly a boon for small farmers.

Neil Young traveled to Washington recently to plead with Congress to pass a new Farm Bill. Farm Aid has long viewed the Farm Bill as "the place where we can begin to realize our vision for a better food system." But the Farm Bill is a terrible boondoggle that largely leaves small farmers behind.

Farm Aid also supports unimaginably ridiculous milk price controls. A recent Farm Aid email "call[ed] on the USDA to set a fair price for dairy that will give farmers a decent shot at making a living." Want to help small farmers? That's not the way.

While in Washington, Young appeared alongside representatives from the National Farmers Union, which supports wasteful taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance—which encourage farmers to plant more crops than consumers need, and so waste taxpayer money while stifling competition. Good for small farmers? I think not.

And Farm Aid also spreads misinformation about laws pertaining to GMOs. Specifically, Farm Aid claims that laws pertaining to GMO crops somehow interfere with the right of non-GMO farmers "to access and save non-G[MO] seeds."

Whatever one thinks about GMO crops—and I am personally and professionally indifferent—that's just untrue. Courts have determined that farmers who use GMO seeds must abide by contract terms pertaining to planting and saving those same GMO seeds. But no court I know of has ever had anything to say about any farmer's right to save non-GMO seeds. What's more, some of the same small farmers Farm Aid claims to champion support growing GMO crops in their fields.

To some, Farm Aid is bigger than the policies it pushes.

"Irregardless of what specific farm bill policies one supports, it's undisputed that Farm Aid provides a valuable network of hundreds of farmer and advocacy organizations," says upstate New York attorney and dairy farmer Lorraine Lewandrowski, in an email to me. "Farm Aid has served its purpose well as a hub for lawyers and other professionals who work behind the scenes to assist farm families."

That's no doubt true.

One of the groups that tables at Farm Aid is the excellent Farmer Veteran Coalition.

"We support any military veteran who wants to come back to civilian life and participate in the agricultural industry, whether that means they grow commodity soybeans or direct-to-consumer hydroponic vegetables," says Jason Foscolo, FVC's general counsel, in an email to me. "Farm Aid is supportive of our ethos, and that is why we come back every year to raise awareness about our mission and the wider veteran-to-farmer movement."

That's fantastic.

Consumer demand is varied enough that I'm confident both the commodity soybean farmer and the direct-to-consumer hydroponic farmer Foscolo mentions have the opportunity to succeed. Farm Aid was started to help support that success. Groups like the Farmer Veteran Coalition continue that tradition—and perhaps point a way for Farm Aid to return to its roots and core mission.