In the early 1980s, Willie Nelson had the idea to start an organization that would raise awareness about the plight of family farmers in jeopardy of losing their farms due to financial hardship. A friend encouraged Nelson to contact John Mellencamp, whose album Scarecrow — largely about the state of family farming — had just been released. Nelson made the call, and the two forged a partnership. Neil Young joined the duo to organize the first Farm Aid concert in 1985. Dave Matthews joined the board of directors in 2001. In its 23 years, the nonprofit Farm Aid has raised more than $30 million — money that has been used to support family farmers and, more recently, as emergency relief funds for families whose farms were hit by the floods in Iowa last June. Recently, Delicious Living caught up with John Mellencamp, on tour for his new album Life Death Love and Freedom, to talk about his involvement with Farm Aid.
Delicious Living: How has the state of farming changed in the past 20 years?
John Mellencamp: When we started Farm Aid, the big industrial farming model was just coming into play, and that's why families were being forced off their farms. Factory farming is still something we've got to fight. But we're seeing farm families who survived the industrialization of agriculture come back to the land again and young families and friends working the land for the first time. People are also renting land to grow food and cultivating urban rooftops and community gardens. It's a hopeful time because a lot of people have suddenly realized, “I don't even know what's in the crap those companies are trying to sell me. I want to know what I'm eating, so I'm going to take the time to know my food and know my farmer.”
What do you choose when buying food? Local? Organic?
Where I come from in Indiana there are no fancy boutique supermarkets. A fancy boutique supermarket is the farmers' market. And lucky for me, in my town, there's a little store that only sells organic food, and it's been there for years.
Why did you feel that it was important to get involved?
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a small town. As a kid, in the fall I was able to see the crops coming in and see what time the people had to get up to go to work to bring those crops in. I saw them gathering on Main Street, talking about the problems and the successes they were having with their farms. The small family farmer was really the backbone of this country, and then all of a sudden somebody got the idea that they needed to feed the world. Well, we really got off track with that idea, and we need to feed our communities. By protecting the small family farmer, we protect our own families.
How can people get involved beyond going to the Farm Aid concerts?
I think that this country needs policy change. Everywhere you look, the regular guys are getting screwed, whether it is factory farms, the price of gas — you name it. Everywhere you look, there is a problem. I think before we can save the environment, before we can get rid of factory farming, before we can give the country back to the people, we have to have policy change — and that comes from us and the people we elect. We have to start paying attention to who we are electing into office and make them live up to their word and quit taking this corporate money over the interests of people. But above all, if you want a better world, it starts with you.
Read our related article, Organics and the Farm Bill