Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews recently gathered with family farmers, agricultural advocates, music fans, food eaters, and other music artists to help grow the Good Food Movement at Farm Aid 2013. More than 25,000 fans attended the sold-out event on September 21, hosted at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Kansas Farmers Union played a role at Farm Aid this year, as President Donn Teske, Mercedes Taylor-Puckett, Linda Hessman, and Nick Levendofsky worked different booths representing KFU, National Farmers Union, and Farm Aid’s Farm Advocate Link, respectively.

“The small family farmer has to survive in order for all of us to survive in the way we want to live. Our message to the people out there who don’t agree with us on all of this, would be, ‘We’re not happy ‘til you’re not happy,’” Nelson said.

Curt Ellis, filmmaker and founder of the nonprofit organization FoodCorps, moderated a discussion about the challenges family farmers face and strategies for a strong Good Food Movement. Chuck Curtiss of Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston Spa, N.Y.; Ben and Lindsey Shute of Hearty Roots Community Farm in Clermont, N.Y.; and Jayson Rosado of GrowNYC’s Youthmarket joined Nelson, Mellencamp, Young, and Matthews, along with Jack Johnson and Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar, for the conversation.

“How fortunate are family farmers and all of us that these four artists bring their immense talent and commitment to the family farm movement,” Mugar said. “When they gather us together with their music, we’re inspired to create a stronger movement for social change.” Mugar went on to say, “Farm Aid would not be here without all of you. We’re in this together, and I’m glad we’re on the same team and we’re walking the same road.”

Willie Nelson had a daunting task ahead of him when he started Farm Aid 28 years ago, and a number of people played a role in forming Farm Aid’s advocacy role. One of those people was former Illinois Governor James Thompson. He told Willie back in 1985, over lunch, how bad things were for family farmers. Nelson admitted, “I wasn’t aware of it. I traveled around a lot, and I heard all the ‘war stories,’ but I wasn’t really aware of it. My friends back in Texas were telling me it was really bad for the people in the Midwest.”

That’s what led Nelson to develop Farm Aid, and 21 days later, the first sold-out Farm Aid was held in Champaign, Illinois. “From then on, 28 years in a row, we’ve been trying to do the same thing. Trying to call attention to the problems these farmers are facing every year and every day. That’s our job. To call attention to it and then let you people out there who know how to do something about it,” Nelson said.

t’s no secret John Mellencamp grew up in a small town; in fact, he still lives in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Mellencamp spoke about what’s at stake if we lose small farms and small towns across America and how he got involved with Farm Aid. “I think Willie called me from that lunch, that’s how quickly our connection came.” Mellencamp noted, “At that time in the mid-80s, I was noticing all these little small towns that once upon a time were prosperous and were the backbone of this country going out of business.”

“So, Willie called me,” Mellencamp said, “and we talked a little bit. A couple days later I talked to Neil (Young.) We did put it together in 20-some days, and at the time I thought we all were naïve enough to think we would make a huge difference. We did make a difference to individual farmers, but as far as the government went, we might as well just be spittin’ in our own face. We realized that, so we just kept going, and going, and going.”

Neil Young, a long-time advocate for family farmers and the bio-fuel industry spoke about the places he knows and sings about, but especially how family farmers take care of land compared to the way someone else might take care of it. “I definitely see a huge difference because farmers are living there, and they know what’s going on. A great many of them understand that they have to take care of the land, whereas the corporate farms are looking for a three month payback. The farmer’s looking to protect his grandchildren. There’s a huge difference between corporation and personal, in that respect.”

Carolyn Mugar spoke on the growing importance of Farm Aid, 28 years after its start, and the importance of the Good Food Movement. “In 1985, when Willie, and minutes later John and Neil, called the alarm to stop the bleeding in rural America, it took a visionary at that time to call that alarm. To say, “Something is wrong in this country if family farmers are being forced off the land. Now, and with Dave Matthews, that call to action is a vision and a path for the change that we’re making happen right now.”

“Becoming informed about how food is produced, who produces it, and who profits. This means we need more family farmers. We need them to be growing for all of us, and all of us includes millions of people who don’t have access to family farm food at all. It is crucial that we work toward a better farm and food system. We need a system that respects farmers and farm workers, and pays a fair price. We need a farm and food system that doesn’t favor the big guy over the little guy. We need a transparent farm and food system that nurtures our health. Farm and food system that values our soil and our water, and that’s what we’re building with everybody here today, and so many people who aren’t here today,” Mugar said.

The way which the Good Food Movement and momentum has shifted, where consumers are really pushing at the forefront in many ways, is as much about food as it is about farming The question posed to Dave Matthews, was, “From a food perspective, what has changed in the American consumer? What do you see people asking for and looking for that’s driving this family farm movement to something far larger than just being a rural issue?”

Matthews thinks awareness is growing about the quality of our food. He told the crowd his wife is a naturopath, a medical practitioner who believes in harnessing the natural power of the body to heal itself, using natural and holistic means, and she says, “What we eat is the first medicine before anything else.”

Matthews went on to say, “If we eat healthily then we’re healthy. A little exercise here and there helps as well, but really, we are exercising by being alive, and if we eat well, we feed ‘being alive.’ The thing is, we can’t eat well if we eat this giant agricultural corporate food that’s sort of funneled to us through an unhealthy purely profit-driven system. And we can eat well if we just know what we’re eating, and I think the knowledge is growing.”

Education plays a huge role in agricultural advocacy, especially with young people. Farm Aid artist Jack Johnson spoke about his efforts educating youth in Hawaii about farming: “In my home, we started the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, a non-profit group. What we do is a lot of environmental education in schools in Hawaii.”

Another project is the Farm to School program, actively integrating nutrition and activity programs in schools. Through that process of working with kids in schools, establishing school gardening, sending kids to farms nearby so they can see that food doesn’t just come from the supermarket, it’s actually grown from the land. We work with the young kids on that level, and then as they get older, they start to realize that in Hawaii, 90% of our food is shipped in to Hawaii, that’s a real staggering statistic to learn, when we could be growing so much there.”

Ellis concluded the press event by saying, “Farm Aid exists because Willie and his incredible colleagues realized they had an opportunity and an obligation to do something, and all of us are here in this room because we know we too can do something.” Willie Nelson concluded with, “The future farmers of America are going to save us. We start out talking about saving the family farmer, but I believe the family farmer will save us.”

According to Farm Aid’s website, the organization’s mission is to build a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America. Farm Aid artists and board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews host an annual concert to raise funds to support Farm Aid’s work with family farmers and to inspire people to choose family farm food.

Since 1985, Farm Aid, with the support of the artists who contribute their performances each year, has raised more than $43 million to support programs that help farmers thrive, expand the reach of the Good Food Movement, take action to change the dominant system of industrial agriculture and promote food from family farms.