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Farm Aid turns 20, with a focus on Katrina

Willie Nelson's charity, lauded for its efficiency, has raised $27 million
/ Source: Reuters

Farm Aid staged its 20th annual benefit concert Sunday, with a galaxy of stars pledging help for overlooked rural victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The daylong show at an outdoor arena south of Chicago grossed $1.3 million in ticket sales and played to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 28,000 for over ten hours.

Farm Aid’s president, Texas music legend Willie Nelson, with trademark long braid, black cowboy hat and battered guitar ”Trigger,” closed the show after energetic performances by fellow founding members Neil Young and John Mellencamp.

After thanking the crowd for its support of Farm Aid’s Gulf Coast relief effort, Young launched into Fats Domino’s ”Walking to New Orleans” and a blistering “Southern Man,” his rarely performed early 1970s anthem about racial prejudice.

Singer Dave Matthews, who joined the Farm Aid board several years ago, said he was “still a little nervous” during a solo performance but less so around “big brothers like Willie, Neil and John.”

Others on the bill included Wilco, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris and country singer Kenny Chesney, appearing days after splitting with wife, actress Renee Zellweger.

Conceived by Nelson during the depths of the U.S. farm income crisis and first staged in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985, when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were among the headliners, Farm Aid has survived to see better times for many farmers.

New causes
The group is now closely associated with the “good food movement” of small-scale and organic producers against huge factory farms and corporate-driven production agriculture.

“We are here to promote food from family farms,” said Caroline Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. “Changing the food you buy changes the way your food is grown.”

The number of farmers’ markets in the United States rose by 79 percent in 2002 from 1994. The organic food industry grew by 20 percent in 2003 to account for more than $10 billion in consumer sales.

Farm Aid’s organizers moved quickly to ensure that some funds from the concert were earmarked for rural areas on the Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina in late August, which they say have been neglected by the authorities.

“It’s hard to believe President George Bush gave a speech in New Orleans about disaster recovery and failed to mention the word ’farm’ or the word ’rural,”’ said Jim Hightower, a columnist and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner.

Two decades worth of Farm Aid events have raised some $27 million, of which the group says over 80 percent has been spent on programs to promote family farming.

Of that, only a small percentage goes directly to farmers in the form of grants, the Chicago Tribune reported Saturday, raising the hackles of the Farm Aid organization.

The goals of Farm Aid are broader than just cutting checks to needy farmers, said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

“Farmers want organizations like Farm Aid to organize across the country and create an equitable food system,” he said, adding that small-scale farmers aimed to be vocal as the 2007 U.S. Farm Bill covering federal agricultural subsidies is written.

The Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy has graded Farm Aid an A-minus is terms of financial efficiency, ranking it ahead of charities including the American Heart Association and Amnesty International.