Profiles of Impact: Growing the Work of Family Farmers

30 Years, in 12 Months: Our Profiles of Impact series showcases just 12 moments out of many that have made our work both meaningful and impactful. But how did we get there? Each month in 2017, we go behind the scenes to interview the people who were “there”, and illustrate how progress through communications is possible every day.

“If we abandon the farmer, we’re abandoning the essential values that made America great. It’s all about our relationship to the land — how we cultivate it, how it yields goodness and provides us with sustenance. It’s our heart. We need to make sure that our heart stays strong. We need to stand up for the farmers — today, tomorrow… as long as it takes to guarantee their survival.” — Willie Nelson, President, Farm Aid

Farm Aid, a non-profit organization founded in 1985 by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, works year-round to build a system of agriculture that values family farmers, good food, soil and water, and strong communities. Dave Matthews joined the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001.

Farm Aid began as a one-time concert to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land. Organizers quickly realized that the issues surrounding family farms in America was much more complicated and the farmers and ranchers needed more help. The organization now works year-round to bolster family farm-centered agriculture, help family farmers thrive, and strengthen local and regional markets so that family farm food is available in urban neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and elsewhere.

Since 1990, Vanguard has partnered with Farm Aid on all aspects of the organization’s public relations strategy. Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. Traveling throughout the United States showcasing the ingenuity and perseverance of family farmers, Farm Aid’s all-day music and food festival attracts as many as 30 musicians, 200 media members, and 20,000-25,000 attendees each year.

Vanguard works with local and national media outlets across many genres — music and entertainment, farming and agriculture, and food and nutrition. An initial draw for media is the gathering of some of the world’s top music artists, so the key public relations challenge is to expand that entertainment focus to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the issues facing farm families.

Over the years, Farm Aid and Vanguard have worked together to evolve the public frame from the “plight” of struggling farmers to the value they hold for communities and our nation. The approach is working. Media coverage of Farm Aid includes more than 2,000 stories per year, most of which highlight the multiple benefits of good food from family farms.

Vanguard’s event manager, Brittany Vanderpool, recently caught up with Farm Aid’s executive director, Carolyn Mugar, to discuss Farm Aid’s impact on the family-farm community, and what the future holds for both growers and eaters.

    1. Farm Aid begin in 1985 during the height of the farm crisis. Why is it still necessary? Many of the challenges family farmers faced during the time of the Farm Crisis of the 1980s remain—from weather disasters to public policy that favors Big Ag [corporate agriculture]. Thankfully though there’s a great recognition of the need we have for family farm agriculture. From the environment and climate change, to health concerns about the way our food is grown, to an interest in supporting our local economies, family farmers provide solutions.
    2. How has Farm Aid evolved in the past three decades? What issues exist now that didn’t in 1985? If we look back, we can see three distinct phases of Farm Aid’s history. First was the emergency response to the Farm Crisis. Farm Aid artists and strong grassroots partners across the country brought attention to what was happening, and worked on policy solutions that we were able to put those into place to ebb the tide of farm foreclosures. But then, in the 1990s, factory farms began to rise as a threat for farmers and rural communities. The loss of hundreds of thousands of family farmers helped pave the way for corporate livestock operations to take control of livestock markets and drive down the prices farmers could receive. This development also created pollution of our air, water and soil, and had a dramatic impact on the quality of life of rural people. Finally, in the early 2000s, there was a very positive change that we call the Good Food Movement—a growing concern and interest that people have in knowing how, where and by whom their food is produced. Early on, critics called it a fad. But more than 15 years in, this movement is stronger than ever.
    3. How have the Farm Aid artist board members helped elevate the issues? I call our Board Artists junkyard dogs, because they have taken hold of this mission and they will not let it go. Willie and John often have said that they didn’t intend to create an ongoing organization. They thought they’d have a concert, raise money and awareness, and the folks in charge would do what was needed to fix the situation. But each year, they saw a need for another concert, for greater awareness. These artists truly are the world’s best communicators, and through their music and their passion they are able to really bring people together and spread the word.
    4. You’ve mentioned that the festival is an awareness raising event. How so? From the start, the annual concert has been about raising awareness… initially, people needed to understand why farmers were being pushed off the land, they needed to know how that affected them. When we raise awareness about these things, we create a larger movement to stand with family farmers and support them directly with their food dollars. The more people know about our food system, the more they want to make sure that they’re supporting the kind of agriculture they want. As John Mellencamp often says, “If you want change, it starts with you.” The concert event really helps us inspire that change on a very personal level. We share personal stories of farmers, concertgoers meet farmers in our HOMEGROWN Village, they taste family farm food at our HOMEGROWN Concessions® stands. When concertgoers have all those touchpoints in one day, they experience the Farm Aid mission in a way that inspires them to make changes in their lives.
    5. How has media coverage around the festival helped elevate the cause? The attendance for a Farm Aid festival is typically about 20,000-25,000 people. Media coverage is essential to spread the word much wider. Willie has very purposefully created an event that moves around the country each year, so that farmers from all over get the chance to come to the concert and be celebrated. That allows us to spotlight different regions of the country, the farmers who live and work there, and the unique challenges and opportunities they face. Media coverage helps us take those national and it also helps us take our mission to different places—from music press, to agriculture publications, to food media, and more.
    6. Where can interested “eaters” find family farm food? What are some other ways they can support family farmers, even if they don’t know any farmers personally? The internet has helped people connect directly with farmers. A great tool that I like is the Eat Well Guide. Farmers markets are a helpful way to see what farms are in your area. You can meet the farmers, talk with them about their production methods, and really get to know the people you trust to feed you. A weekly trip to the farmers market isn’t just good for your diet, it’s good for your soul! There’s so much community and joy in farmers markets—I try to get to one at least once a week. I’m also a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) member, which means I give an up-front payment to my farm before the growing season starts, and I reap a share of the harvest each week of the growing season. This enables farmers to afford the up-front costs of planting their crops and it shares the risk of their business. Other ways we can support farmers including asking businesses to support family farmers: restaurants, grocers, hospitals, our kids’ schools… if family farm food can be served at a rock and roll concert, it can be served anywhere! We can also raise our voices at the ballot box. Local, state and federal agriculture policy issues come up all the time—particularly soon in the upcoming Farm Bill. Our food dollars are essential for family farmers to thrive, but our forks can be raised in many ways! 

Farm Aid 2017 will take place on September 16 in Burgettstown, Pa., at KeyBank Pavilion. Tickets are sold out, but you can still tune into the Farm Aid 2017 webcast at beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET. AXS TV also will broadcast live from KeyBank Pavilion beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET. To find AXS TV in your area, visit All of the broadcasts will feature behind-the-scenes looks at the annual Farm Aid festival and the organization’s year-round work to strengthen family farm agriculture since 1985.

To learn more about Farm Aid and this year’s festival visit