Photos by Crosby Harbison

Farm Aid celebrated its 30th birthday this past weekend on Northerly Island in Chicago, a 91-acre peninsula filled with 26,000 party-goers, donning cowboy hats, overalls, and Willie-Nelson hair-dos. Since 1985, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp have been raising awareness and funds to keep family farms on their land and in business. Farm Aid has also been bringing some of the greatest musicians to the cause- the fans come for the music, they stay for the food, and they leave with a sense of responsibility.

Willie and son, Lukas Nelson (RT)

Before the legendary musicians took the stage to perform, they shared the mic with farming advocates and longtime family farmers. For Farm Aid, the hope was that the issues facing farmers and the food industry in America would cease to exist by 2015– yet there was a definite feeling of optimism for the farmers and (most of) the board members at the milestone anniversary concert. “For 30 years, every year, we all come here,” said John Mellencamp in a statement to the press. “I can’t tell you how amazing these concerts have been- I am talking about the music, the music has been fantastic- and we have played all over this country. I am proud of Neil, I am proud of Dave, and I am extra proud of Willie for having the courage and the stamina to keep it going.”

Farmyard Panel ‘Good Food for Everyone’ Reverend Bruce McKinney, Wayne Sermon, Dan Reynolds, Jody Osmund of Band of Farmers CSA, and Jim Slama of Family Farmed/ Good Food Business Accelerator.

The day kicked-off with ‘Homegrown Village,’ a place for farmers to share their stories, exhibit their tools, and teach skills about urban agriculture. Workshops for churning butter, making sustainable paper, and learning recipes with kimchi were highlights before the music took center stage. Food stands were not stocked with the normal music festival fare, but with organic and locally-sourced selections. Farming was at the center of the 10-hour day of food and fun, especially in the ‘Farmyard’ where bands answered questions about clean eating and advocating for environmentally sound practices while on tour.

Hops at the “Homegrown Village.”

For Dave Matthews, a board member since 2001, the awareness about food production is greater now than it was in ‘85. “Maybe there are more publications and more conversations that we hear, but what is so crazy is the power that is wielded by the people and companies like Tyson that are forcing good farmers into situations where they have to produce food in a way that is toxic,” said Matthews in a statement. “We need to teach our children that what they eat not only matters to their bodies, but also to the land and to the community and to the farmers, and the health of the planet.”

At a press briefing about food service at schools, Jack Johnson spoke about he and his wife’s project the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, which educates children about the environment and provides students with local food. “One of the things we have found successful are local snacks,” said Johnson. “During the school hours, parents come down in the morning and cut up food from local farmers. This year, any of the kids who don’t want to finish the snack are learning about composting. They are learning how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is.”

Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon of Imagine Dragons.
Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon of Imagine Dragons.

Imagine Dragons have been topping the charts since 2012 and lured a young crowd of screaming fans, but the question of why they were at Farm Aid was posed by many of the long-time attendees. However, the message behind the event struck many chords for the Las Vegas band–some of whom weren’t even born yet when the first Farm Aid took place in ‘85. “This festival has some serious weight to it- and it is something that we are really happy to be a part of,” said guitarist Wayne Sermon. “My grandfather was a dirt farmer from Swan Valley, Idaho his whole life. My dad was a farmer as well. I’m actually the first city-slicker in my family.” Lead singer Dan Reynolds explained that instead of junk food and M&M’s, the band’s rider is to have locally-sourced food and lots of kale while on tour. “If you are putting poison in your body while touring, you quickly learn that maybe you should put more emphasis on healthy food,” said Reynolds.

Neil Young
Neil Young

For founder Neil Young, the hope for a brighter future was but a slim glimmer. He took the stage and performed a repertoire of songs about Monsanto, GMOs, and heartless corporations. Willie Nelson ushered the event to a close with a bit more of a celebratory heir and a call to order. It is the younger generations who will continue the fight to save the family farms across the country, and spread the message through perhaps the two most effective means possible– music and food. Perhaps next year will be even more celebratory, with younger farmers, younger bands, and even hungrier fans to join in on the event that Dave Matthews calls “spiritual.”