By the mid-1980s American farmers were facing economic hardships not seen since the Great Depression. Droughts in 1980 and 1983 had wrought devastation in the Corn Belt, Midwest States and Northeast. Land values and farm product prices plummeted as loan interest rates soared, unfair lending practices flourished, and millions of people were forced from their land facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. According to a study by the National Farm Medicine Center at the time, suicides among male farmers in the Upper Midwest was double the national average.

Willie Nelson, a country artist who grew up in rural Texas during the Great Depression, felt something needed to be done. Building on an idea from fellow music artist, Bob Dylan, Nelson began working on a plan that would feature something he knew better than anything else—music.

Live Aid Inspires Farm Aid

It was the 1985 Live Aid benefit that originally sparked the idea to hold the first Farm Aid concert event. Dylan suggested doing something similar to help American farmers while performing at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium during Live Aid. The off-the-cuff remark settled in Nelsons brain and grew into what would become Farm Aid.

Unlike the one-shot gathering in response to famine in Africa, the Farm Aid gathering, which aimed to “raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep families on their land,” began what would become a yearly occurrence stretching across four decades and raising $57 million.

Enlisting the help of music artists Neil Young and John Mellencamp, along with Illinois governor Jim Thompson, Nelson set about organizing what would the first Farm Aid benefit concert held September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. Then the largest combined rock and country event in America’s history, it drew a crowd of almost 80,000 people and featured performances by Dylan, Young, Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, June Carter and Johnny Cash, among others. The first event raised $7 million.

Willie Nelson, 1975
Photo courtesy of Sony Legacy Recordings
Willie Nelson, performing in 1975.

The plight of American Farmers was now center stage, with Young going so far as to place a full-page ad in USA Today on October 4 with an open letter to President Ronald Reagan asking, “Will the family farm in America die as a result of your administration?” His aim was to not only raise awareness, but to help solve the problems by advocating change to farming laws coming out of Washington, D.C.

But for Nelson, more action and activism was still desperately needed. “It didn’t stop there,” the “Georgia on My Mind” singer writes in his 2015 autobiography It’s a Long Story: My Life. “The fate of the small farmer was a topic I couldn’t ignore. More I read, more motivated I became to help publicize their plight.”

The hardships endured by American farmers resonated deeply with Nelson who grew up poor in rural Texas. Brought up by his paternal grandparents, he helped raise hogs, tend vegetables and pick cotton, and was a member at a young age of the Future Farmers of America, an organization with strong support in rural areas at the time.

Congress Passes the Agricultural Credit Act

Nelson and Young had personally appealed to Congress three days prior to the first Farm Aid concert. But it was in 1987 that a massive campaign for farm credit law reform led to Congress passing the Agricultural Credit Act, saving thousands of family farms from foreclosure. 

Alongside farmers, Nelson testified to Congress, saying, “If we abandon the farmer, we’re abandoning the essential values that made America great.” In support of the new legislation, Nelson sent letters to nearly 90,000 family farm borrowers explaining where they could find financial and legal counsel.

Such political activism has continued alongside the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the U.S. has continued to decline—from 8.6 million in 1935 to 2.04 million in 2017. Though small farms (less than $350,000 in Gross Cash Farm Income, GCFI) accounted for 90 percent of all U.S. farms, according to a 2019 report by U.S. Department of Agriculture, large scale family farms ($1 million or more in GCFI) accounted for only 3 percent of farms, but 46 percent of the value of total production.

In 2019, Farm Aid distributed more than $1 million, including grants to farm families and 95 family farms, rural service and urban agriculture organizations, and awarding scholarships to college students studying agriculture.

“I’m not saying that my friends and I single-handedly saved the farmer or stopped the suffering of those looking to make a living off the land. We did not,” Nelson wrote in 2015. “In this postmodern world of corporate greed and government indifference, the family farm continues to struggle. But the struggle is a noble one.”

Facing unexpected consequences due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Nelson set to work organizing a virtual concert to raise funds for and spirits of American farmers. The “At Home with Farm Aid” April 11 benefit featured performances by Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews and raised more than $500,000 to help family farmers impacted by the coronavirus crisis.