On September 22, 1985, several of the greatest musicians of the era joined together to create a benefit concert to raise money for family farmers. It was called Farm Aid. Since then, the Farm Aid Festival has grown to become a cultural touchstone, and its impact has been widespread across the American heartland.
The history of the Farm Aid festival tells an inspiring story of music and activism in the United States. In over 30 years of concerts, rallies, legislative action, and other events, the musicians behind Farm Aid have helped raise more than $53 million for small agriculture.
Farm Aid’s legacy continues to this day. As the organization continues to champion rural family farmers, let’s take a look back at the origins of this great American musical institution.
The Beginning of Farm Aid
The history of the Farm Aid festival begins in the summer of 1985 at another benefit concert called Live Aid, which raised funds for famine relief. On stage at Live Aid, Bob Dylan wondered aloud whether some of the money being raised could be used to help American family farms with mortgage debt.
Dylan’s comments were a “lightbulb moment” for country star Willie Nelson, who was watching the Live Aid concert broadcast on TV. “The question hit me like a ton of bricks,” Nelson told Billboard, recalling the moment when the seed for Farm Aid was planted.
Nelson began investigating the state of family agriculture in the United States and discovered that many farmers were struggling with economic hardship. In the 1980s, millions of American farmers and their families were being forced off their land thanks to falling land value, rising interest rates, and other harsh economic factors that favored agricultural conglomerates over small farms.
Inspired to help, Nelson met with then-Governor Jim Thompson of Illinois and fellow musicians John Mellencamp and Neil Young. The group began organizing for the first Farm Aid concert.
The First Farm Aid Concert in 1985
The first Farm Aid Festival was held on September 22, 1985, at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Along with Nelson, Mellencamp, and Young, the lineup included performers such as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty, among others.
The festival sold out within 24 hours, packing the stadium with a crowd of 80,000 people. It raised over $7 million dollars and marked a celebratory premiere for the history of the Farm Aid Festival. Among the concert’s many memorable moments, it featured the first public appearance of Carole King in over 20 years and the first appearance of Sammie Hagar and Eddie Van Halen together after Hagar joined Van Halen’s band.
Willie Nelson’s Activism
While the first Farm Aid in 1985 was a successful effort, Nelson and the other Farm Aid organizers realized they needed to take their activism further. Farm Aid thus transformed into an ongoing relief effort and advocacy group, hosting other concerts and events as well as lobbying legislators on behalf of family farms. Early on, Nelson and Mellencamp began sponsoring family farmers to travel to Congress and raise their voices.
Since its inception, there has been a Farm Aid Festival every year. Additional artists like Dave Matthews, Wilco, Jack Johnson, Mavis Staples, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Sheryl Crow have all graced the stage at some point in the history of the Farm Aid Festival. Meanwhile, the organization has continued to help advocate for small family agriculture and helped raise relief funds for disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
For Nelson, Farm Aid was only the beginning of his journey as an activist in other fields. He has been a supporter of LGBT rights, alternative energy, and has advocated for better treatment for horses alongside the Animal Welfare Institute.
Nelson is also famous for his role in the cannabis industry. As co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board, Nelson has been a vocal supporter of medicinal cannabis as well as recreational cannabis use.
The Lasting Cultural Impact of Farm Aid
The history of the Farm Aid Festival has had a lasting cultural impact on music, farming, and activism. In addition to giving grants to help individual farmers and advocating on behalf of small agriculture in the United States, Farm Aid started an important dialogue about American life that continues to this day.
Whether you’re watching an iconic performance from a past Farm Aid concert on YouTube or dreaming of the moment you can see music legends like Willie Nelson perform in person, there’s no denying the importance of Farm Aid for millions of American music fans. So let’s celebrate the history of the Farm Aid Festival!