September 18, 2005

Farm Aid show backs Katrina aid, organics

By Ros Krasny

TINLEY PARK, Illinois (Reuters) - Farm Aid staged its 20th annual star-studded benefit concert on Sunday, pledging help for overlooked rural victims of Hurricane Katrina and defending against charges of financial waste.

The day-long 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.

Farm Aid's founder, country music legend Willie Nelson, performed alongside board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews as well as Wilco, Buddy Guy, Widespread Panic and other performers.

Conceived by Nelson in the depths of the U.S. farm crisis and first staged in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985, Farm Aid is now closely associated with the "good food movement" and a push-back by 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."

Against that backdrop, 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.

With record energy prices after Katrina squeezing farmers' costs, Nelson plugged biodiesel, saying all of Farm Aid's buses and much of its equipment were powered by the renewable fuel produced from soybeans and other crops. He urged farmers to get into biodiesel production.

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 on Saturday, raising the hackles of the Farm Aid family.

Young, the Canadian folk-rocker, ripped the newspaper during a pre-concert press conference.

"We're dedicating ourselves to the cause for as long as it takes, and responding to pieces of (junk) like this," he said, brandishing Saturday's Tribune. "This is the sickest piece of journalism that I've ever seen."

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 is cobbled together.

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.