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Farm Aid stars shine in benefit show, 20 years on

September 19, 2005

By Ros Krasny

TINLEY PARK, Illinois (Reuters) – Farm Aid staged its 20th
annual benefit concert on Sunday, with a galaxy of stars
pledging help for overlooked rural victims of Hurricane
Katrina.

The daylong 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 for over ten hours.

Farm Aid’s president, Texas music legend Willie Nelson,
with trademark long braid, black cowboy hat and battered guitar
“Trigger,” closed the show after energetic performances by
fellow founding members Neil Young and John Mellencamp.

After thanking the crowd for its support of Farm Aid’s Gulf
Coast relief effort, Young launched into Fats Domino’s “Walking
to New Orleans” and a blistering “Southern Man,” his rarely
performed early 1970s anthem about racial prejudice.

Singer Dave Matthews, who joined the Farm Aid board several
years ago, said he was “still a little nervous” during a solo
performance but less so around “big brothers like Willie, Neil
and John.”

Others on the bill included Wilco, Buddy Guy, Emmylou
Harris and country singer Kenny Chesney, appearing days after
splitting with wife, actress Renee Zellweger.

FARM SUPPORT GROUP CARVES NEW NICHE

Conceived by Nelson during the depths of the U.S. farm
income crisis and first staged in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985,
when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were among the headliners, Farm
Aid has survived to see better times for many farmers.

The group is now closely associated with the “good food
movement” of 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.”

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.

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 organization.

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 covering federal agricultural subsidies is
written.

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.




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