Music festival fights for family farms
Photos by author.

Thousands of thirty-something’s descended upon Northerly Island in Chicago Saturday night to groove to folk rock performances from Jack Johnson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and others. But this wasn’t just any old jam-fest. This was Farm Aid 30.

The annual music festival, run by board members Young, Matthews and Mellencamp, as well as founder and singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, aims to support family-run farms across the nation, by drawing attention to their concerns and raising money to support them.

“When we started Farm Aid, a crisis was gripping farm country,” Nelson said in a statement. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then, and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

And people did come together in big numbers Saturday for the thirtieth anniversary of the festival, with 26,000 music lovers, farmers and activists packing the sold-out venue for a night of music with a social justice twist. 

Medill sophomore Josie Taris attended the concert and even got upgraded to premium seats. “Every act expressed extreme gratitude for being there and took the time to recognize family farms and why we were all there,” she said. “Farm Aid 30 definitely makes my short list of best concerts ever.”

After earlier performances by Kacey Musgraves, Old Crow Medicine Show and others, Johnson captivated the crowd as the evening began, belting hits including "Banana Pancakes" and “Flake” while images of rolling farms, plump tomatoes and winding country roads flashed behind him. He ended his gig with a new song, seemingly entitled “Willie Got Me Stoned,” to cement the laidback, freewheeling vibe while referencing the founder of the festival as he read hand-written lyrics.

Later on in the night, Las Vegas rockers Imagine Dragons offered the crowd some top-40 hits including “Shots” as well as an electric "Radioactive" with a lengthy drum interlude. 

Matthews, on the other hand, discussed his love of the cause throughout his set as he performed acoustically with partner Tim Reynolds. “Thank you all so much for feeding us and putting food on our tables,” he said in between acoustic jams including “Satellite,” “What Would You Say,” and "Cornbread."

Farm Aid has raised $48 million over the last 30 years to support small-scale farmers and to “take action to change the dominant system of industrial agriculture,” according to festival organizers. But beyond the performers mentioning the cause and ticket proceeds going to farmers in need, festival-goers experienced the clear message through a variety of exhibits and vendors, from demonstrations on how to churn butter, discussions with top-area chefs on using locally-grown food and concessions selling all “certified humane” snacks from organic rice bowls to burgers.

“Not only was it an incredibly enjoyable afternoon and evening, but it was made increasingly clear that the cause was extremely significant,” said Weinberg sophomore Jake Phillips, who volunteered the day before the festival to get free entry to the concert.

Medill sophomore Ross Krasner also volunteered prior to the festival, where he met multiple farmers who were personally affected by foreclosures or corporate control, causes important to Farm Aid. “The struggle of family farms in America is an issue that is not on the radar of the average Northwestern student, even though it affects anyone who eats food,” Krasner said.

The night was capped off by performances by decades-old rockers Mellencamp, Young and Nelson, firing up the crowd with classic hits and calls to break up big business control of farming. Young and his backing band even sang a tune embodying Farm Aid, a folk-jam calling out bio-tech giant Monsanto with lyrics like, “Let our farmers grow what they wanna grow!”

Times have changed, said Farm Aid’s executive director Caroline Mugar, citing recent movements towards locally-grown and sustainable food. However, challenges remain, and that’s exactly what Farm Aid wants to draw attention to – all through the power of music.


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