In the 1980s American farmers were confronted by a crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression. Many who depended on agriculture for their livelihood faced financial ruin. Some broke under the strain of economic disaster.
In Hills, Iowa a farmer killed his banker, his neighbour, his wife, and then himself. Near Ruthton, Minnesota a farmer and his son murdered two bank officials.
In South Dakota’s Union County, a Farmers Home Administration official who couldn’t hold up under the pressure of his job killed his wife, daughter, son and family dog before committing suicide.
Lowered trade barriers coupled with record Soviet purchases of American grain resulted in a sharp increase in agricultural exports during the 1970s. Farm incomes and commodity prices soared, as did land values.
Conveniently low-interest rates persuaded many farmers to go deeply into debt on the assumption that commodity prices and land values would continue to rise. But the agricultural “boom” couldn’t last forever.
By the early 1980s, high-interest rates had burst the speculative bubble, and farmland value declined 60% in some areas between 1981 and 1985. Many farm operators found it impossible to retire their debts as fast as their assets declined.
Concurrently, record harvests led to overproduction, which forced prices down. Federal price supports kept American farm exports so costly that the USA lost a significant share of the international market, with agricultural exports declining 20% between 1981 and 1983.
The strong US dollar and Jimmy Carter‘s grain embargo to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan didn’t help matters. Farm foreclosures rose dramatically and the crisis had a ripple effect, negatively impacting farm-related industry and rural community businesses.
On Sunday 22 September 1985, a concert for Farm Aid took place at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium (in Champaign, Illinois) to raise money for beleaguered dust-bowl farmers in the US.
The concert raised only $10 million of a hoped-for $50 million but more than accomplished its goal to inform the American public about the plight of the family farmer. “I don’t give a shit about the money,” claimed organiser John Cougar Mellencamp.
Predictably, Farm Aid was widely compared to Live Aid – the amount of money it raised, the quality of the performances and the broadness (or lack thereof) of the television coverage. Considering, however, how quickly it was thrown together, it’s amazing that Farm Aid came off at all.
It was developed over a period of only ten weeks, following a controversial remark Bob Dylan made at the end of Live Aid on 13 July: “maybe they can take one or two million and use it to pay the mortgages on some of the farms.” Several days later Willie Nelson asked Neil Young, “Do you think Bob was serious?”
On 9 August, Willie met with Illinois governor James R Thompson (a golfing buddy) who offered him the University of Illinois’ football stadium. Next, Willie strategised with Young and John Cougar Mellencamp, who pulled in the rock performers.
They didn’t do a bad job on such short notice: Lou Reed, Billy Joel, Don Henley, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Daryl Hall, Foreigner, Brian Setzer, Lone Justice, X, The Blasters, Eddie Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell all agreed to play.
Willie took care of getting the country acts: Alabama, Glen Campbell, Ry Cooder, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lyn, The Charlie Daniels Band and Kris Kristofferson. The roster added up to the best in American pop music.
Among the great accomplishments of the day were the respectful, almost reverential, way the rock and country acts treated one another and the discovery that there may be an audience out there that really appreciates both.
But the rockers also found out one thing the country crowd won’t tolerate – dirty language. Sammy Hagar learned his lesson the hard way when the Nashville Network cut off Hagar’s debut performance with Eddie Van Halen after he made a colourful remark about his own anatomy. The guy’s got balls.
Backstage was reminiscent of a cookout at a trailer park. Chicken and pizzas were cooked and served under a tent with picnic tables, while the likes of Don Henley, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones and Lou Reed wandered about in the mud, hotly pursued by MTV camera crews.
Recurring Farm Aid concerts raised $13 million in grant money with the help of artists like Bryan Adams, Garth Brooks, Don Henley, The Grateful Dead, Elton John and the Neville Brothers. The farm crisis had abated by the end of the Eighties, however, and public interest waned.
The Farm Aid Concerts
Farm Aid I – 22 October 1985. Champaign, Illinois
Farm Aid II – 4 July 1986. Austin, Texas
Farm Aid III – 19 September 1987. Lincoln, Nebraska
Farm Aid IV – 7 April 1990. Indianapolis, Indiana
Farm Aid V – 14 March 1992. Irving, Texas
Farm Aid VI – 24 April 1993. Ames, Iowa
Farm Aid VII – 18 September 1994. New Orleans, Louisiana
Farm Aid’s 10th Anniversary Concert – 1 October 1995. Louisville, Kentucky