Aid for the Heartland

Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings perform Folsom Prison Blues
at Farm Aid 1985 / Video still from Farm Aid on YouTube
The early 1980s were a rough time for farmers in the United States and Canada. Years of record crops had combined with international geopolitical developments to drive down commodities prices and the value of farmland. Debt soared and foreclosures skyrocketed. It was the worst farm crisis to strike the United States since the dust bowl of the 1930s. As a leading agricultural state, Illinois was among the hardest hit.

The difficult times being encountered by Midwestern farmers were far from the only crisis affecting the globe during that time. A deadly famine had struck east Africa. It was one of the worst humanitarian crises of the late 20th century, killing more than one million people in Ethiopia alone. To bring attention to the suffering and the need for resources to alleviate it, some of the world’s leading entertainers organized an all-star lineup for a 1985 trans-Atlantic concert-telethon held in both London and Philadelphia called “Live Aid.”

Live Aid was a tremendous success, raising more than $100 million for famine relief and placing the crisis front and center in the attention of governments and non-profits around the world. In addition to providing some help for those in desperate need, the concert produced some iconic 1980s moments, including the famine-relief anthem “We Are The World.”

But it was a comment near the end of the show from Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bob Dylan which would bring attention to the plight of American farmers and lead to a history-making event in Illinois.

“I hope that some of the money…maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe…one or two million, maybe…and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks,” Dylan said from the stage in Philadelphia. Dylan’s suggestion of diverting some resources to help American farmers in need was controversial among Live Aid organizers, but it immediately caught on among many American entertainers who had seen the crisis in the heartland.

It was the beginning of Farm Aid.

Among the first to answer Dylan’s call were Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Heartland natives all (Texas, Indiana and Manitoba, Canada) each had seen the catastrophe that was striking farmers in North America, and each pledged to organize an event similar to Live Aid to help “raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land.”

“The mood in the countryside was one of helplessness,” Missouri farmer Roger Allison told Modern Farmer for a 2015 article on the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid. “Farmers wanted to make their loans and deprived themselves and their families of food, electricity – the very basics – just trying to pay the debt.”

Willie Nelson performs On the Road Again at
Farm Aid 1985 / Video still from Farm Aid on YouTube
Plans for Farm Aid came together quickly. University of Illinois event manager John Graham told the Champaign News-Gazette in 2015 that Willie Nelson had been scheduled to perform at the 1985 Illinois State Fair, and that he had a conversation on the golf course with then-Governor Jim Thompson about a possible venue for a benefit concert to help struggling farmers. Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was chosen as the site.

On September 4, organizers and Governor Thompson held a press conference at Assembly Hall to point out “that 120 family farms were going out of business every day, and that high interest rates and high fuel prices were squeezing the profits and killing the farmers,” according to Graham’s recollection.

As word spread about the effort, a diverse collection of entertainers enlisted: Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, Loretta Lynn and others signed on. The artists performing that day in Champaign came from across a wide variety of music genres. Country performers like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard were joined by rock stars such as Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen, blues legend B.B. King, the Beach Boys and folk singer Arlo Guthrie.

By the time the concert started on September 22, 1985, more than 100 performers were part of the show, including Dylan. A crowd estimated at 80,000 paid the $17.50 ticket price and packed the stands for the 12-hour-long show on that rainy Sunday. Some had waited outside all night for the stadium’s gates to open, and many stayed until the last song, “May the Circle Be Unbroken” finished after 1 a.m.

Some of those who could not attend the concert still drew hope from the event. Allison spoke of the train ride to Champaign and seeing rural families gathered along the tracks.

“All along the railroad tracks there would be farmers with flags, with their families, because they knew this was our best shot at turning things around,” he said.

When it was over, the concert had raised close to $7 million, which was put toward legal relief of farmers who were facing foreclosure. Some of those funds went to a nonprofit called the Farmers’ Legal Aid Group, which estimated that it helped stop 80,000 farm foreclosures. The organizers had also achieved their goal of raising awareness in Washington about the farm crisis, and Congress responded with the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act, legislation to help protect farmers from foreclosures.

Organizers knew, however, that one concert was not going to solve the problem. Farmers would continue to face challenges from market factors and from weather. Following the Champaign concert, Farm Aid organized a conference in St. Louis, the United Farmer and Rancher Congress, to plan their next steps. The original organizers of Farm Aid were named to a board of directors; where all three still serve today; to organize future concerts and events to keep the movement going.

On July 4, 1986, the second Farm Aid concert was held in Manor, Texas, and it soon became an annual event which became deeply ingrained in the American scene. Tickets for the 1990 concert in Indianapolis sold out in 90 minutes. Farm Aid 2001 turned into an especially emotional Concert for America, occurring less than three weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Farm Aid returned to Illinois in 1997 and again for its 20th Anniversary show in Tinley Park in 2005, though not without controversy as critics claimed too much of the money raised was being devoted to organizational expenses rather than aid to farmers. The event in September 2005 also doubled as a fundraiser for the many farmers displaced by Hurricane Katrina which had hit the Gulf coast just a few weeks earlier. More than 30,000 fans gathered on Chicago’s Northerly Island in 2015 for Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary concert, which featured Dave Matthews, Imagine Dragons, Kacey Musgraves and many more.

Over more than 30 years, Farm Aid has raised more than $57 million to help struggling farmers stay on their land.

Photo from

“Farm Aid works year-round to build a system of agriculture that values family farmers, good food, soil and water, and strong communities,” says the organization’s website. “Our annual music and food festival celebrates farmers, eaters and music coming together for change.”

“After 30 years, we are still here, you’re still here, and together we’re still fighting for the farmers,” Willie Nelson said. “The fight ain’t over yet but we’re gaining on those suckers, so stay with us.”