When John Mellencamp took the stage at the first Farm Aid on Sept. 22, 1985, he had no idea that it would become an annual event. Neither did his fellow founding members, Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Instead, it was to follow in the mold of Live Aid, the colossal one-off charity concert beamed across the globe just a few months before. Where Live Aid had raised awareness and funds to combat the Ethiopian famine crisis, its rural descendant sought to support family farmers who couldn’t compete with massive corporations and subsequently faced bankruptcy.
“We thought we’d do this concert, idealistically believing that it was the right thing to do, and laws would be passed protecting people,” Mellencamp, 64, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We thought that one concert would do it. But then we found out very rapidly that we were entering into an arena that was much more complicated and filled with more political and economical factors than we could have imagined.”
It was Nelson, the irrepressible Texas outlaw and country music icon, who originally conceived of the endeavor. He had been watching Live Aid on his tour bus television when Bob Dylan took the stage. “I hope that some of the money … maybe they can just take a little bit of it, 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 mused to the crowd.
The statement enraged festival organizers, but to Nelson it sounded like a good point. If Live Aid wouldn’t confront the problems happening on American soil, Nelson resolved to create his own concert. He began reaching out to his network of musician friends for help.
It was during this time that Mellencamp was recording his seminal album, Scarecrow, which perfectly articulated with Nelson’s new cause. With “Small Town” he celebrated – and proudly aligned himself with – rural communities, while “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin'” kept the street-marching spirit of ’60s activism alive. On “Rain on the Scarecrow,” the record’s emotional centerpiece, Mellencamp addressed the farming crisis directly. “The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans,” he sang. “Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed.”
All told, the album was the perfect soundtrack for the changing face of America in the mid ’80s. And it also brought him to Nelson’s attention.
“Willie was playing golf in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I live,” Mellencamp remembers. “My friend was playing with him and he mentioned casually that he was thinking about doing this concert after what Bob had said at Live Aid. My friend said, ‘Well, John Mellencamp has made a record about this exact topic.’ I think that sparked Willie’s interest, because there was somebody else already ahead of the curve dealing with the farm crisis.”
With Mellencamp and Young signed on as co-founding organizers, the festival came together at lightening speed.
“I think my first conversation with Willie lasted maybe 10 minutes. It was really just two guys saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ ‘Oh yeah, that’s good, that’s good! I’ll help with this, you help with that.’ It was very practical, hands on, grass roots. I’m not quite sure Willie or Neil or I really had any indication of what we were getting into. I think we were naïve about what farming and agriculture meant in world politics.”
The first Farm Aid took place in Champaign, Illinois and featured performers including Billy Joel, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and – naturally – Bob Dylan. A crowd of 80,000 people helped raise $9 million dollars, and there were other victories. The concert sparked major conversations about the state of family farming in the United States, and ultimately led to Congress passing a $4 billion financial assistance package known as the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987.
Despite these triumphs, Nelson, Mellencamp and Young knew it was not enough. Local family farms were still subject to government price regulations that favored the major corporations. Unable to afford expensive lobbyists, the men and women who fed America were left without a voice to defend themselves.
So Farm Aid pressed on, advocating on their behalf. The concerts continued, reaching more and more people annually. Years soon turned to decades. In 2001, long-time ally Dave Matthews signed on as the fourth official member of the Farm Aid Board of Directors. To date, the organization has generated more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm-centered system of agriculture. What’s more, it’s gone a long way in helping normalize Community Support Agriculture (CSAs), Farm-to-Table, and organic food movements.
To Mellencamp, it all moves forward thanks to the sheer force of Nelson’s big-hearted will. “I’m proud of Willie for keeping the troops organized and keeping things going. Willie really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for this, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know how you can really argue. It’s the longest running charity of its kind in the world.”
While Nelson has vowed to keep the festival going as long as they’re needed, Mellencamp sees the message of Farm Aid catching on with a new generation of consumers.
“There’s a certain percentage of millennials who understand agriculture,” he says. “I see these little farms popping up all over the country. They sell their local agriculture to the families living there. I’m talking about little farms, just several acres. So there are some millennials who are very in touch with agriculture.”
At a time when the fate of our nation – and our planet – looks uncertain, these future problem solvers fill Mellencamp with hope. “I have two sons who are 21 and 22, and I talk to them about things. And they just say, ‘We’ll figure it out.'”
Farm Aid continues on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia. In addition to Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews, performers include Alabama Shakes , Sturgill Simpson and Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real. Click here for tickets. For information on how to donate or volunteer with Farm Aid and the Good Food Movement, visit here.