December 2009 Issue

Farm Aid — Music to Move the Good Food Revolution
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 12 P. 40

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he’d likely have a backstage pass to Farm Aid concerts and hang out with Willie Nelson. What would the former president and Declaration of Independence author have in common with a country music icon? A vehement respect for farmers and an understanding that the fabric of our democracy depends on small, independent family farms.

In 1785, according to historical research, Jefferson said, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” Later that year, Jefferson told James Madison, “The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

Exactly 200 years later, our nation faced a farm crisis. So in 1985, Nelson, along with musicians Neil Young and John Mellencamp, organized the first of what would become annual Farm Aid concerts—24 to date. Their mission: to raise funds and national awareness to help keep family farmers on their land.

Like Jefferson, Nelson believes that “the most important people on the planet are the ones who plant the seeds and care for the soil where they are grown.”1

Speaking at a press conference prior to this year’s Farm Aid concert in St. Louis, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, PhD, reminded reporters that “farmers are the real rock stars.”

But these hardworking “rock stars” hardly receive the acclaim, respect, and compensation they deserve. As a whole, today’s small family farms are struggling just to get by in a tough economy.

The Farm Crisis Continues
Nelson never anticipated performing annual farm benefit concerts. But each year, the need remains. For example, dairy farmers currently receive less than one half of what it costs to produce the milk we dietitians actively promote. As small, local dairy farmers declare bankruptcy, our national economy takes another hit, and we’re forced to buy products from larger, more concentrated “factory farms” or imports. Neither option bodes well for our environment or homeland security.1

Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid’s executive director, told reporters that the situation is dire: “We don’t have a moment to waste. We are in perilous danger of losing our family dairy farms.”

Certainly we can agree that in exchange for producing nutritious dairy products and practicing good land stewardship, American dairy farmers deserve a fair price and living wage.

Other critical issues affecting family farmers and ultimately the food choices available to consumers include the following:

• legislation and taxpayer-funded subsidies favoring industrial-scale operations;

• genetic engineering and seed patents; and

• corporate seed and market concentration and the need to enforce antitrust laws.

Farmers and consumers have been sold on biotechnology and large-scale livestock confinement operations as being part of agricultural “progress.” But as Mellencamp told a sold-out crowd of 20,000 fans at Farm Aid, “Calling something progress doesn’t make it right.”

Defining ‘Good’ Food
We most often define “good” food as “healthy, green, fair, and affordable.”1,2 In other words, it’s minimally processed, naturally nutrient dense, raised humanely without harm to the environment, and accessible to all, regardless of income.

An almost doubling of farmers’ markets nationwide between 2000 to 2005 alone reflects the growing number of Americans who want “good food.”3

We can all appreciate the superior taste of freshly harvested food. But more importantly, we’re hungry to make personal connections with the farmers who produce our food and protect productive farmland and natural resources.

To support the “good food” movement and help family farmers thrive, Farm Aid provides a hotline and disaster funds for farmers, farm policy action alerts, and an extensive resource network of national family farm organizations.

Ask Hilde
One of the best features on the Farm Aid Web site is the ongoing list of questions answered by Hilde Steffey. As Farm Aid’s program director and principle issue analyst, she covers controversial topics ranging from the safety of raw milk to genetically modified foods.

Steffey welcomes and encourages dietitians, in particular, to ask questions, contribute, and “learn about family farm issues and how they intersect with and impact public health and nutrition.” She believes that “dietitians are critical in transforming our food system into one that promotes good health and sustainability.”

With a master’s degree in agricultural science and policy from Tufts University, Steffey also understands the economic importance of purchasing “good food as close to the source as possible.” Doing so gives the farmer a greater share of the food dollar and strengthens local and regional food economies.

Steffey says, “Farm to School is a terrific opportunity for dietitians and farmers to work together to effect meaningful change for our children, family farmers, and the greater community.”

Creating Vital Connections: A Call to Action
Kentucky-based farmer and author Wendell Berry has written that “eating is an agricultural act.” Dietitians are uniquely suited to help consumers and even our own colleagues understand the connection between agriculture and the food we eat.

We can unite producers with eaters, educate consumers, and amplify farmers’ voices. We can also work with institutions, businesses, and legislators to support policies that protect independent family farmers and ultimately our democratic right to make “good” food choices.

“The food we eat is too important to hand over to a food system too big to fail,” says Mugar.

Each Farm Aid rock star has issued a call to action. Nelson asked his audience to use the power of our “collective consciousness” to help family farmers. Young believes if we want to bring our family farms back, we must use our food dollars like votes. And Mellencamp sees farmers as key to our nation’s economic stimulus plan, saying, “What job is greener than being a family farmer?”

Most important, however, is building solidarity, cooperation, and community among family farmers and their allies. Rhonda Perry and Roger Allison almost lost their Missouri farm during the farm crisis of 1980. But they appealed and won, proving that advocacy and activism are the best ways to bring about change at the local and federal level. Perry and Allison farm and run the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. Together with Farm Aid’s support, they help organize and empower farmers and other rural citizens to assemble, as Perry encourages us, to “challenge the power and push for change.”

For more information on Farm Aid, visit

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and host of Food Sleuth Radio. She is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow and serves on the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board. Listen to her radio interview of Farm Aid’s Hilde Steffey at


1. Farm Aid. Available at: [TM e-mailing author]

2. Wallace Center. Good Food. Available at:

3. Berry W. The pleasures of eating. In: What Are People For? North Point Press;1990. Available at: