Twenty five years ago today, the very first Farm Aid concert was staged in Champaign, Illinois. It featured more than 40 acts, and raised millions for the nation’s struggling farmers.
To get a sense of what the 1980s were like for small family farmers, talk to dairy farmers David and Anita Schroeder of Coal Valley, Illinois. Anita says, like many small family farmers in the ‘80s, they were hit hard by a series of droughts coupled with interest rates that hovered around 20 percent.
"We were so close to losing our farm. It was just a matter of weeks and the bank was going to foreclose on us," she says.
The Schroeders didn’t want to ask the public for help. So, David’s brother did it for them by placing a classified ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch asking for donations to help consolidate the family’s high interest loans.
"There was a lot of guys that were going bankrupt and selling out," says David Schroeder.
"And committing suicide," Anita adds. "We had some in the community that committed suicide because they were just — they kept it all within themselves. Being exposed probably helped us survive. It made us stronger."
It was around this time that legendary singer Willie Nelson met up with his golfing buddy, then-Illinois Governor Jim Thompson at the Illinois State Fair. Nelson says stories of struggling farmers got him thinking about putting together a benefit concert to raise awareness about the plight of the American farmer.
"We did it in Champaign, Illinois, right in the farm belt," Nelson says. "Those people there were hurting. They needed to know that somebody out there was thinking about them."
Within a month after their meeting, about 80 thousand screaming fans packed the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.
Lisa Braddock was a University of Illinois student at the time, and remembers the first concert
"I remember hearing Carole King," she says, "I think she did 'when you’re down and trouble and you need some love and care.' You know and I said that’s what everybody’s here for you know they’re trying to take care of these people in our community that need some help. So, you got a friend. And you start to see the families in Indiana and the families in Illinois and Iowa, and you start to realize that this is happening right here, and maybe we can help make a difference."
The American Institute of Philanthropy gives Farm Aid an "A" for its work and says it's a "top-rated" charity. Over the course of its history, Farm Aid reports it's spent an average of 78% of the money it's raised on programs to aid and educate farmers.
When the first Farm Aid was announced, organizers like Willie Nelson said the focus wasn’t the millions of dollars they hoped to raise, but bringing attention to the plight of the American Farmer.
"Farm Aid in 25 years, along with millions of people and hundreds of artists, thousands really who showed up, donated their time for 25 years trying to get something done to help the small family farmer," Nelson says. "This hasn’t happened. The good news is we’ve been around 25 years. The bad is we’ve been around 25 years, you know."
The first concert raised more than $7 million through ticket sales and donations. That money kept some farms from going into foreclosure, and funded a farmer crisis hotline. The Schroeders received a few hundred dollars, as well as a loan from a bank. As for the rest of the nation’s farmers, Farm Aid is still going strong, having raised nearly 40 million dollars. Concert organizers are now getting ready for Farm Aid 25 to be held in Milwaukee on October 2nd.
For more on Farm Aid's 25th anniversary, visit the Illinois Public Media website.