ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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 of dollars for the nations struggling farmers.

This year's concert will be held in Milwaukee. Sean Powers, of member station WILL, takes a look back at that first show and why it got started.

SEAN POWERS: 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.

Ms. ANITA SCHROEDER (Farmer): We were so close to losing our farm. It was just a matter of weeks, and the bank was going to foreclose on us.

POWERS: The Schroeders didnt want to ask the public for help. So Davids brother did it for them by placing a classified ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch asking for donations to help consolidate the familys high-interest loans.

Mr. DAVID SCHROEDER (Farmer): There was a lot of guys that were going bankrupt and selling out.

Ms. SCHROEDER: And committing suicide. 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.

POWERS: 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.

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician): We did it in Champaign, Illinois, right in the farm belt. Those people there were hurting. They needed to know that somebody out there was thinking about them.

POWERS: Within a month after their meeting, about 80,000 screaming fans packed the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium.

(Soundbite of song, "This Old House")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) But tomorrow morning, a man from the bank's gonna come and take it all away.

POWERS: Lisa Braddock was a University of Illinois student at the time, and remembers the first concert

Ms. LISA BRADDOCK: I remember hearing Carole King.

(Soundbite of song, "You've Got A Friend")

Ms. CAROLE KING (Musician): (Singing) When you're down and troubled, and you need some love and care.

Ms. BRADDOCK: I think she did, you know, when you're down in trouble and need some love and care. You know, and I said well, thats what everybodys here for. You know, theyre trying to take care of these people in our community that need some help. So, you've got a friend, you know.

(Soundbite of song, "You've Got A Friend")

Ms. KING: (Singing) Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there.

Ms. BRADDOCK: 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, well, maybe we can help make a difference.

POWERS: When Farm Aid was announced, organizers like Willie Nelson said the focus wasnt the millions of dollars they hoped to raise but bringing attention to the plight of the American Farmer.

Mr. NELSON: 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. This hasnt happened. You know, the good news is weve been around 25 years. The bad news: Weve been around 25 years, you know.

POWERS: The first concert raised more than $9 million. 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 nations farmers, Farm Aid is still going strong, having raised nearly $40 million. Concert organizers are now getting ready for Farm Aid 25 to be held in Milwaukee on October 2nd.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Powers in Urbana, Illinois.

(Soundbite of song, "Rain On The Scarecrow")

Mr. JOHN MELLENCAMP (Musician): (Singing) Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn, four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm. Grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa tilled this land. When I was five, I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand. Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow...

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.