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Farm Aid in 32nd year of fighting for farmers

| Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, 10:54 a.m.
Willie Nelson and Neil Young at a previous Farm Aid
Farm Aid
Willie Nelson and Neil Young at a previous Farm Aid
Dave Matthews (right) and Tim Reynolds at Farm Aid
Farm Aid
Dave Matthews (right) and Tim Reynolds at Farm Aid
Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois on September 19, 2015.
Ebet Roberts
Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois on September 19, 2015.
Neil Young at Farm Aid
Farm Aid
Neil Young at Farm Aid
John Mellencamp at a previous Farm Aid
Farm Aid
John Mellencamp at a previous Farm Aid
Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young founded  Farm Aid in 1985; Dave Mattews (left) joined the group's board in 2001.
Farm Aid
Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young founded Farm Aid in 1985; Dave Mattews (left) joined the group's board in 2001.

It started as a way to bring attention to the plight of family farmers, many of whom were being economically devastated by corporate farms in 1985. Now, in its 32nd year, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to provide resources for crisis and legal support, sustainable farming, and other issues that affect American farmers.

"The original purpose of Farm Aid was to bring some awareness to the fact that the farmer was in trouble," Willie Nelson says during a video presentation on the Farm Aid website, farmaid.org.

Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, the founding fathers of Farm Aid, return to KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown on Sept. 16, for the first time since 2002. They will be joined by a stellar roster of musicians, including Dave Matthews (performing with Tim Reynolds), a Farm Aid board member since 2001; the Avett Brothers; Sheryl Crow; Jack Johnson; and other artists including Lukas Nelson (Willie Nelson's son) with his band the Promise of the Real.

"Farm Aid is an important part of keeping American family farmers and sustainable family farms alive," Lukas Nelson says. "It's important to keep factory farms and chemical giants at bay. I think it's a constant fight, and it needs to keep happening until we don't need to fight anymore."

Among the issues Farm Aid, a nonprofit organization, addresses or promotes:

• The risk of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in agriculture.

• The political influence of agricultural conglomerates and the limitation of food choices.

• How to deal with soil, climate and water problems.

• The benefits of buying food from family farms.

While the services that Farm Aid provides are year round, the carrot on the stick to engage non-farmers is the annual concert, now the longest running benefit concert in the U.S. Past performers include Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt, Phish, Wilco, Brooks & Dunn, the Allman Brothers, and even polka superstar Jimmy Sturr in New York in 2007.

Farm Aid previously stopped in Burgettstown in 2002, the first time the concert played a venue in the Northeast. During the pre-show press conference, a galaxy of stars, including founders Willie Nelson, Young and Mellencamp, met farmers and answered questions from the press.

But the star who stole the show — or at least the press conference — was not a musician. Matthew McConaughey, serving as emcee for the concert, greeted fans and signed autographs after the presser while a few of the performers quickly high-tailed it backstage. When McConaughey was asked a technical question, he called on a Farm Aid staffer to help explain the issue.

Also performing at Farm Aid in 2002 were Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Other highlights from Farm Aid 2002:

• Dave Matthews chanting "Good food!" during an acoustic set that included a version of "All Along the Watchtower."

• Shepherd performing Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood" with Double Trouble, the late guitarist's rhythm section

• Gillian Welch joining Mellencamp for his song "Pink Houses"

• Young performing "Sugar Mountain" and "Comes a Time" with Native American dancers

• Keith's spur-of-the-moment creation, "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again," a nod to Nelson's affinity for cannabis.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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