For The Family Farmer. First Farm Aid Lights up Memorial Stadium in 1985
By Connor Uphues
On September 22, 1985, Willie Nelson and over 60 fellow performers put on the first Farm Aid concert festival, held in Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The 14-hour festival drew in a crowd of over 80,000 people, with countless people tuning in through television and radio, raising over $9 million in aid for American family farmers through donations and sales. It left a lasting impact on both Champaign-Urbana and the world of music.
Family-owned farms were, and still are, facing an outbreak of foreclosure due to a complex set of reasons, including factors such as a small number of large agricultural corporations exerting greater control over larger areas of land for agriculture, climate change, and what some would consider a lack of federal support and intervention. The Farm Aid festival and its tagline "keep America growing" were championed as the result of people coming together to raise awareness for an issue plaguing the nation.
But why Champaign? According to John Graham, an organizer of the event, Willie Nelson was a close friend of Illinois state governor James "Big Jim" Thompson. After pitching the idea of the concert, Memorial Stadium was elected as the concert venue. Able to accommodate large crowds and geographically central, the University of Illinois campus was a strong practical choice. Additionally, Illinois holds its place as a solid central midwestern farming state, with the university itself holding deep ties to agriculture. Looking deeper, Champaign County is home to more centennial farms, which the same family has owned for at least 100 years, than any other county in Illinois.
People began lining up for the concert the night before, sleeping in line before being let in at about 7 am. Starting in the early afternoon, many Farm Aid concertgoers had overwhelmingly positive reviews when looking back on the festival, describing the event as "tremendous" and "wonderful" with a "huge variety of mega singers and bands" that continued to perform until after midnight. With rain settling in as the evening continued, many concertgoers had left by 10 pm. In contrast, many remained in the stands and on the field, fighting the elements to witness the rest of the spectacle without so much as a dent in their enthusiasm and energy. Down on the field was the spot to be with little elbow room and plenty of energy pulsing throughout the crowd as music stars continued to perform.
Many local residents and students worked as staff during the concert, setting up the stage, preparing the stadium, working security, and providing and serving food. Through their testimonials, it is clear that the concert was an entertaining success for both workers and attendees, with many meeting the performers, having conversations, and getting plenty of autographs. The festival impacted many lives inside and outside of Champaign county, cementing it as a massive success in our history.
The performers did not participate solely for publicity but also because they believed in Farm Aid's mission. Neil Young, for example, has performed at nearly every Farm Aid since 1985. With dedication like this from the performers, namely headliners like Dave Matthews, Tim Reynolds, and of course Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid continues to endure as one of the longest-lasting charity concerts.
In some ways, history has lost the contemporary views of the event from those the concert was meant to benefit. Farm Aid was criticized by much of the American agricultural community for being a flashy celebrity cause conceived out of the concert charity events of the time, such as LiveAid. In addition, they believed that the proceeds of Farm Aid were managed and distributed inconsistently and, according to some, incorrectly.
Farm Aid's organizers raised awareness and brought attention to the issue. However, the nine million dollars in proceeds from ticket sales at $17.50 each and corporate donations fell short of Nelson's initially promised $25 million in fundraising.
Money from the inaugural Farm Aid was distributed by an intermediary, the National Council of Churches, an organization with many strong ties and similar political ideals to the Farm Aid platform. This money was primarily sent to different organizations and lobbying groups with platforms paralleling the Farm Aid mission. One of these was the Illinois Farm Alliance, which campaigned for the belief that the answer to the farm crisis was further government intervention. This was a hotly contested issue at the time as some argued that this same government intervention caused the problem in the first place.
Unfortunately for Champaign county farmers, little of the already meager support ever materialized. One year after the inaugural concert, $40,000 of the allotted $60,000 for Illinois farmers had been sent to around 140 families in cash payments of no more than $250 apiece, equating to about 668 of today's dollars. With the US national farm debt in 1985-1986 hovering somewhere around $212 billion, these payments weren't nearly enough to help farmers bridge the gap.
Though the event's financial success was somewhat lackluster and local farmers, saw little of the proceeds, regional, state-wide, and even national organizations used their benefits to fund their platforms and campaign to end the crisis that left family farmers destitute. The inaugural Farm Aid concert raised awareness about an important issue that affected lives locally in Champaign County and nationwide. While Farm Aid has continued each year since 1985, the inaugural concert was the largest. To date, the organization raising over $60 million in support of American family farmers.
Special thanks to Kenneth and Jo Ann Deaville for the donation of Willie Nelson's hat which they plucked out of the air at the concert. Thank you to Linda Ponder for loaning us photos and artifacts for our exhibit. Thanks also go to Dave Roesch for saving these photos and records from the trash, and Dennis Garrel for the wonderful photography from the event. Lastly, a big thanks to all who shared their experiences on our Facebook page. The response was overwhelming and a joy to read!