Farm Aid a Target for Agribusiness

Corporate agribusiness, not content with simply using and abusing family farm agriculture to satiate its own voracious appetite, is now turning its sights on those groups and organizations who not only seek to help family farmers cope with natural disasters -- such as the recent Western drought and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- but man-made disasters such as the current US farm and food policy.

Judging from its current vicious attacks on Farm Aid, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a star-studded concert in Tinley Park, Ill., agribusiness and its corporate paymasters and lackeys are wasting no time going for such groups' jugulars -- their pocket book and finances.

With Farm Aid, this corporate agribusiness hatchet job moved into high gear in the editorial pages of the August issue of Feedstuffs, long recognized as the mouthpiece of agribusiness' multi-billion dollar input industry.

Columnist Trent Loos writing in his column "Loos Tales" declared "Farm Aid is fraud" and enumerated that "last week, I heard countless promos requesting money to help Willie save the family farm. What most people don't seem to know is that Farm Aid and Willie Nelson do more to get rid of farmers than benefit them. Farm Aid funds are siphoned into groups that file lawsuits against family farmers."

Loos goes on to name Concerned Citizens of Iowa (CCI), Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Campaign for Family Farmers, Western Organization Resource Councils and several of its affiliates, and the National Family Farm Coalition as some of the chief culprits that have been allowed to "define a 'factory farm' in comparison to their idealistic 'family farm'."

Loos, as a "sixth generation US producer," also hosts a daily radio show and is founder of Faces of Agriculture, a "non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food."

Arguing that the "activists" Farm Aid has long been supporting are trying to convince the public that we need "to roll back the clock on food production," he wrong-headedly asserts that "what they don't seem to realize is that fewer farmers are feeding millions more of people than in 1920, and it is predicted that we will have even more mouths to feed in the near future. How is foregoing technology going to help us achieve an end to world hunger?"

Less than a month after Loos's column appeared, on the eve of Farm Aid's annual concert, a second front against Farm Aid was opened with a page-one Chicago Tribune "news story" by one of its staff reporters, Jason George.

Under the headline "Farm Aid expenses eat away donations," George asks the question of how much, financially, Farm Aid actually helps uphold "that family farm as an American icon." He writes: "The percentage of funds given away by the group is exceedingly low compared with money eaten up by expenses or not used."

While George snidely asides that Farm Aid "has been more successful than any other group -- maybe even farmers themselves -- at advocating the need for family farms," his article mainly relies on a so-called "rule of thumb" as applied to the Byzantine world of philanthropy for context and perspective, buried in the 13th paragraph of his story.

"Experts say that it is always tricky to do a financial analysis of the effectiveness and efficiency of individual non-profit groups, but the rule of thumb holds that a high percentage of money taken in should be given away."

Throughout Loos's "fraud" attack and George's hatchet job, one has the sense that the manipulative hands of the American Farms Bureau Federation might well have been quietly at work.

Why, one could rightfully ask, is the Chicago Tribune so intent on financially destructuring Farm Aid when for decades the AFBF, whose national headquarters are only a few miles from the Tribune's offices in the Chicago area, has gone about with a financial impunity that has long demanded a thorough and comprehensive investigation on both the federal and state levels?

Reaction to the George article from Farm Aid and many of those organizations, its support was both swift and immediate.

"Since day one," Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid's executive director pointed out, "our role has been to serve as the public defender of America's family farms. Willie Nelson, with colleagues Neil Young and John Mellencamp, founded Farm Aid to use their voice and the support of the American people to raise awareness and funds to strengthen family farm agriculture."

She added, "Eighty cents of every Farm Aid dollar goes to our programs supporting family farmers, including grants that help keep them on their land. From our own farmer hotline to convening national gatherings of family farmers to conducting public awareness campaigns, Farm Aid is proud that we exceed the standards set by charity watchdog groups that monitor non-profit performance.

For example, Farm Aid: "In terms of its financial efficiency, they receive an A minus from us," according to Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy.

Organizations that Farm Aid has traditionally supported sent off a sharply worded letter-to-the-editor to the Tribune. "By comparing Farm Aid to foundations whose only role is grant-making, the Tribune ignores the important role that Farm Aid's program work contributes to saving family farms and rural communities. ..."

The letter continues, "During every single disaster, including the years-long ongoing farm crisis, Farm Aid is first on the scene and the last to leave. While, for example, the news media has almost missed the devastating impact of [the recent hurricanes] on farm workers and largely poor African-American rural communities in the region, Farm Aid was on the phone within hours to its partners in the region mobilizing the family farm community response."

It was immediately prior to the Tweeter Center concert at a crowded media press conference, also packed with farm advocates, that Neil Young sharply attacked the Tribune for questioning the charity's distribution of funds. The Tribune report "hurt our reputation" by distorting the charity's mission, Young asserted.

"We are not purely raising money for farmers. That's a small part of what we do," he said, explaining that its funds support a myriad of activities, from political lobby groups to suicide prevention, that aid farmers.

"The people at the Chicago Tribune should be held responsible for this piece of crap," Young declared, as he ripped a copy of the paper in half and threw it to the floor as supporters cheered.

In the end it was a wry Nelson, however, while calmly assessing the momentary damage caused by the Tribune article, who vowed to continue to move forward. "We have a new motto for our critics out there," he said. "We're not happy till you're not happy."

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner. Email; Web site

From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 15, 2005

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