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updated: 9/21/2012 11:19 AM

Behind the music, Farm Aid's work helps farmers

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Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Farm Aid is synonymous with star-studded rock concerts, like the one expected to draw 30,000 people to southeastern Pennsylvania on Saturday. But the real work of the organization happens mostly behind the scenes across rural America every day.

Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, president and co-founder of Farm Aid, believes the group's commitment to protecting farmland puts it on "the right side of history."

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"Everything helps or hurts, and I think Farm Aid has helped," Nelson said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Minnesota, where he was scheduled to perform in Mankato.

With more than $40 million raised through the musical performances and private contributions since the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, the organization works to keep family farmers on their land by awarding modest cash grants to groups that help small- and medium-size farms across the country. Farm Aid awarded nearly $308,000 to 42 organizations last year.

"Willie is the one who makes all the decisions on where the grants go," said Carolyn Mugar, the organization's executive director.

The Farm Aid website also is a resource for farmers, providing information on a range of topics: how to get into farming, sources of credit for farmers, farm-fresh food as an alternative to food produced by large-scale, mechanized agri-operations.

"I grew up working on farms and I know their problems firsthand," said Nelson, 79. "I don't think it's that big of a stretch for a guy who is a farmer, was a farmer, (to) help if he can. That's what we're supposed to do."

Saturday's nine-hour concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, 14 miles east of Pennsylvania's capital, is designed to reinforce the Farm Aid message.

Food sold at the concession stands has to be approved by Farm Aid's culinary director. Concert-goers can mingle with farmers and learn about agriculture through interactive exhibits at the "Homegrown Village." Video images of Pennsylvania farms and farmers will be the backdrop for performers on the main stage.

Two Pennsylvania supermarket chains -- Sunbury-based Weis Markets Inc. and Carlisle-based Giant Food Stores Inc. -- are among the concert sponsors. Weis is recruiting volunteers for "greening" work, separating trash into recyclables. Giant is donating food for meals and snacks for the hundreds of people who work backstage.

Scheduled performers include Nelson and fellow Farm Aid board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, as well as Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Jack Johnson, ALO, Pegi Young and The Survivors, and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Four of Willie Nelson's children -- musicians Lukas, Micah, Amy and Paula -- will join him on stage.

The concert is typically held at different locations each year. The Pennsylvania location is fitting since agriculture is the state's leading industry. Pennsylvania ranks third nationally in direct farmer-to-consumer sales -- after California and New York -- and sixth in the number of organic farms with nearly 600.

Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said 91 percent of the state's farms are owned by individual families and 7.5 percent are family partnerships or family corporations.

"We think there's room for all farmers," O'Neill said. "We think it's more about the people who are running the operations -- do they care about the crops and the environment? Do they care about the animals?"

Nelson said the people of Pennsylvania are big supporters of family farms.

"And they've shown it by buying 30,000 tickets," he said. "We hope to thank them by putting on a good show."


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