09.22.2008 - At the pre-show Farm Aid press conference, John Mellencamp drew attention to the late Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon and Ford administrations, who in 1970 came up with the slogan “Get big or get out,” thus heralding the rise of major agribusiness corporations and the decline of the small family farm.
“Since that time more than 300,000 family farms have gone out of business,” said Mellencamp, adding that four corporations now control 82% of the beef and cattle market, and five major packing corporations control 55% of the hog market, with the average number of rural acres lost to urban sprawl since 1970 totaling one million a year. He added that of the $130 million in government commodity payments over the last decade for crops including soy, corn, wheat, rice, beet sugar and peanuts, the top 1% of producers receive 24% of the payments, and 10% get 73% of the farm bill.
“So people say, Mellencamp continued. ‘Why are you guys still doing Farm Aid? Here’s why: Suicides have replaced equipment-related deaths as the No. 1 cause of family farm deaths--so that’s why we’re still doing Farm Aid.”
Mellencamp and fellow Farm Aid board member Neil Young later expounded on this theme during an interview with Bob Costas on DIRECTV's The 101 Network, which broadcasted the event live.
“If [the government] would just level the playing field and people could get back to work and get back on the land, then I think things would be great,” Mellencamp told Costas, a longtime fan and friend. “But the way the law is set up now is slanted so much to big factory farms that the small guy doesn’t have a chance.”
How could viewers help? asked Costas. Young suggested that they eat “farm-made food,” i.e., “food that comes from a farm. Food that’s organic, conventional, sustainable--good food! Eat good food and then you’re supporting the family farmer--because you can’t get it anywhere else.”
Added Mellencamp: “If you walk into a grocery store and it looks like a children’s toy department, you should probably walk out!”
Costas then pointed to the “disconnect” between presumably politically left-of-center Farm Aid performers and the conservative values of many farmers.
“We’re all eating,” Young responded. “Democrats, republicans. We all eat and we all have kids and we’re all trying to make our kids as healthy as we can--and that’s what we focus on. Focus on the future, which is rebuilding the family farm infrastructure that used to be there and bringing it back--much like we’re trying to bring back our way of life in general, and just realize that farms are a great representation of that.”
Concluded Mellencamp: “Willie said it for years. ‘How goes the United States goes the family farmer.”
As for Mellencamp’s set, seasoned Farm Aid watchers felt it was his best since the post-9/11 event in 2001. Following an introduction from Costas, Mellencamp and band rocked out on “Pink Houses,” “Check It Out,” “Minutes To Memories,” “Small Town” (with a brief fiddle/accordion instrumental hymn coda), “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Troubled Land,” “If I Die Sudden” and “Authority Song.”
“Authority Song,” incidentally, included the fun cell-phone shtick where Mellencamp gets everyone in the crowd to call someone and hold up the phone to listen in. Before starting the tune he took the phone from a girl near the stage and said, “This is John Mellencamp! We’re at Farm Aid! Your girlfriend’s not too drunk…well, maybe a little bit. Wish you were here. Talk to you later!”
But he also gave a more serious introduction to the song.
“This is the twenty-third Farm Aid,” he said. “When we started, Willie talked to Neil and I and we were so naïve. We thought we could have a concert in Champaign, Illinois, and the government would listen and change things. So naïve that we believed that people would do what’s responsible and right for the small family farmer.”
He concluded: “A long time ago I wrote this song and I bet everyone knows it. And I must admit it’s a little naïve and juvenile in its presentation--but I got to tell you I still feel the same fucking way today I did when I wrote it.”
Click HERE to watch a playlist of all of the videos of John's day at Farm Aid. Be sure to click the title link on the videos to go to YouTube where you can click on the "Watch In High Quality" option.
Click to read more coverage of Farm Aid 2008 and watch more clips of John's performance.
Springfield MA Republican:
"Mellencamp was the first and one of the few to talk about the cause, pointing out that 300,000 family farms have been lost since a 1970 decree by the Secretary of Agriculture to "get big or get out." He worked up a searing version of the unofficial Farm Aid anthem "Rain on the Scarecrow," and was inspired on solo acoustic for "Minutes to Memories" and "Small Town." Admitting that the presentation was juvenile but the sentiment still lives within him, he closed with "Authority Song," putting an exclamation point on the best set of the night."
The Boston Globe:
"Matching that fire was Mellencamp, whose music is the most explicitly linked to the plight of family farmers. Accordingly, the outraged howl of "Rain on the Scarecrow" and the wariness of "Pink Houses" - retrofitted with a chugging, restless backbeat - were even more powerful in this context. "If I Die Sudden," from his latest album, offered proof of the singer-songwriter's continued ability to wed thoughtfulness to muscular instrumentation."
The Providence Journal: "John Mellencamp preceded Young and opened with a semi-acoustic “Pink Houses” with a prominent dobro and a full-on “Check It Out” with prominent fiddle. The thematic centerpiece of Mellencamp’ set, perhaps not surprisingly, was a pounding, simmering “Scarecrow,” a prescient ’80s song about the foreclosure of family farms. But his working-man’s ethic also permeated an acoustic mini-set including “Minutes to Memories” (“Suck it up, tough it out and be the best you can”), shouting the last verse far from the microphone and “Smalltown,” which included the lyric substitution “My wife was 15 years old when I wrote this song.” He introduced his closer, “Authority Song,” by remembering the first Farm Aid and recalling that “We thought that the government would listen and change things [for the family farmer] … We were so naïve.”"