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Farm Aid 2019 focuses on the dairy crisis, loss of small family farms



EAST TROY – Joel Greeno arrived at Farm Aid 2019 on his 85-year-old Allis Chalmers tractor, an elegant machine that he still uses on his farm in Kendall.

It was only fitting, Greeno said, that his tractor had rolled off the assembly line in West Allis during the Great Depression, when thousands of American farmers were forced off the land and Wisconsin dairy producers, in 1933, engaged in deadly strikes over low milk prices.

Today, a worldwide glut of milk has driven down farmers’ prices to the point where many have lost money for the last five years. Nearly 3,000 U.S. dairy farms folded in 2018, about a 6.5% decline.

Though the milk price has improved some in recent months, Wisconsin has been losing more than two dairy farms a day, the worst rate on a percentage basis since the Great Depression. Many families have exhausted their savings and credit to remain in business; some farmers have committed suicide.

When the financial strain became too much to bear, Greeno quit milking cows a few years ago.  Now he raises heifers, steers and organic crops. And like many farmers these days, he has an off-farm job to help make ends meet. 

For many folks, “You can choose to be a farm employee or you can get a job in town,” he said.

Farm Aid 2019 gets under way this afternoon at the Alpine Valley Music Theater. This is only the second time in Farm Aid’s 34-year history that the festival has been held in the Dairy State; the first was in 2010 at Miller Park for Farm Aid’s 25th anniversary. 

The music lineup this year includes  Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Luke Combs and 11 other acts. Nelson, Young and Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land. Matthews joined the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001.

Every artist playing Farm Aid is performing without pay and covering their own travel expenses. An event like this, long sold out, is going to draw a whole lot of people — 30,000 to be exact. There’ll be a ton of traffic, too. 

Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised $57 million. Its 1-800-FARM-AID crisis line provides services to farm families in crisis, and its Farmer Resource Network connects farmers to organizations across the country. 

Farm Aid was the subject of a 2016 study by Andrew Palen, now an adjunct instructor of communications at Marquette University.

“Farm Aid has been, and remains, a steadfast supporter of the family farmer. The organization has helped raise awareness and educate consumers. However, support is hard to measure. It has ebbed and flowed as cultural shifts occurred, and audiences have dwindled since 1985,” Palen said.

 “There is no question that Farm Aid has made an impact and is doing some good. What is difficult to define, though, is how much good.”

Friday night, Greeno, president of the Madison-based group Family Farm Defenders, was honored by Farm Aid for his decades of service to agriculture.

 “The farmers’ struggles are still very real,” Greeno said. “Now, you drive through some rural communities and you wouldn’t even think you were in the same place from years ago.”

If you can’t make it to Farm Aid, you can still watch the festival on TV and online, or hear it on the radio. Nelson’s Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, will be broadcasting from Alpine Valley beginning at noon. Find it on Channel 59. 

You can watch Farm Aid performances beginning at 2 p.m. at farmaid.org and on Farm Aid’s YouTube channel. And AXS TV will broadcast the event live beginning at 6:30 p.m.

RELATED: Farm Aid Live: Continuing coverage from the Willie Nelson-led festival at Alpine Valley

RELATED: Farm Aid 2019: What you need to know before the star-studded festival at Alpine Valley Music Theatre

RELATED: Dairyland in Distress: A look at the perils facing a signature Wisconsin industry

Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

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