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Farm Aid: Music, Political Harvest

September 23, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN and DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writers

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In retrospect, the hayseed-and-rock-music mix that a Farm Aid crowd of some 70,000 heard here in the rain Sunday may have been one of the most daring pop-cultural exercises since Woodstock.

From the pure country whine of Willie Nelson to the sunny surf chants of the Beach Boys, a more eclectic gang of performers probably hasn't assembled in these parts since the 1968 Democratic National Convention in nearby Chicago.

But just how the 14-hour, country-to-punk marathon will help save 2.3 million American farmers from their $212 billion of debts remains as muddy as an Illinois cornfield in a late-summer downpour.

Farm Aid organizer Nelson had only the sketchiest of notions Sunday on how the funds raised through ticket sales, merchandising and contributions made over the 800-FARMAID pledge line would be distributed. The concert was generating telephone pledges of about $500,000 an hour, with $3 million pledged by mid-afternoon Sunday, according to musicians involved with the show. Even before the music began, promoters said the concert had generated more than $4 million from corporate donations, the sale of cable television rights and the sale of 78,000 concert tickets at $17.50 each.

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who told reporters she was raised in a Canadian wheat-farming community, alternately hoped and doubted that the estimated $50 million that Farm Aid is projected to eventually earn will actually get to those who need it.

"I'm skeptical about most things, but I came here with optimism," the singer said. "Anything you think of that could be here is here. You have optimism and skepticism. You've got your crooks and your altruists. It's like the rest of the world."

Nelson, who began organizing the benefit a month ago, set the tone early when he joined Neil Young on stage shortly before 8 a.m. (PDT). Their opening duet, "Are There Any More Real Cowboys," lamented the vanishing American cowboy/farmer.

It was Illinois Gov. James Thompson who was instrumental in making the University of Illinois football stadium available to Nelson for the concert and it was Thompson who delivered the day's keynote message: "I think (because of the national telecast) the nation is talking about the American farmer today. So this concert has already succeeded without distributing a penny. I think maybe you'll see a little better farm bill."

This week, Congress considers a farm bill that could mean as much as $50 billion in subsidies, loans and other aid for the nation's 680,000 debt-hobbled family farmers.

Thompson, a Republican who is seeking his fourth four-year term, emphasized that his farmer-heavy constituency is not interested in government bailouts. Rather, he said, the goals are a long-term reduction in the federal deficit and a more protectionist national farm policy that would make American farmers better able to compete with foreign producers.

Farm Aid organizers hope to generate 50,000 letters to Congress supporting farmers. Twenty-two computer terminals set up around the stadium provided form letters and a system by which audience members--through the push of a button--could be given the names and addresses of their congressmen.

"Basically, we're trying to make it as easy as possible to get the word to the right people so we can kick some ass in Washington," said Mark Woodward of Sync Communications, a California computer company that set up the letter-writing system. He said Farm Aid co-organizer Neil Young would deliver some of the expected boxes of letters to Capitol Hill personally.

Merle Haggard, whose Farm Aid train was derailed before its scheduled departure from California a week ago due to a lack of corporate underwriting, promised the crowd that he would make a train ride, but that it would be from his native Bakersfield to R.F.K. Stadium in Washington next April. He issued an invitation to the more than four dozen acts who appeared on the Farm Aid stage to meet him there for a continuation of Sunday's charity concert.

"This is just the beginning," Haggard told the wet, cheering crowd. By mid-afternoon, though, the rain had stopped, allowing fans to come out from under their umbrellas and ponchos.

While organized farm lobbyists worked aggressively through the weekend to get their message across to the 1,200 media representatives who converged on this central Illinois community, they were frequently upstaged by flashy, maverick efforts by individual farmers. One man stood in the lobby of the Farm Aid headquarters, Chancellor's Hotel, handing out sheets of toilet paper that carried the slogan, "Let's wipe out farm foreclosures."

Don Kerf, however, probably won the prize for attracting the most photographers. To dramatize the plight of fiscally ailing farmers, Kerf, 57, drove a tractor 300 miles from Iowa City, Iowa, pulling a wooden flatbed trailer that featured a replica of a dead farmer lying in a coffin. Signs attached to the trailer proclaimed "Parity Not Charity" and "God Bless Willie."

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