Farm Aid’s Stomping Mad

Before going onstage for the 20th anniversary of Farm Aid, Neil Young made it clear he didn’t agree with the tone of a Chicago newspaper article.

“The people at the Chicago Tribune should be held responsible for this piece of crap,” Young said at a press conference at Tinley Park, Ill.’s Tweeter Center.

He proceeded to rip up a copy of the newspaper, throw it on the ground and stomp on it – much to the delight of farm advocates who cheered loudly.

What fueled Young’s ire was a September 17th story headlined “Farm Aid Expenses Eat Away Donations,” with the subdeck “Only 28% of revenue from last year made it to farm families.”

Unlike Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit at Mountain View, Calif.’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, which netted more than $1 million in 2003, last year’s Farm Aid took in about $247,000, the Tribune said.

Bandit Records President Evelyn Shriver, a former country music publicist who is on Farm Aid’s board of directors, told the paper she was “shocked” when she was told of the small percentage going to grants last year.

“Farm Aid prides itself on the fact that the majority of the money goes to the grants,” she said. “I truthfully don’t know how to justify that they raised so much money and only gave that amount in grants.”

Young tore into the paper because it didn’t balance the fact that expenses include year-round programs.

“We are not purely raising money to give to farmers,” Young said, according to rival paper Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s only a small part of what we do. We are available 24/7, 365 days a year to the American farmer.”

And, he added, his Bridge School Benefit gets to use the Shoreline Amphitheatre for free, which cuts way down on costs.

Farm Aid Associate Director Glenda Yoder told Pollstar, “What’s wrong about the article is the assumption that grant-making is the only activity that supports our mission.”

Program expenditures in 2004 were $900,000, with almost $400,000 going to grants for farmer organizations, she said. The other expenditures include a national toll-free farmer hotline to help with credit, legal advice, financial matters and even suicide prevention.

The organization is also promoting the “Good Food” initiative, which tries to get consumers to see the health benefits of organic fruits and vegetables and, as an extension, family farms. There is also a nine-person staff at the office – seven full-time – working year round with “modest salaries,” Yoder said.

“What we’re most upset about is the pie chart on the [front page of the article] which indicates that grant making would be the only activity, which is so incorrect. The IRS sets the rules for non-profits. In the IRS 990 form, there’s three categories: fund-raising, management – together sometimes called overhead – and program activities. Over the course of its 20 years, Farm Aid has far exceeded its charity watchdog standards by devoting 80 percent of its total expenditures to program activities.”

The article said Farm Aid investments include corporations that activists don’t normally love, such as Mobil, Chevron and Bank of America, known to foreclose on a farm or two.

“The reporter never asked me about Farm Aid holdings,” Yoder said.

At issue, she believes, is a trust fund that shows up on Farm Aid’s financial reports but is outside the organization’s sphere of influence. After the initial Farm Aid concert in 1985, Yonkers department store set up a trust fund for agricultural scholarships for three schools in the Midwest.

“The funds are restricted and Farm Aid doesn’t control the investments of that fund,” she said. “However, because it appears as a Farm Aid asset … it gets reported on our financials.”

She added, “When you have a staff that’s so mission-oriented, when you have solid relationships with hundreds of farmer organizations across the country, when you have a 20-year record of solid work and you’ve got four talented, passionate artists (Young, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews) that have devoted their work to this, it’s quite insulting that somebody would misrepresent that record.”

Joe Reinartz