The True Meaning of Farm Aid


Farm Estate Sale, Bishopville, SC, 1987.

The adrenaline rush of last weekend's Farm Aid Concert in Chicago stayed with me for much of the week. Looking at, and editing, photographs from the concert brought back specific songs, their loudness and intensity, the push of the crowd, "Neil, do Harvest Moon. Please!" As exciting and pulsing as it was, and so different than what I usually photograph, it was quite easy to be absorbed in the celebrity of the day.

Farm Rally, South Carolina, 1986.

Eventually though, my thoughts returned to the people Farm Aid was established for in the first place. The mid-1980s were a critical time for family farmers in the United States. More family farms went out of business in the 1980s than in the 1930s during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. African-American farmers in the South were hit especially hard by the politics of farm economics and many lost their farms. Farm Aid was born during this time and played an important role in funding non-profit farm advocacy groups and many individual farm mentors - advocates that helped thousands of farmers stay in business, stay on their land, and in many cases stay alive. 

Jim Smyre and Family Planting Tobacco, Harmony, NC, 1987

Jim Smyre and Family Planting Tobacco, Harmony, NC, 1987

For most of the 1980s and 1990s I worked on staff or on contract with a farm advocacy organization in Pittsboro, NC, the Rural Advancement Fund (now Rural Advancement Foundation International, One of my roles was to photograph and interview farmers throughout the two Carolinas about their changing relationships with their land. Many of the people I worked with had benefited from Farm Aid programs and some of them went on to become farm advocates themselves. 

At this year's 30th Farm Aid Concert, seven advocates from across the country were honored and had the opportunity to present something of their experiences working with farm families. These seven advocates from Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Minnesota are the real heroes and the true meaning of Farm Aid.


From left, John Zippert, Epps, AL; Benny Bunting, Oak City, NC; Betty Puckett, Natchitoches, LA; Lou Ann Kling, Granite Falls, MN; Shirley Sherrod, Albany, GA; Mona Lee Brock, Durant, OK; Linda Hessman, Dodge City, KS. Chicago, IL, 2015.

top three photographs, Photograph copyright/Rob Amberg 2015.
bottom photograph, Photograph copyright /Rob Amberg/Farm Aid, 2015.

Farm Aid 30 - Chicago

I've been very fortunate throughout my career and I'll long remember last weekend's Farm Aid Concert in Chicago as one of the real treats. I'll be posting a page of photographs from the concert on my website next week. Until then . . .


Chicago, 2015

Just before John Mellencamp's Set, Chicago, 2015

Just before John Mellencamp's Set, Chicago, 2015

At Linda Hessman's


At Linda Creaseman's, with Farm Aid, Dodge City, Kansas 2015

Out walking while Charlie and Brooke do the interview with Linda.
In many ways these are my favorite times on these trips of ours.
The walks. Alone. Quiet. No thoughts of others. 
Some miles across an open field, pocked with prairie dog holes.
Moments without a schedule.
In a new place. One where I've never been.
Alert. Allowing life to come to me.


When a Place Reminds You


Highway 212, Olivia, Minnesota, 2015

This for my friend - tie and vest maker, country girl, part of the family - Olivia Shealy. As we drove through this small town in western Minnesota, I could only think of you. It's the Corn Capital after all and you're kind of corny. And I'm sure you grow corn in your garden. We all do. And I think I once saw you wear your hair in a fashion similar to the ear on the building. But I don't know. I think I just saw the name of the town and thought of you, and that was gift enough. 


Walking near Granite Falls


Walking near Granite Falls, Minnesota, 2015

High overhead it's bright sun.
Flattening the already flattened landscape.
So subtle a rise just ahead. For an instant,
it's enough to cut off the distant horizon.
1/250th of a second worth. 
I'm more interested in the landscape than I used to be. 
For years it was always people. 
People doing this, people doing that.
But lately, it's the land that has caught my eye.
And held it.  


Finally. . .


Hwy 50 west of Dodge City, Kansas, 2015

Click on image to enlarge

. . .I can use that well-worn phrase about time and place with some degree of knowledge and certitude. Another trip for Farm Aid, this time to a place as different from my spot as any could possibly be. The openness of the sky is unsettling to one used to the mountain's embrace. The waving wheat, and fields ready for planting, stretching as far as my eye could see. The wind, steady and stiff, chilling on a not-so-cold morning walk. Enough talk of Dorothy to keep us glancing at the sky. Combined, on leaving, a sense of getting out of Dodge just in time. 


Blurred Memory


Highway 111, eastern North Carolina, 2015.

When I was a young boy my family would take trips to the beach in Florida. My father insisted we leave early in the morning to beat the DC traffic and the afternoon heat of southern summers without air-conditioning. We would drive on Highways 1 and 301 through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

I liked riding shotgun and my memory is of my face pressed against the side window, making imaginary pictures of the blurred, yet coherent landscape with a simple blink of my eye; images fixed in a particular spot while seamlessly moving through it.

Traveling through eastern North Carolina this past week, on Highway 111 between Tarboro and Oak City, documenting the lives of farmer advocates for Farm Aid, my mind drifted back to those drives almost sixty years ago. What’s changed since then? And what hasn’t? What remains familiar? And what is now foreign? The sky, the smell, and the open and expansive topography are as if they’ve stood still in time, the same as I remember. But those constants are but a background to a new and changed landscape with fewer people, boarded up towns, and huge farms, one unlike my memory of a faded past.