Funds raised from Sunday's all-star Farm Aid benefit concert -- currently approaching $10 million -- are running far short of organizer Willie Nelson's $50 million projection. And within the agriculture community, Farm Aid has generated almost as much controversy as cash.
Farm Aid organizers had indicated that there would be no politicking at the concert. But the Farm Policy Reform Bill, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-Iowa), was mentioned several times from the stage, and a massive write-your-congressman project was organized in the University of Illinois stadium, where the benefit took place.
Many agriculture officials have argued that production controls such as those called for in Harkin's bill would drive many farmers out of business and limit the worldwide role of the U.S. farm industry. On Monday, the president of the Illinois Farm Bureau -- which opposes the Harkin bill -- criticized Farm Aid as "a carefully orchestrated political event."
The concert, said John White, "was loaded with a political message the Farm Bureau totally rejects. The concert stage became a soapbox for a small group of entertainers pleading support for a poorly understood piece of legislation."
Larry Werries, head of the Illinois agriculture department, also reacted sharply to the entertainers' endorsement of the Harkin bill. "I'll promise not to sing if they promise not to continue developing agricultural policy," Werries said through a spokesman.
By the time the 15-hour concert ended and 60 stars of country, rock and blues had left the stage early Monday, Farm Aid had generated barely $5 million in pledges from television viewers and radio listeners. About $4 million already had been pledged or received from corporate donations, ticket sales and proceeds from the Heartland Cafe at the concert site.
"We don't know yet how much we raised," said spokeswoman Linda Westbrook for Buddy Lee Attractions of Nashville, the event's promoter. "I know it was over $9 million, but I don't know beyond that."
A spokesman for Telemarketing Corp. of America, the Omaha firm operating the telephone hotline (1-800-FARMAID), said about 200,000 calls were received during the 12 hours the concert was telecast on the Nashville Network cable system, with pledges averaging about $20.
Nelson said he was not disappointed with the failure to meet his $50 million target because raising money was only one of Farm Aid's goals. "I'm real happy. It exceeded my expectations," the exhausted singer said Monday morning as he left the stadium to return home to Austin, Tex. He said he expects additional donations to flow into Farm Aid in the months ahead and said more money would be raised through sales of a Farm Aid album and video, as well as other projects.
The apparently low level of contributions may have been due in part to the image problem Farm Aid faced. At this summer's Live Aid concert, which raised more than $50 million for African hunger relief, organizers relied on dramatic visual images to portray the dimension of starvation in Africa. The issues that inspired Farm Aid, reflecting a complex set of social and political problems, did not provoke such immediate sympathy.
The lack of any clear-cut programs to help farmers may have been a hindrance as well. Hot lines and lobbying efforts don't have the visceral impact of a grain shipment. The Farm Aid money will be used for cash grants to needy individuals, legal assistance, counseling and job training, a nationwide information hot line and a campaign to publicize the problems of America's farmers.
With more than 1,200 media people attending, and extensive exposure on both television and radio, the publicity value of the concert was incalculable. And Farm Aid's timing was fortuitous, since Congress is in the midst of producing new farm policy to replace the law that expires next Monday. The House begins consideration tomorrow of several controversial amendments on dairy, sugar and peanut price support programs, and the Senate plans to begin debate on its version of the bill next week. Harkin has said he will introduce his farm reform bill, which is built around a mandatory supply-management commodity program subject to a producer referendum every four years, at that time.
In the stadium, two dozen computer terminals provided form letters and a push-button system by which audience members could be given the names and addresses of their congressmen. The goal was to generate 50,000 letters to Congress, but with the rain dampening spirits and paper, the effort produced only a few thousand letters.
During a prime-time segment of the concert, singer Neil Young and actor Timothy Hutton urged viewers to pressure Congress into passing the bill. The message was fairly strident, causing the Nashville Network to twice identify it as "the personal opinion of Neil Young" that in no way reflected "the opinion of the Nashville Network or Farm Aid."
"After all of the rhetoric that the politics should stay out of the concert, we are disappointed and surprised that the politicians did keep politics out and the entertainers didn't," said Jim Altemus, spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
But Jim Skilbeck, special events coordinator for Illinois Gov. James Thompson, said he was confident the show would have a lasting impact.
"The event was a rousing success," Skilbeck said. "People are reading and thinking and talking about farm issues now, and that's a long-term thing."
Merle Haggard, whose much-ballyhooed Farm Aid train was derailed before its scheduled departure from California a week ago because of a lack of corporate underwriting, promised at the Farm Aid concert that he would make a train ride, but that it would be from his native Bakersfield, Calif., to RFK Stadium in Washington next April. Haggard issued an invitation to all the acts who appeared on the Farm Aid stage to meet him there for a continuation of Sunday's charity concert.