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Buoyed by last year's results, Farm Aid prepares an encore

In Wisconsin, a $20,000 loan this spring from singer Willie Nelson's Farm Aid organization helped hundreds of dairy farmers buy the hay they needed to keep their cows from starving -- and thus stay in business. On the other side of the country, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, low-interest loans from Farm Aid allowed a group of 12 Mexican-American farmers to form a cooperative, buy seed and fertilizer, and build a refrigerated storage facility for their produce.

These examples highlight the two directions -- short-term crisis prevention and long-term solutions -- the Farm Aid organization has taken in the nine months since Willie Nelson held a concert in Champaign, Ill., to benefit the nation's family farms.

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With Mr. Nelson personally approving every project and signing every check, the organization has spent nearly $4.3 million on everything from telephone hotlines and food pantries to legal services and a coming nationwide farm congress at which delegates from 37 states will try to forge a national voice for the troubled American farmer.

Buoyed by the results garnered in just a few months, yet mindful of the depth of the farm community's financial distress, Farm Aid is now planning its second concert, to be held here in Mr. Nelson's hometown on July 4.

Called Farm Aid II, the all-day concert will raise money through ticket sales, telephone pledges, and video proceeds. Scheduled performers include John Cougar Mellencamp -- himself a promoter of the family farmer -- Neil Young, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and the group Alabama.

Last year's Farm Aid concert netted about $7 million, far short of the $40 million projected. Yet much of the money raised has been put to good use, and the organizers insist the concert was intended to do more than just bring in donations.

``If we'd raised $100 million, it wouldn't have been enough to solve the farmer's problems,'' says Nelson associate William Wittliff, an Austin film writer and producer. ``But we have helped bring the farm crisis to the forefront of public consciousness.''

Mr. Wittliff, who wrote and co-produced the film ``Country,'' adds that Farm Aid has also had a tremendous ``spiritual'' impact on farmers.

``Many write us not even asking for any assistance, but just to say, `We appreciate that you care,' '' he says.

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Farm Aid's efforts have also helped farmers realize they can do more than suffer in silence, according to Carolyn Mugar, who directs Farm Aid's Cambridge, Mass., office.

But such efforts will be little more than stopgaps unless permanent solutions are found to the farm crisis, according to Farm Aid organizers. And that, they say, means higher prices for farm products.

``I don't know all the answers,'' says Wittliff, ``but I do know that when the guy making the wrapper for the loaf of bread is making more than the guy producing the wheat to make the bread, something is hugely out of whack. The farmer has to get a fair price for his product.''

[Not all experts agree that higher prices for agricultural products are the answer to the farm crisis. Some specialists argue that the long-term solution to the crisis must include a restructuring of the industry, with many small, inefficient producers leaving the farm.

[Moreover, experts note, government programs to raise agricultural prices pose difficult choices. They require either costly price-support subsidies to farmers or else taking land or livestock out of production. And such programs inevitably raise consumer food prices.]

How higher prices might be achieved is one topic that will be discussed at the national farm congress Farm Aid will sponsor this September in St. Louis.

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