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$900,000 From FarmAid Concert Distributed : Most Goes to Legal Fund to Help Producers Keep Their Land and Equipment

Associated Press

The FarmAid music extravaganza, like a fresh summer shower, brought America’s heartland a measure of hope. Now, it’s delivering help.

Singer Willie Nelson, organizer of the concert at the University of Illinois in Champaign, has distributed about $900,000, roughly a tenth of what has been pledged, to farm groups in 22 states from Montana to Florida. About half of that has been allocated for food and counseling for needy farmers.

Most groups have received relatively small sums--$5,000 to $10,000. The largest amount, $500,000, was donated to a national legal defense fund that will help farmers in danger of losing their land and equipment.

FarmAid has reaped about $9 million in pledges to date, which pales alongside the nation’s farm debt of more than $210 billion. Still, the music marathon was not intended to buy farmers out of their predicament.

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No Disappointment

When the financial harvest from the Sept. 22 concert at the University of Illinois fell well short of a $50-million goal, there was no disappointment.

“Willie’s big thing, No. 1, is to help the farmer,” said Jim Nicholls, executive vice president of PLC The Media Corp., the Texas-based advertising agency handling FarmAid. “No. 2 is to generate awareness. The third thing is credibility.”

Organizers plan to keep the spotlight shining with more FarmAid events. A Christmas television special is planned, Nicholls said, along with an album and a video. A sequel has also been scheduled: FarmAid II in New York City in June.

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A postal box for mailed donations remains in service. So does a toll-free number for call-in contributions (1-800-FarmAid). About 400,000 calls have been logged, Nicholls said.

FarmAid proceeds, he said, will be targeted to four areas: legal aid, food, public awareness and counseling and transitional assistance.

Nelson Screening Requests

Nelson’s immediate task is screening hundreds of requests for money raised by the 14-hour concert, which featured more than 50 performers, including Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and the Beach Boys.

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Nelson decides which requests are granted.

“He has some advisers, but he makes the final decisions,” Nicholls said. “That’s the way the farmers wanted it.”

The first FarmAid money was given to the National Council of Churches on the condition that it be distributed to feed the men and women who produce America’s food.

“Talk about anything being ironic, that’s it,” said Mary Ellen Lloyd, director of the council’s domestic hunger and poverty office in New York. “That’s what we’ve come to at this point.”

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The council distributed $110,000 to 14 farm organizations in 19 states, Lloyd said. In October, FarmAid gave the council an additional $200,000, also designated for food.

Among the first recipients was the Iowa Rural Crisis Fund, which divided its $10,000 among 33 food pantries across the state, Roz Ostendorf, program coordinator, said. Each pantry received about $300.

One of them is at the Delaware Community Center in central Iowa’s Polk County.

“I’ve heard $300 isn’t very much,” Sharon Brooks, center director, said. “Three hundred dollars is a whole lot to people who don’t have anything to eat.”

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Some Iowa pantries will use the money to buy goods they normally would not stock--eggs, milk, fresh vegetables and meat.

Others have a larger area to serve. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a Georgia-based organization, helps black farmers in a five-state region. It estimated that the $20,000 it received has aided up to 125 families in desperate need.

“It will help them survive a little longer,” said Ralph Page, executive director.

Still, some may be too proud to seek a handout, said Susan Koehler, chairman of a chapter of Groundswell, a farmers’ advocacy group in Minnesota.

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Job training is one thing but asking for food is “an admission you can’t feed your family,” she said. “It’s almost an admission of failure in their minds.”

17 Hote Lines

Other FarmAid proceeds are being used for 17 hot lines offering a variety of services.

One program, the Illinois South Project, received $10,000 for its Farm Survival Hotline, which advises farmers on their rights as borrowers and refers them to lawyers and financial specialists.

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It is also coordinating a volunteer counseling program, Jane Adams, a staff member, said. “A lot of times farmers know what they have to do . . . but they need people to talk to,” she said.

The half a million dollars donated to the legal fund, called Family Farm Defense Fund, will be used to train lawyers, set up a headquarters in Washington and provide legal aid to farmers.

The fund will also work with a Washington law firm that has promised to provide a certain percentage of its services free, according to Devon Woodland, president of the National Farmers Organization and fund chairman.

Woodland said that, because of the “massive number” of foreclosures and liquidations farmers face, “we had to have some avenues to protect ourselves in the court.”

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Even though FarmAid’s first beneficiaries say the money certainly is not a cure-all, it does help.

“I think it’s almost a message saying, ‘We want you to stay on the farm,’ ” Ostendorf of the Iowa crisis fund said. “It’s not going to solve the problems, but it may save one headache.”


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