In September 1985, amid a sea of swaying cornfields on a stormy afternoon in southern Illinois, Willie Nelson put in motion the first FarmAid benefit concert. The event was inspired by LiveAid, an internationally broadcast, star-studded pair of concerts that successfully raised millions of dollars for victims of starvation in Ethiopia.

Willie said simply: “I want to do something for the American farmer.”

It was an era of economic upheaval in American agriculture. Multigenerational family farms had been going bankrupt for many years at a rate unprecedented since World War II. Large-scale corporate farming was ascending steadily for decades. Due to many factors, foreclosures of the family farm, long the bedrock of the agrarian landscape across the entire country, were at an all-time high. Before playing a show at the Illinois State Fair only the month before, Willie had sat across from his buddy, Gov. Jim Thompson, and explained his idea. In record time for such a large scale production, the all-day concert was held at the renowned Memorial Stadium in Champaign courtesy of the governor.

I grew up in Illinois but at the time of the first FarmAid concert I was living on the Vineyard. Or, to be more precise, I was in the process of leaving the Vineyard. A few weeks earlier I had packed up my life on the Island and driven out to New Mexico, a previous home, to pick up some belongings before moving to New York city to pursue a career as a fashion designer.

Nicole Groh, Shelley Edmundson, and Sonya Dagovitz. — John Zannini

Heading from New Mexico to New York, while driving through Illinois, the announcement of the show came on the radio like a clap of thunder that was part of the storm outside. Headliners included Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, Loretta Lynn and a bunch of others.

I was maybe an hour away at the time from the concert and where I had spent my life as a child, and was sorely tempted to make a detour. But I had a job to get to and an exciting new chapter of my life to start, so I kept heading east.

Since that time, FarmAid has been roaming across rural America continuously for the past 37 years. This year’s show took place on Sept. 16 in Burgettstown, Pa.

Over the years, the organization has provided millions of dollars of economic relief, and equally important logistical, legal, and psychological support for people across the country. To make it possible for farmers in different regions to be able to participate and enjoy the music, FarmAid has been coming to them, locating in a different agricultural region each year. Logistically this is a lot more work, but clearly the payoff is worth the efforts of the dedicated organization.

I am now living on the Vineyard again, and earlier this summer I bumped into my friend Nicola Groh who told me she was going to FarmAid, along with Shelley Edmundson, to help set up all the food for the event as she has been doing for many years. These two women work with the Island Fisherman’s Trust to help local commercial fishermen earn a viable living and to support a sustainable fishery. At FarmAid they get food ready for the volunteers, staff and artists.

Working with organizers, everything is as local and organic as possible. The vendors that serve the 38,000 fans use local resources and the range of food on offer is truly stunning. Fresh corn and peaches, vegetarian options abound, BBQ, clams and oysters, and, of course, corn dogs.

I was inspired to learn from culinary director of the festival, Sonya Dagovitz, that all the work to incorporate local sustainable farm products may have a larger impact than just one event. Concert producer Live Nation is using it as a test to see where the model might be replicated in other larger scale venues. So the original mission continues to grow and evolve in many ways, underpinned by a single idea.

This year, I decided it was time to make the trip, driving through the swath of farm country from the hills of western Massachusetts through the rolling landscapes of New Jersey and New York, to the stunning pastoral vistas of agrarian western Pennsylvania.

I stopped along the way at the iconic Village Diner in Matamoras, Pa., where folks were surprised to learn that FarmAid was still going strong, helping people uninterrupted all these years. It was a common observation from people I talked to in the weeks leading up the concert.

While packing, it occurred to me that it would be nice to bring some food grown from our Island to share. Something emblematic of the Vineyard, perhaps corn from Morning Glory Farm, yoghurt lassies from Mermaid Farm or maybe oysters from a Katama Bay grower. Unfortunately, last-minute organizing of the camping gear prevented gathering some local bounty.

Neil Young, a founder of FarmAid, has never missed a show. — John Zannini

So it was slightly ironic that upon arrival the first people I met, George and Jeff, were with the New Jersey Heritage Shellfish Cooperative and have a long and distinguished history of promoting traditional shellfish aquaculture among the estuaries of the Jersey Shore. Naturally, they have long been acquainted personally and professionally with the work here of Rick Karney and the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.

Before the music started on a perfect sunny afternoon, a diverse array of farmers of all stripes — urban, organic, dairy — congregated on the main stage with farm advocates and original board members: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews and many others.

As the farmers discussed the seasonal challenges they have faced, it became quite clear how committed and passionate they are and how lucky we are too. Willie had the reflective crowd laughing of course. When asked about working with his own family, he said, “I’m lucky to be able to have my sons tour with me which is nice since they play really good.”

And Neil Young eloquently praised the farmers with a heartfelt commentary. “You all make the world a better place by doing what you do, growing food and sharing it with other people. America already is great,” he declared.

The passion and honesty of his remarks preceded the stirring set he would perform later that night which included several of his all-time classic songs. He played with Lukas and Micah Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real. As a founding board member he hasn’t missed a single show — even this year when he was forced to cancel all his other scheduled performances. He rocked it hard that night.

FarmAid is in many ways quite similar to our own Living Local festival held each October, although on a much larger scale. It is a celebration of farming traditions coupled with great food and music and a wide array of groups presenting environmentally conscious challenges and successes. Multigenerational families were everywhere. The Homegrown tent, featuring a seed swap, a worm composting workshop, a pollinator clinic, how to make a crispier pickle and more, drew big crowds in Pennsylvania that afternoon. They would have been welcome and at home in West Tisbury at the Agricultural Hall.

Needless to say, it was an amazing day of music, food and celebration of the hard work that our farmers do every day so that we can reap the fruits of their labors. Farming on land or in the sea — the challenges and benefits are in many ways the same. Artists tipped their hats to farmers near and far throughout the entire concert. The whole day of music could have been titled Willie and Friends because there were definitely common themes throughout the day: truth, courage and perseverance.

Driving back home through the rural communities I was reminded how important it is to bring folks together to celebrate the commitment and hard work of our farmers and to help address problems together as the need arises. Just as Willie envisioned all those years ago.

John Zannini is the proprietor of SaltMV in Vineyard Haven. His grandfather was a farmer in Paw Paw, Mich.