Photo submitted Idaho ranchers Mabel and Grant Dobbs meet with musician Willie Nelson prior to his June 19 concert in Nampa, Idaho, to discuss concerns about agriculture. Nelson is an original founder of Farm Aid, which works to keep family farms in business.
A Weiser, Idaho, ranching couple got to visit with musician Willie Nelson about agricultural issues as part of his Farm Aid program.
NAMPA, Idaho — Idaho ranchers Mabel and Grant Dobbs had 15 minutes inside of Willie Nelson’s tour bus to discuss pressing challenges in agriculture while one of their favorite entertainers nodded in agreement.
The brief meeting prior to Nelson’s June 19 concert here was arranged by staff with Farm Aid, an organization devoted to protecting the family farm, founded by Nelson and fellow musicians Neil Young and John Mellencamp.
According to Farm Aid staff, Nelson was concerned about the stories of struggling farmers he met on the road in the 1980s when he formed the organization and still prioritizes meeting with agricultural producers when he tours.
Mabel and Grant, of Weiser, spoke with Nelson on behalf of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils and its parent organization, the Wester Organization of Resource Councils. Mabel said Farm Aid has offered grants to both organizations, including for an Idaho campaign to enact legislation governing sales of home-produced “cottage” food products.
That bill stalled in the Legislature, so IORC is backing a rule-making process by Idaho’s health districts to clarify which cottage products are allowed and policies regarding their production. A public comment period on the rule-making process ends July 24.
Mabel became involved in WORC in the late 1980s, assisting in its efforts to help farmers cope with credit challenges, prompted by personal experience. She and her husband had struggled to stay in business, having expanded their ranch property just before a farm credit crisis. They advocated for legislation to force banks to mediate with producers and seek to find alternate means to resolve credit issues before foreclosure.
Mabel said the bill failed and “thousands of farmers and ranchers went down.” As they seek to transfer their farm and ranch to their youngest daughter, Mabel said producers still face many of the same challenges.
Mabel told Nelson, “You started Farm Aid 30 years ago. I got involved 28 years ago, and the fight goes on. You and I are getting much older, but the need is still there.”
Mabel and Grant also addressed water quality, the need for more transparent deliberations regarding trade agreements, the lack of transparency in livestock markets and country of origin labeling on meat.
Mabel opposes ongoing efforts in Congress to repeal country-of-origin labeling, believing it provides useful information to the consumer, while the law’s critics fear trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico.
Farm Aid spokeswoman Jennifer Fahy said her organization provides grants to like-minded organizations and also does its own work, including operating a hotline that directs producers to resources in their regions.
“We’ve worked quite a bit on crop insurance to make sure farmers have that security net,” Fahy added.
Fahy said roughly 60 percent of Farm Aid’s revenue comes from sales of concert tickets and merchandise, with the rest coming from donations. Dave Matthews joined Farm Aid’s board of directors in 2001.
The next Farm Aid concert, featuring the four member musicians and guests, is scheduled for Sept. 19 at a location yet to be named.
Farm Aid has a new website! They put a lot of work into this, and it is full of information. Check it out.
Still no hints about where the 2015 Concert will be in September, yet, but lots of other good stuff. Check it out.
In the 1980s, family farmers faced a crisis the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Plummeting farm product prices and land values, rising interest rates, troubled credit markets and unfair lending practices pushed tens of thousands of farms out of business, forcing millions of people off their land.
It was in this context that Willie Nelson, joined by John Mellencamp and Neil Young, organized a groundbreaking concert in 1985 to raise awareness and funds to help America’s family farmers, sparking a family farm movement that continues to this day. Dave Matthews joined the Board of Directors in 2001, adding another strong voice to Farm Aid’s work. This timeline features highlights from Farm Aid’s thirty years of action for family farmers and the Good Food Movement.
The following article by Willie Nelson originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Slow : USA, Slow Food USA‘s biannual discussion journal. It is reproduced here in its entirety.
Listen Up, Good Food Movement
by Willie Nelson
In the 1980s, as I toured the country on my bus, Honeysuckle Rose, I made it a habit to stop in at diners and truck stops, to talk to folks there. I heard familiar stories that brought me back to my upbringing in rural Texas. And it was from those folks that I came to understand the challenges our family farmers and rural residents face… and to see what a tremendous resource they are to all of us.
Farmers, farm wives, and friends of farmers told me about what was going on in the Heartland. They may have only been looking for an ear to witness their story. Or they may have thought that I could help. Either way, I could not let them down.
This is how Farm Aid started in 1985: by listening to farmers. It was the height of the Farm Crisis, which pushed hundreds of thousands of family farmers off the land. John Mellencamp, Neil Young and I, and fifty more artists held a concert to raise money to help farmers and build awareness to put an end to the policies that pushed family farmers off the land and paved the way for industrial, corporatized agriculture.
John often says now that we were naïve to think that just one concert would fix things. I suppose we were. Thirty years later we are still here, standing up and pushing forward with family farmers to keep them on their land growing good food for all of us. And we won’t stop, because we keep listening to farmers and rural residents who tell us what the industrialization of farms and food is doing to our soil and water, our communities, and our health.
It was in the 1990s that we at Farm Aid heard from the countryside about the rise of factory farms. Farmers told us what these giant pork factories were doing to their towns. The factory farms polluted the water and the air, making it impossible for rural folks to enjoy their own homes. They were forced inside, with the windows closed, to escape the stench. They lost financial security as their property values plummeted. They lost the diversity of their farms as they were forced to compete with agribusiness on an industrial scale. And they lost not just their livelihoods, but the legacy that was passed down to them through the generations. I went there, to Iowa and Missouri, to stand with family farmers.
Farm Aid listened and we acted with farmers, each step of the way. The farmers knew the strategy for organizing their neighbors. They are the grassroots, capable of turning out thousands to rally against the politics and policies that bring corporate consolidation to the countryside. They are rooted in their community, which gives them the strength and commitment to fight, for years, for their own sake and for the sake of their neighbors and their children and grandchildren. Later in the 1990s we learned about GMO seeds, from you guessed it, family farmers. It was family farmers who first heard about the supposed benefits of genetic engineering before any concerned eater ever encountered a GMO product in the grocery store. The farmers who reached out to Farm Aid told us that they wanted to organize a campaign to make sure that all farmers knew what genetic engineering was and how it could affect their crops, their land, their markets, and their livelihoods. Farm Aid supported the farmers and helped get the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering off the ground. Today’s movement to regulate and label (and even ban) GMOs has its roots in the farmers who first organized around these issues in the 1990s.
The promise of the Good Food Movement lies not merely in all of us knowing and speaking out about the critical importance of our food, but in the connections we cultivate with family farmers.
Today, Farm Aid celebrates the power and potential of the Good Food Movement. People everywhere are searching out family farm food, asking for it at their local grocery stores and restaurants. The United States has more than 7,000 farmers markets, and the CSA model where eaters become “shareholders” in a local farm has spread like wildfire. New, young farmers are coming on the land, with college degrees and often no family background in agriculture, but with a passion and ingenuity that is changing the landscape. Articles, books, and films tell the story of our food system, and spokespeople have become well-known leaders of this movement.
But as the movement picks up steam, I worry that too often the family farmer voice is not heard—even by people who love their good food. The promise of the Good Food Movement lies not merely in all of us knowing and speaking out about the critical importance of our food, but in the connections we cultivate with family farmers. With those connections established, we can support farmers in new ways—with our dollars, yes, but also with our voices, at the town hall, at the ballot box… everywhere we go. Each one of us can participate in the culture of agriculture by cooking, sharing, and growing our own food when we can, and learning from our farmers.
When it comes right down to it, there is no Good Food Movement without family farmers.
And its success depends not only on our supporting “local” and “organic” and “sustainable,” but also on our recognition and respect of the wisdom and experience of family farmers and rural folks. We face tremendous challenges to right our farm and food system. But the solutions are on the shelf, as I like to say. We only need to open our ears, hearts and minds to truly listen.
All of America watched as the Flood of ’93 left thousands of Midwest families homeless. Heavy rains caused the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to rise up and overflow their banks, swallowing entire towns along the way. Eight million acres of crops were destroyed and 20 million acres were damaged. With their backs already against the wall due to heavy debt and low farm prices, Midwest family farmers had few resources left to deal with the effects of the flooding.
In response to the flood, Farm Aid created the Family Farm Disaster Fund to support organizations that worked directly with farm families stricken by the flood. When farmers needed help to avoid foreclosure due to losses from the flood, Farm Aid-funded groups were there to help them save their farms.
The 1993 concert included performances by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, the Highwaymen, Sawyer Brown, Bruce Hornsby, Martina McBride, the Kentucky HeadHunters, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, Ringo Starr, Waylon Jennings, Bryan Adams, Paul Simon, Travis Tritt, Ricky Van Shelton and many others.
Today is Patriots’ Day here in Massachusetts, which means our office is closed. It’s also the day of the 119th Boston Marathon, so in celebration of everyone running today, we’d like to say, “Long May You Run.”
How do you prep for an interview with Willie Nelson?You read autobiography after autobiography and find yourself watching Grand Ole Opry when you should be reading one more autobiography. You hold a meeting on whether it would be unprofessional to say “yes” to an offered joint or rude to say “no.” (You settle on “no” in order to avoid an interview full of questions like “Aren’t trees weird, Willie?”) You watch old interviews like a football coach reviewing rival teams’ tapes. You haggle with publicists and have a car packed and ready to meet his bus at their go-ahead. You review scribbled notes and polished questions.It’s hard to think of many celebrities as well-loved as Willie. “In a time when America is more divided than ever, Nelson could be the one thing that everybody agrees on,” wrote Patrick Doyle in a 2014 Rolling Stone profile. When I told my rancher dad about my plans for an interview, he told me to ask Willie to play at his funeral. When I pointed out that dad will likely outlive ol’ Willie, he was silent for a while and then muttered, “Might have to work on that.”If you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a story where I track down an American icon and squeeze life’s secrets, folksy wisdom, and a ditty or two from him. I did, however, get my interview. After months of buildup, I got Willie on the other end of the phone line for 20 minutes.
It was difficult to connect the wary, but kind, voice on the phone to the Willie Nelson of my youth. In my small Montana town, Willie was a living Western movie. We’d beg our parents for quarters in dusty bars to play songs like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboyw.” It was just a little funny and a little sad when some of us babies went off to become doctors and lawyers and such.
Similar to the love and mysticism we heap on Willie, we romanticize the hell out of agriculture, too. This isn’t to say they each haven’t earned their mythical reputations: Willie smoked pot on the roof of the White House and created an incredible body of music. Meanwhile, farmers are connected to nature and life and death in ways most of us can barely fathom from inside a cubicle.
But that romanticism only scratches at the surface of U.S. agriculture. In this series, I want to open a dialogue with the mid-size farmers who have largely been left out of the food conversation. If we continue to ignore them, our polarized ag economy will eventually force them to scale up — or off the land entirely.
I was knee-high when I went to a wheat farm auction in Eastern Montana with my farmer grandparents; I remember thinking it was going to be fun and feeling confused by the heavy mood brought on by neighbors buying up their old neighbors’ machinery.
No American farmer over the age of 40 will forget the low prices, high debt, and droughts that shook rural America in the ’80s. “In the 1930s, everyone in America suffered — urban people, the rich banker, the poor farmer. Everybody lost massively. Everybody was living close to survival. And it meant for kind of a national unity,”former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) told PBS. “With the farm crisis in the ’80s, basically it was only the farmer. And this meant the farmer was alone in an island of difficulty. And that is really something that eats at the soul sometimes deeper than being part of a more general phenomenon.”
But Willie insisted on making the farm crisis a national conversation. In 1985, Nelson recognized the dire state of American agriculture, and launched Farm Aid. What was supposed to be a one-off event turned into an annual concert and a nonprofit that’s pumped millions into farm disaster relief, grants for local food groups, ag policy lobbying, factory farm resistance, and more.
To many of us in the middle of the country, Willie wasn’t just the soundtrack to farm auctions — he was out there trying to make the rest of America care.
I asked Willie how a nation bounces back from something like the sorrow of the 1980s. “That’s a tough question,” he replied. A lot of farmers didn’t want to go back after the ugliness of the ‘80s, Willie said. But “the folks who stayed in there and toughed it out, even though they may have lost their farm, they still kept their character and their good name. They had to overcome it. A lot of them have gone back into the farming business.”
Willie, similarly, has seen his share of rough times, and survived with his name intact. The red-headed stranger landed in the mud not long after his farming friends. In the early ’90s, Willie was hit with a multimillion dollar tax debt. He had mistakenly relied on a manager to pay the bills, and he followed that debt up with some bad business decisions. Then, as his estates were being auctioned off, Willie lost his oldest son.
Every cowboy knows that if a horse bucks you off, you’d better get back on. For all of the media accounts that said Willie was disgraced and done, he kept on singing, churning out albums, and releasing autobiographies. Willie dusted off his jeans and stuck a boot in the stirrup. And the fans filled the stadiums to see him.
But meanwhile, the U.S. continued to lose farms. And while the food movement has had real success with galvanizing eaters and reconnecting Americans to what’s on the local, free-range, organic plate, it remains to be seen whether we can truly care about and understand the people and places behind the food.
When I asked Willie who his favorite food writers are, he responded, “I was raised up with farmers and I have a lot of friends who were and are farmers. I think that’s where you go to get advice about what’s going on out there: You go ask a farmer.”
After three decades of farm advocacy work, how do things look to Willie? “There is a lot of organic farming going on these days and it’s helped out the small family farmer. The farm-to-table markets are doing well,” he said. “People have learned to buy locally and sustainably, and it’s turning into a better situation than it was, but it’s not perfect. There are still a lot of farmers out there in trouble.”
Willie has seen some successes in his other passion: legalizing marijuana. “They’ve already found out that it don’t kill you and it don’t make you go crazy and berserk, running around biting yourself,” he said. And now that the business types have seen the money in it, according to Willie, it’s only going to spread.
I asked Willie if he thinks U.S. agriculture as a whole could have a Willie-like rebound and he laughed at the comparison. “Well, that would be wonderful if they did,” he said. “It’d be another miracle.”
This fall, Farm Aid will celebrate its 30th anniversary. “Helping put out the word is about all we can do,” Willie said, adding that the musicians are just “trying to bring people’s attention to an old problem.”
But Willie has always managed to do more than just bring our attention to the problem of vanishing farms. He has also kept that image, however romantic and outdated, of the cowboy on America’s mind.
Willie and his preferred genre are the distillation of old longing we attach to red dirt roads. “Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic ideal,” music anthropoligist Aaron Fox explained in a Radiolab segment. The crying steel guitars and vocalizations, Fox said, conjure up memories of migration and feelings of regret.
I listened to a lot of Willie’s music while writing this piece. When his recording of the old classic Red-Headed Stranger came on, my boyfriend turned to me and asked, “Where is Blue Rock, Montana?”
It’s not a real place, I told him, “but it sure sounds nice, doesn’t it?”
So, how do you end an interview with Willie Nelson? I didn’t ask him if he would play at my father’s funeral (glad you’re still kicking, dad!). Instead, I told him a joke. “What’s the difference between beer nuts and deer nuts?” I asked. “Beer nuts are $1.49 and deer nuts are always under a buck.”
Willie gave a good, long, raspy laugh and whatever hurried tension was there dissolved. Who can blame him? It is a pretty good joke, and he’s only human, after all.
Neil Young performs “Heart of Gold” with Willie Nelson at the Farm Aid concert in Louisville, Kentucky on October 1st, 1995. Farm Aid was started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to keep family farmers on the land and has worked since then to make sure everyone has access to good food from family farmers. Dave Matthews joined Farm Aid’s board of directors in 2001.