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.
On April 7, 1990, Willie Nelson hosted Farm Aid IV in Indianapolis.
Elton John dedicates “Candle In The Wind” to AIDS patient Ryan White, who dies that night.
Also performing: Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp and Neil Young.
Selling out in 90 minutes, Farm Aid’s fourth concert in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 7 brought 70 artists together with farmers, environmental and consumer advocates. A new message emerged from that effort: the well-being of our land, food and water supply depends on a network of family farmers who care about how our food is grown.
The concert was televised live on The Nashville Network, and a two-hour highlight was re-broadcast to ten million viewers on CBS. In additional to Willie Nelson & Family, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, the musical line-up included Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Jakcson Brown, Elton John, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Garth Brooks. Elton John dedicates “Candle In The Wind” to AIDS patient Ryan White, who dies that night.
Willie Nelson and Kimmie Rhodes perform “Just One Love” live at the Farm Aid concert in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 7th, 1990. 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.
For more information about Farm Aid, visit: http://farmaid.org
Two foil trays laden with ribs produced by local farmers sat on a counter inside Willie Nelson’s tour bus outside the Missouri Theatre on Monday night.
Rhonda Perry, program director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, situated herself opposite Nelson at his small kitchen table. A black cowboy hat lay between them. Perry opened the conversation by thanking Nelson and explaining how he helped make sure those ribs ended up on the tour bus.
On April 1, 1995, Perry invited Nelson to the intersection of two nameless gravel roads in Putnam County to raise awareness about a 50,000-hog operation run by Premium Standard Farms. Perry said the Missouri Rural Crisis Center needed Nelson’s help to protect family farms from the encroachment of such corporate farms.
According to an Associated Press report from the concert, participants could smell the odor from the hog farm throughout the event.
Despite several inches of snow, about 2,000 people wearing coveralls and boots showed up to watch Nelson perform for about 30 minutes. Nelson sang on a makeshift stage atop a flatbed attached to a semi truck and advocated against corporate farms.
The concert included performances from several other bands, and dozens of people from around the nation spoke out against industrial farms.
Perry said the event helped shape future legislation that gave more protection to family farms. Premium Standard eventually was bought out by Smithfield Foods.
“It was 20 years ago!” Perry exclaimed.
The 81-year-old country star cracked a smile. “Yeah, I remember that,” he said, laughing.
Perry and Roger Allison, executive director of the center, shared stories with Nelson on his tour bus for a few minutes before his show Monday and discussed issues threatening family farms. The Missouri Rural Crisis Center, located at 1108 Range Line St., is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year thanks in part to a check Nelson gave the organization in 1985. According to the organization’s website, the center links about 5,600 farms and “fights to preserve family farms and independent family farm livestock production.”
Perry said the center and other supporters were planning to travel to Jefferson City on Tuesday to lobby for family farms. She said the group intends to meet with every state representative and senator to talk about issues including foreign company ownership of Missouri farms.
Perry said foreign corporations are able to own 1 percent of Missouri farmland, which adds up to about 289,000 acres. She said 85,000 acres already are owned by foreign entities, but the center wants to protect other land from ownership outside the United States.
To feed the lobbying group, Perry said she had packed 100 box lunches with ham produced at family farms.
Looking back 20 years, Allison said Nelson’s concert in Lincoln Township was a boon for local farm efforts and led to events like Tuesday’s lobbying trip. Allison said Nelson’s presence helped farmers feel like they had a voice.
“The effect” of Nelson’s concert “vibrated across the U.S., and to this day communities demand more local control,” Allison said.
Wrapping up their conversation with Nelson, Allison and Perry both mentioned how crucial that old concert wound up being.
“It’s amazing how it did start,” Nelson said. “And a big mouth like mine spitting it out helped.”
Before bidding farewell, Perry told Nelson she planned to attend the 2015 Farm Aid concert, where Nelson is scheduled to perform. She promised to bring more ribs.
Farm Aid has collaborated with the magazine Dollars & Sense to create an issue that examines the current economic state of agriculture in America. Read Willie Nelson’s introduction and then browse and download the entire issue below.
The Wealth of the Land and the Power of the People
By Willie Nelson
Last year at the annual Farm Aid concert in Raleigh, N.C, I met Phillip and Dorathy Barker, Black farmers who, like many minority farmers, lost much of their farmland as a result of discriminatory lending practices by banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, Phillip and Dorathy farm the 20 acres they were able to hold on to in Oxford, N.C. They also operate a non-profit organization, Operation Spring Plant, which provides resources and training to minority and limited-resource farmers, including a program that introduces young people to farming and provides youth leadership training. Phillip said one of his goals is to provide tools for the next generation and to help young people “come back to the farm to understand the wealth of the land.”
“Wealth of the land.”
That’s a powerful phrase. Phillip believes the next generation must see a sustainable livelihood from the land, but the wealth he refers to can’t be measured only in dollars. It is measured in the experience of working on the land, tending the soil, and caring for the animals and crops that grow from it. It’s measured in the ability to be independent, to feed himself and his family. It’s measured in the way he and Dorathy sustain and strengthen their community. It’s measured in being rooted to a place, and passing something valuable to the next generation.
It seems to me that understanding the real wealth in the land is key to a sustainable future for all of us.
Our greatest challenge is in re-visioning how the majority see “wealth.” The wealth of the land cannot be boiled down to the investors’ return on investment. It cannot be gauged by the commodities it returns to us—in gallons of oil and bushels of corn.
The drive to extract as much value from the land as possible—to maximize production without regard to whether we’re exhausting the soil, to give over our farmland to Wall Street investors, to seize land held by families for generations for corporate profit— bankrupts the land, our food, our nation, and our future.
We need to redefine wealth as the ability to make a decent living from the land as well as to sustain it for the next generation. To grow crops for food and fuel while simultaneously enriching the soil upon which future crops depend. To support a family and a community. To work in partnership with nature to protect our health and the health of our planet. As caretakers of our soil and water, this has been and always should be the essential role of the family farmer.
Today, fewer than 2% of us live on farms. Clearly, we can’t all be family farmers, but we can all shift our priorities to ensure we’re doing our best to support them and encourage new farmers to get started on the land. Playing music to bring awareness is how I started Farm Aid in 1985, and it’s how I continue to support the people who best know how to care for the land: our family farmers. Each and every one of us has the power to do what we can to support and sustain family farmers.
Our common wealth depends on it.
— Willie Nelson
President, Farm Aid
Following last September’s Farm Aid benefit concert, festival organizers had some of the legendary performers including Jack White and Willie Nelson autograph a Gibson guitar. Now you can have it for a mere $8,500 via the memorabilia site If Only.
The Les Paul 50?s Tribute Vintage Sunburst guitar was also signed by Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and Gary Clark Jr. The description for the guitar refers to it as “an incredible rock ‘n’ roll keepsake from one of the biggest music events of the year.”
Since 1985, Farm Aid, with the help of its contributing artists, has raised over $45 million “to support programs that help farmers thrive, expand the reach of the Good Food Movement, take action to change the dominant system of industrial agriculture and promote food from family farms.”
We’re thrilled to announce that Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary concert will take place on September 19! We’ll fill you in on the rest of the details, like the concert location and lineup, as soon as possible.
“The first Farm Aid concert featured more than 50 artists on one stage. In the 29 years since, hundreds more artists have given their time and talent to support family farmers. This year, we would like to invite even more artists to join us onstage as we celebrate family farm agriculture.” –– Willie Nelson
“The legacy of Farm Aid is twofold: in the change we’ve made in our farm and food system, and in the rich musical record of concerts held since 1985. The list of artists who have played on the Farm Aid stage is a who’s who of the best artists of our time.” –– John Mellencamp
John and Willie made the announcement last night while representing Farm Aid at the 17th annual GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert, where our organization was honored for its ability to harness the power of music for social change as the longest running concert for a cause.
Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid V plays to about 40,000 fans in Irving, Texas, with Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Joe Walsh, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lorrie Morgan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ricky Van Shelton, The Kentucky HeadHunters, Hal Ketchum and Paul Simon.
Economic Recovery starts in the Heartland with Family Farmers” was Farm Aid’s theme for 1992. Farmers Home Administration sent out 40,000 foreclosure notices to troubled farms. The impact of the loss of these farms on rural communities was devastating. Every five farms that closed down took one small business with them. Small towns across America were being boarded up. Schools, hospitals and farm houses were left empty.
Willie Nelson and Farm Aid helped to bring this to the attention of the new Clinton Administration. Farm Aid joined family farm organizations in expressing hope for greater access to this administration in order to change federal policies to support family farming.
Asleep At The Wheel
Ricky Van Shelton