Farm Aid Turns Fifteen: Willie Nelson keeps up the fight

by Andrew Essex
Rolling Stone
October 26, 2000

When Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985, Ronald Reagan ran the Oval Office, big hair ruled and Britney Spears was three.  A lot has changed in the past fifteen years, but if you happen to own a family farm, chances are you’re hurting worse than ever.  Despite a raging economy, the average independent farmer currently earns about $7,00000 a year off his own land.   Originally conceived to assist the kind of foreclosure devastated town that Mellencamp and Nelson grew up in Farm Aid must now contend with plummeting crop prices and the explosion of corporate agribusiness.  Though it has spread about $15 million in grants through forty-four states (from legal support  to drought relief to a crisis hotline), America’s 1.9 million family farmers — the little guys depicted in Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” — are still in bad shape.

“I thought the first Farm Aid would be enough to convince all the smart people how much we needed to do,” said Nelson before the concert began.  “Things continue to get worse,” added a stone-faced Young.  “It’s not what we wanted.”

All of this goes a long way toward explaining the tense mood at the Farm Aid 2000 pre concert news conference.  At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 17th, under a tent beside the Nissan Pavilion, a grassy outdoor shed in Bristow, Virginia, Nelson and Young found themselves seated on a dais set with hay bale, gourds, and Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader.

Though Nelson had issued personal invitations to all four presidential candidates, George W. Bush had passed.  Young wasn’t pleased:  “Notably absent,” he pointed out after shaking hands with Buchanan, “Is anyone from the Bush campaign?  Looks like another one of Bush’s great moves.”  (“His idea of a good farm program,” groaned one Texas cattle rancher, “is Hee Haw,”)

Meanwhile, Al Gore, who had the day off, had sent Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota in his place.  Buchanan clearly relished the open-minded audience.  “Factory-farm cartels,” he told the crowd, “are shafting the America farmer.”  Nader, already a big favorite with the disgruntled farmers, was treated to savior-like applause.  He called the family-farm situation “the worst since the Depression – a human tragedy.”

It wasn’t the kind of morning that made you want to break into song.  By all rights, the opening of Farm Aid 2000 should have been a jubilant occasion.  To commemorate its fifteenth anniversary, the organization was releasing its first CD:  Farm Aid:  Volume One Live, which feature best of performances by Dave Matthews Band, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Young, Mellencamp and — Farm Aid’s oddest double bill – Beck and Willie Nelson playing “Peach Picking Time Down in Georgia” (the double CD does leave out Guns n’ Roses, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Don Henley and several other alums).

After skipping 1988, ’89 and ’91, and surviving Nelson’s distracting IRS situation, Farm Aid has settled into a well-oiled annual event.  Even the weather was perfect.  Still, the dark mood persisted.  For all the unimpeachable good intentions, some farmers grudgingly admitted that Farm Aid has a long, long way to go.

“It’s pretty bad out there,” said George Naylor, a third-generation corn-an-soybean man from Churdan, Iowa.  “A lot of my colleagues are driving trucks.”  Others worried that making Farm Aid into an annual event risked afflicting young people with “Compassion fatigue” — becoming sort of like an agricultural Jerry Lewis telethon.  Nader wouldn’t hear of it.  “Come on” he said, insulted by the idea.  “Look at slavery, the women’s movement, civil rights.  Don’t do it.  Stand up and fight for something.”

In his trailer a few moments before showtime, Nelson pondered the fatigue question.  “I don’t even think about that,” he said.  “It took longer than fifteen years for the Berlin Wall to come down.  We’re not going away ‘win, lose or draw.'” 

Half a day later, it was clear that the commitment to what Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar calls “rolling a rock up a hill” had energized the performers.  After Arlo Guthrie turned in a rousing set that would have made his father, Woody, proud — he’d earlier said that family farmers had been reduced to “a class of serfs” — things accelerated following workmanlike sets by Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson and Barenaked Ladies.  Young re-emerged in a red “STOP FACTORY FARMS Shirt and delivered a kind of modified Crazy Horse set, complete with those staggeringly raunchy guitar solos that drive the guys in Pearl Jam crazy.

As the lat light faded from the sky, Mellencamp finally appeared.  His set was all acoustic, including a violin-driven version of “I Saw You First,” sung by Eighties teenpop star Tiffany.  Mellencamp was entirely without politics.  He didn’t utter a single word about farming.

Fortunately, Young was willing to say enough for everyone.  Back onstage with former partners Crosby, Stills and Nash to sing “Marakesh Express,” “Love the One You’re With” and others, he told the cheering crowd, “We need more decisions made at kitchen tables, not boardrooms in New York City or Chicago.”

At press time, the 2000 edition was unable to divulge the evening’s take — in the past, Farm Aid has raised slightly more than $1 per event — though a spokeswoman said there was no reason to expect that the tradition wouldn’t continue.  “It looks pretty crowded out there,” she said.

Of course, no Farm Aid performance is complete without a closing set from Willie Nelson and his enormous band, which included Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, who’s forming a caucus for politicians who play music.  Then Nelson announced a special guest.  The name Gore echoed through the venue — but it wasn’t Al.  Suddenly, Tipper Gore was sitting behind a conga set, jamming along with Willie.  Let the record show that the second lady has a find sense of rhythm.  “She’s pretty good,” offered Peterson.

As the music wound down, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a longtime Farm Aid associate, seemed to best sum up the event’s future.  “Farm Aid’s got to raise less corn,” he said “and a lot more hell.”

Laying down his guitar, Nelson agreed. “We won’t survive if we don’t” he said.  “But we’re stubborn.  We’re determined to get things done.

To donate to Farm Aid, or learn more about how they help farmers:

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