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.