by: David Dunkle
Willie Nelson is on the road yet again, heading to the rolling farmlands of central Pennsylvania, home to what he calls “the best chocolate milk that I’ve ever tasted.”
He’ll perform Saturday night at Hersheypark Stadium during the annual Farm Aid benefit concert, along with fellow Farm Aid board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave
Concert-goers will no doubt hear some of Nelson’s signature songs, which include “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and, of course, “On the Road Again.” They will also hear him talk about the importance of family farmers, whose cause he has championed for nearly three decades through Farm Aid Inc. He’s been president of the nonprofit organization since its founding in 1987.
“I was just hoping to help farmers be able to farm food and feed their families,” Nelson said in an interview with The Patriot-News. “There was a time we were the strongest, after World War II, when everybody was pulling the plow. Now the government is only trying to make things better for the big corporations.”
He said he’s impressed by Pennsylvania’s family farmers. This is Farm Aid’s first concert in central Pennsylvania, but previous ones have been held near Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “Farm Aid feels at home here in central Pennsylvania, where the culture of agriculture is thriving,” Nelson wrote in an open letter that will be included in the Farm Aid program.
The state, one of the original 13 colonies, does have a long-standing legacy of family farming. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s 63,000 farms are family-owned, including more than 2,000 that have been in the same family for at least a century, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
“Agriculture knits this community together,” Nelson said. “Family farm agriculture across Pennsylvania is strong.”
State Agriculture Secretary George Greig said many of Farm Aid’s goals are in synch with the department’s own. “Family farms are very important in Pennsylvania,” Greig, who owns a 650-acre farm in Crawford County, said. “They are always going to be part of the mix. We have marketing programs to help farmers market locally. We are limited because of budgets, but we are constantly helping farmers.”
Enlarge DAN GLEITER, The Patriot-News Crews set up in and around Hersheypark Stadium for the Farm Aid concert. 09/21/2012 DAN GLEITER, The Patriot-NewsFarm Aid 2012 Set Up gallery (13 photos)
Nelson said Farm Aid exists because government agricultural policies too often tilt toward large corporate-owned farms, which have deep pockets they use to influence politicians. “I wish I didn’t have to do this,” he said. “I wish the government would take better care of our natural resources, and that includes the family farmer.”
Nelson, 79, has had a long career as a singer, songwriter, actor, author and activist. With his long pigtails, once red but now mostly gray, and trademark bandanna, he’s an iconic — and sometimes controversial — figure on America’s musical and political landscape.
He was one of the ringleaders of the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, which also included Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. He’s been married four times and has fathered seven children. He’s been in trouble for not paying taxes and is an unrepentant pot smoker, with possession busts dating to 1974 and continuing as recently as 2010, when cops in Texas found six ounces of marijuana on his tour bus.
He also suffers from emphysema, and has had surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome in his wrists, brought on by decades of playing the guitar. There’s a hole in the body of his favorite guitar, a visible result of that endless strumming.
Through it all, this child of the Great Depression, who was raised by his grandparents among the cotton fields of Abbott, Texas, has stayed close to his country roots, both in his music and his causes.
While Nelson insisted he’s not overtly political — “I wouldn’t want to belong to a party that would have me as a member” — but said he supports President Barack Obama in his current re-election campaign against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. “I think it’s important to keep our president in there,” Nelson said. “He’s not perfect, but his ideas are much better than that other party is planning on. They are more for the rich guy.”
Nelson may be the public face of Farm Aid, but the artist said he’s just a small part of a big Good Food movement that aims to to connect farmers more directly with consumers. “I think a lot of people get some credit,” he said. “There are literally thousands of artists and millions of people who have donated time and money to help the family farmers. We have made a small dent in it. People know what’s going on, so they have got to help.”
As he nears 80, Nelson said he has no plans to leave Farm Aid. “As long as there are farmers out there who need us, I haven’t heard any plans about quitting,” he said. “We need to get more young people out on the farm, growing food and being farmers, even though it’s too hard a work and there ain’t no money in it.”