Monday, April 11, 2011

A Visit with a Longtime Farm Advocate

JoelI recently had the opportunity to travel to Durant, Oklahoma, to visit with veteran Farm Advocate Mona Lee Brock. I was there to learn more about the history of farm advocacy, but first I was treated to a homemade meal.

I not only got Mona Lee’s famous lime pie but also a huge spread for supper that included mouth-watering ribs and (wait for the drum roll…) Wayne Allen's own "bone lickin' good" barbeque sauce. The label on the bottle tells you that this is "the original American Agriculture Movement BBQ Sauce." Ingredients? "You don't need to know!" Can you buy some? Nope: "Distributed to Friends and Family of the Allens." I'm proud to say that I left with a bottle of that sauce, and with more food than I could possibly eat in a week. With a straight face, Mona Lee told me that I might need a "little snack" later.

Wayne and Geraldine "Jerry" Allen had come down from Perkins, Oklahoma, for the day. In addition to Jerry, Wayne, and Mona Lee, also on hand for my visit were Ted Riddle, past president of the American Agriculture Movement (www.aaminc.org), Mona Lee's middle-aged son Ronnie Brock, and her 11 year old grandson, Elijah (whose dad is currently serving in Afghanistan).

Here they are (Back row from left, Ted, Ronnie, and Wayne; front row from left, Mona Lee, Elijah, and Geraldine):



As far as I'm concerned, everyone in this photo is a rural American hero--well, maybe not young Elijah yet, but he'll have his chance. All are native, small town Oklahomans. Ranging in age from almost 80 (Mona Lee) to 50-something (her son Ronnie), all the adults currently live no more than 22 miles from where they were born. All have had the grinding, soul-sapping, shame-inducing experience of losing the family farm. All parlayed that devastating experience into decades of dedicated service helping other struggling Oklahoma farm families.

Beginning under the umbrella of the Oklahoma Council of Churches and later operating independently as the National Farm Crisis Center, Mona Lee worked the farmer hotline endlessly and "the Brotherhood" of Wayne, Ted, and a few others (including Ronnie once he was old enough) fanned out across the state to make farm visits, all too often in response to threats of suicide. (Open up your copy of Farm Aid's book, Song for America, to pp. 24-25 for a good article about Mona Lee.) Mona Lee would also make farm visits, and I was shocked to learn that she was advised by the highway patrol to carry a gun when she traveled: not to protect herself from suicidal farmers, hundreds and hundreds of whom she helped directly, but to protect herself and confidential hotline records from thugs working in collusion with certain unscrupulous creditors and corrupt politicians.

Mona Lee and crew are what we refer to as Farm Advocates, trustworthy and dedicated people who combine real-life farm experience with genuine skill in social service, farm financial and technical know-how, legal expertise and/or local organizing. Let's be plain about it: in becoming a Farm Advocate, you are taking sides in a long running David and Goliath battle in which small and mid-sized farms were and are being pushed off the land by Big Ag and its cronies. The Farm Advocates I met in Durant--totally down-home and humble Oklahomans who would never describe themselves as heroes--are exactly the kind of heroes that Farm Aid, working with our longtime ally the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (www.rafiusa.org), is seeking as we embark on what we are calling the Farm Advocates Project. The Project is an initiative to create a national network to recruit, train, support and organize Farm Advocates (both lay and legal) in every corner of the American countryside.

As you can tell from the photo, Mona Lee, Wayne, Jerry, and Ted are all up there in years. They would be the first to say it: We need a new generation of grassroots Farm Advocates, and we need them now. As everyone reading this blog knows, the battle to save the family farm and rural America is still on, and Farm Advocates are absolutely critical in that fight.

Contact me directly at farmhelp@farmaid.org or 1-800-FARMAID if you or anyone you know may have what it takes to be a Farm Advocate.

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