Jim Hightower, national radio commentator and self-proclaimed populist, spoke for us all when he said, “I’m happier than a flea at a dog show to be here.”
Sound checks are done, the Homegrown Village is alive with activity, and concertgoers are revved up after the press event for a day of music with a purpose.
At 11 a.m. a 10-person panel including Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews addressed the media and reminded us all of the historic and current importance of keeping American soil in the hands of family farmers.
The meeting began with Missouri farmer and advocate, Roger Allison, introducing Willie before 2009 Farm Broadcaster of year, Ken Root, inducted him into the Agricultural Hall of Fame. The first Farm Aid concert came after 5 years of Ken reporting about the despair of American farmers during the 1980s farm crisis. He pointed out that hundreds of individuals have been nominated for the honor, but Willie is only the 38th person to be inducted since Dwight D. Eisenhower chartered the Hall of Fame in 1960. Ken applauded Willie for his creative approach to aiding American farmers through the Farm Aid concert, and also cited his work advocating to achieve fair farm policies, end discrimination against farmers, and overhaul farm loan accessibility. Upon receiving the award Willie gestured to his fellow board members and said, “I gladly accept this as long as I can share it with you good guys.”
The press event continued with each panelist discussing what needs to happen for American agriculture to remain strong and vital. Between lots of jokes and Dave Matthews’ hilarious demonstration of the sound a chicken makes when laying an egg, the group consensus seemed to be that we must call for change—and that we cannot run the risk of being complacent while change is happening.
Neil Young warned against turning a blind eye towards the influx of genetically modified products entering our food system. He said, “As we modify and modify to protect the crops, we become more and vulnerable. This happens over years and years and we just don’t notice it.”
John Mellencamp touched on the same idea, saying, “One of these days we’re going to wake up and not even recognize this place. Not recognize the place we grew up.”
Neil also said that we don’t have time to bicker about where the proof lies with issues like climate change and genetically modified foods. He said, “It’s not about ‘Are they right?’ It’s about ‘What are we going to do if they’re not right?’”
Neil ended by saying that now is the time to mobilize the next generation of farmers. “Farm aid needs new blood. We need to educate kids in school that being a farmer is really good … We need to stay together. Lets go forward and keep our food clean and pure and grow it together.”
Dave Matthews spoke hopefully about the prospect of youth involvement in farming. He purchased land in Virginia to prevent it from being developed, and started a program for disadvantaged teens to work the land. He spoke with immense enthusiasm about how inspiring it is to see the youth so excited about working with the earth.
Willie remained largely quiet through the event, but listened intently to all of the speakers. Without exception, he turned his squinty eyes and warm smile on any member of the audience that a fellow panelist recognized.
Other panelists included Mike Callicrate, owner of Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs, Col. and creator of the mobile meat processing unit; Roger Allison, founder of the Missouri Crisis Center; Diana Endicott, founder of Good Natured Family Farms (an alliance of more than 100 farms that support each other in using sustainable practices); Katherine Kelly, farmer and founder of Cultivate Kansas City; and Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid.
It was great to see so many familiar people at the press event who also attended the farm advocates meeting, volunteered at concert set-up, or have been coming out to Farm Aid concerts for years and years. But the panelists stressed that it is imperative that we don’t get complacent in seeing those same faces all the time. We need to grow the Farm Aid force and make our messages heard. Jim Hightower said it best again when he quoted Mary Elizabeth Lease’s charge for Kansas farmers to fight monopolies and corporate control: “Raise less corn and more hell!”