Farm Aid 2019- after thoughts
On September 20th, we published an article titled ‘Farm Aid returns to Wisconsin at Alpine Valley Music Theatre’, highlighting Jim and Rebecca Goodman of Wonewoc, and Joel Greeno of Kendall, who are past Farm Aid, Farmer Heroes.
I the article, they all shared their thoughts and concerns regarding the crisis facing American farmers the past few decades.
The Goodmans and Greeno were at this years Farm Aid event, and afterwards, I sat down with while rehashing their thoughts and feelings of this year’s event.
While Jim and Rebecca were pleased overall with this years Farm Aid, Rebecca did share some concern. “I keep forgetting how many Farm Aid’s I’ve been at, but this is probably my fourth actually, but hit and miss on others. I really wanted to concentrate and listen to as much of the concert as I could this time because I didn’t hardly get any of the concert last time we went,” Rebecca said.
But at this Farm Aid, Rebecca noticed something, some behavior she was dismayed at. “The bad behavior of the masses is always disappointing because the message of what they are there for doesn’t appear to be what they are there for. I was surprised by all of the alcohol at this last one. I don’t remember seeing it as being that prevalent in the ones I’ve been to before. This was in your face and you couldn’t hardly walk ten feet without being faced with another place selling alcohol. That was a surprise to me.”
She felt the prevalent alcohol consumption seemed to counteract the message, but said she has seen that in the past.
On the other hand, Rebecca and Jim were upbeat about the attendance in the Homegrown Village. “We were stuffed with people because of the rain. There was a lot of good messages that vendors were conveying and very educational. There were people that were accepting the education. You could tell they were being engaged in the education. That was really nice. There were a lot of great things,” she said.
Jim added, “A lot of people put their email address on the list because they want to be on the newsletter list- for the Family Farm Coalition, that comes out twice a year, usually spring and fall. It’s an online thing, but they also do a print-edition on the NNFC website.”
With panels held in Lake Geneva, WI the day before Farm Aid, that covered a multitude of topics on the farming industry, the Goodmans were enthused at the participation of Native Americans that shared how farming has always played an vital role in Native American culture, and a bit of their history within the United States since its infancy and before.
“The panel stuff on Thursday was great because all of these tribal members were telling their stories. I knew some of it, like the part about the Oneida and their displacement and trying to get back their land. It was very emotional for the woman that was talking about it. I don’t think a lot of people in the audience knew that whole story. Obviously that they were displaced and pushed out, but then the trouble they had trying to get that land back that was guaranteed to them in treaties. I’ve always had this sense that all of this land was gotten illegally. Treaties were signed, and land was chosen, but then treaties were not honored. If they were, I think it would have been better for Natives. One of the presidential candidates said we have to go back and look at all of these treaties and honor the treaty rights that the government committed to how many ever years ago. If that came to pass, it would be a good start. Thursday, I think everyone learned a lot,” Jim said.
The Goodmans, as they did last year, helped out their friends from Missouri that own the Patchwork Farm, that sold pork sandwiches during the event. “They do really good business. This year was a little bit slower. Most of the people that bought something there, when they were leaving said ‘thank you for the work that you do and the good food you raise.’ Some people actually came back after they finished and said, ‘wow that was really great’, Jim said.
“It’s always nice to get that affirmation, even though the majority of the people don’t get this concert. They don’t realize that it isn’t a time to come and listen to the music and get drunk, it’s put on for a reason. Like Rebecca said, it hasn’t really changed anything yet.”
Rebecca added, “I’m really glad Jim brought up something positive because I find myself being negative all the time. The hope is my only positive take, but that was wonderful when we were working for two hours in that Patchwork. The Missouri Rural Crisis Center is the group that brings this pork from Missouri. To see the people come in the pouring rain to get a sandwich and to see their faces when they were eating it. The people were really grateful.”
With the focus of Farm Aid being the plight of farmers across America, some may question how much good is the organization doing for our country’s farm industry.
Jim said, he spoke to a woman farmer from Indiana who said they had gotten some money from Farm Aid last year. “She said it really saved their farm. It wasn’t much, but was enough that we were able to keep going. Even one good story is a good story. Willie Nelson said a couple of years ago, ‘We started this thing back in ’85 to have a concert and raise awareness of problems people are having on their farm, things have changed and everything will be ok. Obviously, we were wrong. Here we are 30-whatever years later that it was at the time and things haven’t changed that much. Farmers are still going broke.’”
Jim feel it is a sad thing, because everybody eats and everyone should have that connection to good food that doesn’t come out of a box. “That food that does come out of the box is very profitable to the agriculture industry and that’s why things won’t change. They make money at it. They don’t care about the farmers; they don’t care about the health of people, all they care about is their profit.”
Jim feels the same way about the opioid epidemic, and stated that the drug companies knew people were getting addicted, but they didn’t care because they were making money. “I guess that’s the big fault with capitalism, we don’t care who it hurts because as long as we make money, it’s okay.”
He continued, “I guess maybe the guys that started Farm Aid in the beginning thought that they could change the system, but I don’t think there is enough money out there to change it because that’s all it runs on. Where we take it from there, I don’t know. I guess every good story is a step to a better story. Maybe a little change here and there will make some difference.”
Rebecca hopes that the majority of the people in the country will sign on to idea of a green new deed which remakes society and makes it more equitable and changes this idea of capitalism. She feels it’s like the climate crisis, you can’t deny it anymore and it is right in your face and is going to have to be dealt with in a way that creates equity and fairness.
“The artists talk about farmers and everyone claims to support farmers and that’s the whole message, but it doesn’t seem to convert to any real change on the part of the agri-business industry or the general public. This was their 34th year, and things for farmers has only gotten worse. It’s wonderful to be here and see them conveying the message, but it is a disappointment that nothing changes. That’s my biggest disappointment,” Rebecca said.
The Goodmans, having sold their herd and land over the economic stresses of a volatile farming industry, are doing their best to keep active, and continue to fight for the American farmer.
A source of motivation for them are memories. “It’s kind of like when we were selling at the Farmer’s Market, people would send us cards telling us how great it was.” Jim said.
If Rebecca said if she was feeling really sad and depressed, she would get those cards out and read through them.
“I have a folder of thank you notes we received over the years. I keep every one. I haven’t had to read them yet, but I see how big the folder is and that is good enough,” Jim said with a solemn face.
“A good friend of mine, Peter Brandt, him and his family grew up with John Kinsman’s family, The founder of Family Farm Defenders, and our president forever. John had 10 kids and the family had 9 kids. They were the only family that were good together because some of the other families didn’t know how to feed or deal with 12 to 14 guests coming over. They did a lot together. Pete was my Ag teacher in high school. I was fortunate to have him as my Ag teacher, but then he became the instructor for the Western Technical College farm business and production management instructor. I took his classes for a number of years in that. We were talking one time about farmers and what they think. I said, ‘What’s your prospective when you go out and work with farmers, talking to them on their farms, and help them with their issues?’. He said that they refuse to talk about how hard it is. He said the most humiliating thing they can imagine is having to admit that you are struggling and that it’s possible I could lose my farm. He said it just wasn’t something they were willing to talk about. Probably 5 years later, I asked him that same question, ‘What are guys saying when you go out to their farms now?’ He said the only thing that is different is it’s become acceptable to admit you are probably going to fail. They said, ‘I’ll just go ‘til I can’t go anymore, and then quit like everyone else.’ Being put out of business was now acceptable and just the norm because there had been so many. Why have we come to that? Why is it acceptable to fail? It’s like it’s almost not acceptable to fight back. How do we bring these poor struggling farmers from that into this fight to save the future? That’s really our task at hand right now, Greeno said.
Despite the weather and everything that went on, Greeno said the tone of this Farm Aid was a lot different than any other he has attended.
“When Willie, Neil, John, and Dave all spoke on stage (pre-concert press conference), they spoke directly to consumers and farmers, about farmers. They didn’t really go down the political tangent or really point fingers at anyone. They just acknowledged the crisis and the need to help. I think it was the first time that it was portrayed in that manner.”
Greeno thought in some ways, the people on stage and throughout the day, shared a message, conveying it better than it had been in previous years.
“There were 38,000+ people slug it out through the rain, and hold their ground and not say ‘this is too wet, I’m going home’. People toughed it out. We all did our parts. People still manned their booths in the Homegrown Village. We still met people and talked with people and shared the message and shared the struggle. I think that’s the true picture of solidarity. Under the worse circumstances, everyone can still come together and show solidarity and show that they generally care about one another. I think that feeling came across really well at this Farm Aid, it was an honor to have it here in Wisconsin,” he said.
Greeno feels that’s the piece that Farm Aid has struggled with, where people needed to focus their attention.
“The early years, it was all about the crisis part of it, funding the hotlines, funding people like Benny Bunty and RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), and people on the immediate ground doing crisis counseling, working on individual cases, fighting USDA to keep a specific farmer on his farm and keep him from losing it, being foreclosed on, or just plain sold out,” he said.
“They began to realize that was an important piece of it, but it wasn’t offering any solutions. You can’t continue to play defense. Then, probably the last 15 years, they were looking at Farm Aid and what was going on in an offensive manner and began looking for that piece that they could really put their attention into to start moving things forward in a positive manner. That’s when they began focusing more on the organic side of it. In looking at only the organic side of it, they left the other farmers out in the rain, so to speak. They (non-organic farmers) felt at that point alienated because, ‘I know how to farm the way I farm, I’m not sure I know how to do it organic, and if I have cows, it’s going to be 2 to 3 years before I can actually certify my cows. I don’t even know if I can make it 3 years to get my certification.’”
Greeno stated that there was a period of limbo there in how to focus it, and admitted it even branched into the corporatization of the organic name.
“All of a sudden, you you’re in that same old boat treading water. Oh my gosh, what have we done? I think now with the Dairy Together project that Wisconsin Farmer’s Union has been pushing and us with NFSC and Family Farm Defenders all on board, they found some really good things to start pulling the average farmers together to show them this is a path out. How can we pull more people into this and push for a better future?”
Greeno feels the pieces have all started to align now, better than they ever have before, and noted it has taken 34 years of Farm Aid to finally get on that path.
He stated there needs to be an end the globalization of hunger, because people deserve food. “We do not need everyone in the entire world eating a McDonald’s hamburger. They need to be eating what is grown by their farmers in their country and paying them a just living wage first. It’s about social peace. When our farmers do well, the rest of the world does well. We all deserve democratic control. We all matter, our voices matter, what we feel matters. Having the ability to come together and share your thoughts and ideas, and then come to a decision in a democratic manner is the best force we can use to move the things we need to move forward.”
As far as the small farmer and its importance, Greeno said nowhere in the economy does the dollar do better than in the farm sector, and pointed out every dollar that the farmer spends turns over 7 times in the economy.
He stressed that when farmers do well, the rest of society does well and believes that’s why farmers are the core foundation of any economy.
“It’s like my small town of Kendall,” he said. Greeno’s father Julian Greeno often shares stories about what it was like in the early 60’s when he first moved to the Kendall area and how when you came into Kendall and there’d be farmer’s trucks lined up full of corn, waiting to go to the feed mill to grind corn into grain for cows. The trucks would be lined up already at 6 o’clock in the morning. Farmers would come in and park the truck and wait for their turn, but while they were waiting, they went into the hardware store and got supplies, then go move their truck ahead in line. Then maybe they’d go into the barbershop to get their haircut, then go and move their truck ahead in line. Maybe by then it was time to get something to eat, maybe they’d stop by the bar and play a round of cards and got some lunch, and then it was time to get your feed ground and you went home. The next guys all did the same thing, but maybe they went to the grocery store and got a few supplies. Maybe they stopped by the Ford dealership and dealt on a new car or a new pick up while they were in town.
His father recalled business going on at the lumberyard, sale barn, barber shop, grocery store, and the hardware store. “They all thrived, everybody lived, everybody got by, and everyone looked out for one another”, his father would say.
“If we have three businesses still operating in Kendall, it’s a miracle. The foundation of the old round house where they used to redirect the locomotives on the railroad is still visible down there, but for a city that was once a railroad hub, if this is progress in the future, it doesn’t look very good to me in my eyes. If it’s going to tear my small town apart, I don’t want to be a part of that. I’m going to build and look for something better,” Joel said.
Greeno said the small rural church he attends, Fountain Lutheran Church in Kendall, is probably soon going to close because all of the farm families that made that church, since 1876 when the church began are all but gone, out of business.
“There’s not enough people in the congregation to make up a board of directors to run the church. It’s sad, but everyone left to find a job, to find work, to raise their families somewhere else. All these farms that were full of dairy cows for 100 years sit empty. Now you see the ruins of farms, the ruins of barns, things collapse and fall down. It’s a tough thing to see when that’s the place you call home.”
The most important thing to Greeno, is the realization that the time has come that people know their farmer, and know their food.
“We have come to the point where if you don’t know where it came from, it could have come from anywhere and you could be helping a corporation get rich. That is not helping our small family farms here in the United States. It’s time that they focus on the real issues of the family farm way of life,” he said with a quiver in his voice.
Greeno warned that eventually, the problems that our nation’s farmers have suffered; they will suffer also. “The farm crisis was manufactured 50 years ago and they’ve been on a 20-year cycle of playing offense and getting what they want. It’s only a matter of time before its everyone. It’s important that when you shop and get food for your family that you know it’s good, healthy, safe, nutritious food. The best way to do that is to get out and know farmers and get active in where it comes from. Also, understanding how hard it is for farmers to produce the food that all of them eat each and every day.”
He said the economy is vital. What the farmer economy does, the economy does. “We went through the ’08 crash which was a point where milk prices were at a rock bottom low, a lot of cattle and grain prices were tanked. When you erode your foundation that holds society together, everything crumbles with it. There are only 4 sources of raw material: mining, forestry, fishing, and agriculture. 60-70% of raw material comes from farming. It is our most vital part of the bedrock that holds our country together, and I think that is not very well-known. Wall Street does not manufacture wealth. Farmland and farm country manufacture true wealth. All true wealth comes from the earth, it’s not made in Wall Street, it’s not made in some investment banker’s office, it’s not made in Washington DC. It’s made out here in the farm country where the cows are grazing, the pigs are rutting, and the chickens are scratching. That is the true bedrock of this country.”