Singer Keeps Focus on Farmers' Plight

September 15, 2002

By Elizabeth Becker

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

BROWNVILLE, Nebraska - Willie Nelson woke up early, got in a round of golf and then stood on the side of a parched Nebraska cornfield to film the narration of a church-sponsored documentary on the plight of America's small family farmers.

The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees. On the sidelines Mr. Nelson's road manager was trying to hurry the filming to get the singer out of the burning sun.

Five hours later Mr. Nelson took the stage at T. J.'s, a tavern in this town of 148 people, playing for two hours as a favor to a local farmer, something he has done countless times since the mid-1980's.

As a superstar, he might be forgiven for abandoning his crusade to improve the lives of America's disappearing small farmer. But Mr. Nelson, 69, says he will not.

"It's not one you can dance into and dance out of," he said. "There's a lot of people behind us, who depend on us."

Lawmakers have rejected nearly all the policies Mr. Nelson has promoted. The farmers he started to help in 1985 have died, retired or taken second jobs to keep their homesteads. Up and down the central prairie, from his home state, Texas, to North Dakota, Mr. Nelson keeps running into those farmers. They press his hand in thanks and ask him to do a little more.

He predicted that Bono, the Irish rock star who is trying to change how rich countries help poor countries, would discover the perils of raising the hopes of people in need.

"Like I was chuckling about Bono, I bet he woke up one morning not too long ago and wondered how he could get out of this," Mr. Nelson said. "You discover how serious it is and you can't get out."

After Congress passed a farm bill this year that gives 10 percent of the farmers -- the country's richest -- nearly 60 percent of the government's subsidies, Mr. Nelson said he was dispirited.

"There ain't anybody in Washington I care to talk to right now," he said.

Mr. Nelson will perform his 15th Farm Aid concert on Saturday, a nearly annual event that has raised $23 million to help farmers pay their bills and promote their causes. Every day his hot line, 1-800-FARMAID, gets pleas for help from farmers.

Unlike Bono, who likes to demonstrate how much he knows about development and global poverty, Mr. Nelson does not pretend to be a master of the intricacies of farm policy.

He likes the price support system worked out in World War II, which distributed government subsidies more evenly across the board, but he said he knew that would never be reinstated. His only desire is that "farmers get enough money to pay for the work they do."

When Mr. Nelson helped to organize his first Farm Aid concert, he said he thought it would be his last. All he had to do was focus attention on farmers' problems and, he said, "I thought the smart guys in Washington would change it."

Now, having given up on arguing with politicians in Washington, he said he was "thinking of ways of getting around the government."

As he sings around the country, he promotes more farmers' markets, closer connections between farmers and consumers, and tries to persuade supermarkets to stock organic food from local farmers.

"Being raised in Abbott, Tex., taught me the difference between a fresh tomato, a fresh farm egg and the stuff most other people eat and think is food," he said.

Getting around the government also means playing here for his friend Corky Jones, a local farmer who has been fighting for small farmers for more than 25 years.

For nearly three hours he played his standards, including "Heartland," the tune he wrote with Bob Dylan for Farm Aid.

David Anderson, Mr. Nelson's manager, said the show should not be viewed as simple charity.

"This will probably be the funniest show of the tour," Mr. Anderson said. "Willie likes a wild, chaotic night playing at a place like T. J.'s tavern more than in some stadium."

The town showed its appreciation.

"Even the old people were on their feet," Mr. Jones said. "He helped us immensely. It will be an event that will go down in the history of Brownville."