'A Lot of Pain' on the Land: What Willie Nelson's Farm Aid Will Encounter in Wisconsin

Willie Nelson
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Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid at the XFINITY Theatre in Hartford, Conn. on Sept. 22, 2018. 

When Willie Nelson and friends open the day-long Farm Aid concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis., on Saturday, they’ll be singing out for family farmers in a region wracked by the worst economic crisis in recent memory.

“There’s a lot of people in a lot of pain, on big and small farms,” says Sarah Lloyd, a fourth-generation dairy farmer and an activist with the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Dairy Together.

For five years now, says Lloyd, dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other states have seen the market price they receive for their milk plummet below what it costs to produce. Consumers lighten their coffee or add cheese to meals oblivious to the struggle of family farmers who produce the dairy products they buy every day.

To draw attention to that struggle -- and raise money to help -- Nelson will take the Farm Aid stage Saturday along with an all-star lineup. His fellow Farm Aid board members -- Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews -- will be joined by Bonnie Raitt, Luke Combs, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Tanya Tucker, Jamestown Revival, Yola, Particle Kid and Tim Reynolds, accompanying Matthews in an acoustic guitar set.

The concert is expected to sell out. But Farm Aid performances will be carried on AXS TV, SiriusXM and AXS, bringing the festival to audiences for a sixth consecutive year, also will show videos telling the stories of Wisconsin farmers.

The dairy farming crisis is part of a wider, perfect storm of forces threatening America’s family farms. Since 2013, farmers and ranchers have seen falling prices for crops and livestock, cutting their net income almost in half, the Farm Aid organization reports. Trade wars waged by the Trump administration have cut export markets for farmers, while unprecedented floods and hurricanes driven by climate change have ravaged many farm communities.

“With devastating weather, low prices and harmful farm and trade policies, America’s family farmers are facing immense challenges to hold on to their farms,” Nelson said in a statement in July, announcing this year’s concert in Wisconsin. “It’s not right … family farmers are essential for all of us. By bringing our festival to the heart of the struggle, we will stand side by side with farmers. At Farm Aid 2019, we’ll highlight solutions and show our support for family farmers’ contributions to our health, economy and environment.”

The longest running concert for a cause -- Nelson created Farm Aid 34 years ago amid a foreclosure crisis that was throwing farm families off their land -- the event has become a model of music activism and artist commitment for the long haul.

Lloyd describes how her own father left their family farm at age 18 -- "he already could see the difficulty in trying to make a living that way” -- and she traveled widely in pursuit of an education tied to farming: a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Brown University, a masters in rural development from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, work on sustainable forest management issues in Russia, Sweden and Finland in the 1990s and then a doctorate in rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After she returned to her home state, she married Nels Nelson (“the last Norwegian bachelor farmer,” she quipped) and the two run a 350-cow dairy farm in Columbia County, Wis.

Jas McDaniel
Sarah Lloyd

She ran, unsuccessfully, as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2016 and might be expected to criticize President Trump for trade tensions with China that have cut export markets for farmers. But she urges those involved in farm issues “to not be distracted” by the trade battles. Overseas markets are “highly volatile, even without a tweeting president,” she says. “His actions have just worsened a situation that was already in place.”

In dairy farming, “we need agricultural pricing policy reform that includes ways to balance supply with demand,” Lloyd wrote in a recent essay in The Progressive. “The federal government is highly involved in agricultural pricing in this country -- so we need the federal government to be involved in this.”

As Farm Aid’s spotlight falls on her state, Lloyd suggests fans everywhere “should care about independent farmers in Wisconsin because we’re producing [their] food,” she told Billboard. “We’re reaching a pretty critical point for small and medium-scale farmers; we may just lose a whole chunk of farms.”

The fight for the future of family farming -- which Willie Nelson and his Farm Aid friends have fought for three-plus decades now -- has social, economic and environmental implications.

With the consolidation of farm suppliers like seed companies on one hand and retail markets on the other, farmers are “getting squeezed on both sides,” says Lloyd. An argument for the consolidation of food production itself, mega farms run by agri-business corporations, has been made in the name of efficiency.

“Efficient at what?” Lloyd retorts. “Efficient at poisoning the water? Efficient at closing down the schools for children [of farm families]? Efficiency is a dangerous measure. Let’s really look at what’s being served by this great word 'efficiency.'”

And at a time when climate chaos is the issue that overshadows all else, Lloyd notes the essential role of farmers in protecting the environment (echoing a view Neil Young has often stressed during his Farm Aid performances).

“This is the other reason people should care,” says Lloyd. “We want more small- and medium-scale farmers on the land, managing the land, because they’re the ones touching the actual soil, caring about the water and the streams. We need more people with eyes on the ground and feet on the ground. I don't think the best scenario [is] just a few people in corporate offices controlling the vast stretches of land.”

Given the years of struggle among Wisconsin farmers, what does it mean to have Farm Aid come to the state, Lloyd was asked.

“You think, wow, some people are recognizing the pain here,” she says. “They are calling attention to it. And they are also lifting us up and letting us have a fun festival day, to enjoy the songs of protest, the songs of sorrow and the songs of hope. That’s why we’re really excited about it.”