America’s farmers came to Washington, D.C., more than 40 years ago to save their farms. On Tuesday (March 7), a new generation of farmers, ranchers, farmworkers and activists came to the nation’s capital to save the planet.
John Mellencamp, co-founder of Farm Aid, sang Tuesday for those gathered before they marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol building, calling for Congress to take action on climate change in the forthcoming Farm Bill.
“Here’s all I can say – keep slugging,” said Mellencamp, recalling how he and Willie Nelson and Neil Young formed Farm Aid in 1985 to support family farmers — a commitment they have sustained for four decades, joined by Farm Aid board members Dave Matthews and Margo Price.
“We’ve been slugging since 1985 and let’s keep slugging,” said Mellencamp. “Let’s try to improve the quality of the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the people that we are.”
Taking the stage midday at Freedom Park, Mellencamp looked at the crowd before him and remarked: “The faces are much younger than they used to be. And I think that’s great that there are younger people trying to improve the planet and the food that we eat. So it’s up to you guys to lead the way.”
With that, Mellencamp played a spare, acoustic rendition of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” his harrowing 1985 song about the farm foreclosure crisis that led to the creation of Farm Aid.
Rain on the scarecrow / blood on the plow
This land fed a nation / this land made me proud
And son, I’m just sorry there’s no legacy for you now
Farm Aid’s own legacy is the rising awareness, since the mid-1980s, of the importance of a national system of agriculture that values family farmers, good food, soil and water, and strong communities.
In recent years, there also has been an increasing awareness that industrial agriculture practiced on large corporate farms is contributing to the climate crisis. In a report in August 2021, the National Resources Defense Council stated that industrial agriculture is a “significant source” of carbon in the atmosphere.
The farmers and activists in D.C. championed what is known as regenerative farming, agriculture methods that can hold carbon in the soil, enhance biodiversity and help mitigate climate change.
Farm Aid, with its annual concerts each September, may be the highest-profile organization drawing attention to the state of American agriculture — and Willie Nelson is certainly the nation’s best-known champion of family farmers. But this week’s gathering dramatically demonstrated that the breadth and scope of the nation’s farm movement transcends Farm Aid.
The Rally for Resistance: Farmers for Climate Action was organized under the umbrella of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and involved some two dozen activist organizations and more than 30 delegations of farmers from across the country who converged on Washington to make their voices heard.
On Wednesday, participants in the rally are slated to lobby individual lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Plans for this rally were revealed at the Farm Aid festival in Raleigh, N.C., in September and exclusively reported by Billboard. The spark for the gathering is the current debate over the contents of the Farm Bill, the multi-part, multibillion-dollar legislation that is passed by Congress about every five years and has a massive influence on how the nation’s food is grown. The most recent Farm Bill was passed in 2018 and expires this year.
In September, Farm Aid joined more than 150 organizations in co-signing a letter asking President Biden “to weigh in on the next Farm Bill and demand that Congress build even further on the administration’s actions to date to reduce economic inequality; bridge the nation’s racial divides; end hunger; confront the climate crisis; improve nutrition and food safety; and protect and support farmers, workers, and communities,” wrote Farm Aid communications director Jennifer Fahy.
The evening before Mellencamp’s performance, supporters gathered at Luther Place Memorial Church on Logan Circle, a site of social activism since it was built in 1873. Philip Barker, a Black farmer and longtime activist from North Carolina, summed up the focus of the days of action: farmer-led climate solutions, racial justice in the Farm Bill, and “communities over corporations.”
Sessions during the rally began with land acknowledgements, statements recognizing that the land upon which the nation’s capital was built was taken from indigenous people. Other speakers addressed the particular hardships that BIPOC farmers have experienced through decades of U.S. farm policy. And still others called for immigration reform as a way to address the chronic shortage of labor on America’s farms. Throughout, the voices and crowd chants in Spanish testified to the changing demographics of the nation’s farms.
This gathering in Washington had particular resonance for David Senter, founder of the American Agriculture Movement. In 1979, Senter was one of the organizers of the Tractorcade protest that drew thousands of farmers to the capital. They traveled by tractor, traveling across the U.S. at 15 miles an hour — ”we came in on every East/West interstate, 100 miles a day,” recalls Senter — to lobby Congress for a new Farm Bill to increase crop prices and to have greater influence in agriculture policy. (One farmer at Tuesday’s rally returned with the tractor he’d driven to D.C. in 1979).
Senter then returned to Washington in 1987 to accompany Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp when the two artists testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about the family farm foreclosure crisis.
Senter was one of the featured speakers Tuesday at the rally in Freedom Park. Since his earlier trips, have the stakes become higher? “We continue to lose family farmers and the farms become larger and larger,” replied Senter. “But we have to figure out how to make place for the next generation of farmers, the young farmers that want to grow food for this country and the world, so that they can survive.”
That “absolutely does” include addressing the climate issue, said Senter. “Because we live in an extreme climate situation. I mean, you have floods, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts. It’s just unbelievable the climate extremes we’re experiencing and, of course, farmers, they deal with that every day, trying to produce food. So it’s very important that we get involved with that.”
When Willie Nelson and his fellow artists formed Farm Aid in 1985, he recruited Carolyn Mugar to run the organization. “The earliest Farm Aid files are all stained with spaghetti sauce since I did that work at my kitchen table,” she recalled Tuesday. Then she set off across the country, speaking to farmers at their kitchen tables. (Mugar was recognized for her work on Billboard’s Women in Music list in 2020, the 35th anniversary of Farm Aid).
“What in the Farm Bill can people get behind? Really, the very bottom line of everything is farm viability,” said Mugar. “A farmer cannot really even start getting into regenerative agriculture [to address climate change] if that farm is not financially viable.
“And that means that we’ve really got to look at how farming should be taking place in this country. And do we really want to continue corporate concentrated farming, where the land is toxic and ruined, into the future? Or do we want to support farmers who are trying to keep, maintain and build the soil?”
In dealing with the nation’s lawmakers, said Mugar, “we’ve got to get smarter about what we demand.”
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