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Up Front

Gifts from a
Texas outlaw.
By C.J. Hadley

Texas outlaw and country music star Willie Nelson was raised in farming and ranching. “I’ve been around it all my life,” he says, “and knew that it was a pretty rough way to make a living. But I didn’t think it was any rougher than it had ever been until I heard Bob Dylan say on Live Aid, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if some of this money that we are sending out all over the world could stay here in America for our family farmers?’”

When Willie got back home he talked to some of his friends in agriculture. “They said that it wasn’t too bad around Texas then, but that it was really bad in the Midwest.”

A few months later, Willie was playing a concert in Chicago and he had beer and a bowl of chili with Jim Thompson, Illinois’ governor. “Big Jim told me it really was a problem, so I asked if we could maybe do a show and call attention to it and help the situation.”

The first Willie Nelson Farm Aid concert was in Champaign, Ill., in 1985. “We’ve been doing them ever since and the problem hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s gotten worse.” (For the 2000 concert in D.C. call 1-800-FARM-AID.)

Willie’s used to playing concerts in urban communities. “When someone mentions farmers’ problems it’s just natural to say, well, I wish him luck but I got problems of my own in town. The sad truth is that the only ones who can do something are the politicians and they’re inclined to go the other way. Nothing’s happening in Washington. They all think it’s better that fewer huge conglomerate farmers, factory farmers, do all this stuff.”
It bothers Willie that a young couple can’t farm a few hundred acres and make a living. “All the raw producers in this country are screwed. Everything is being done overseas cheaper and brought in. The idea is to take all the farmers off the land, move them into big cities. When they are out in the rurals they become a political problem. When you move them into town and you put them in with the work force, not only do you take away their political power but you also make them part of a cheap labor force.”
Willie has done a lot of research and believes very little of the nation belongs to you and me any more. “I think the people who own this land now, from Europe and Asia, could care less. Where there used to be eight million small family farmers, now there are less than two million and we are losing 500 a week. You don’t have to be real smart to figure out the mathematics.”

When Willie got involved with Farm Aid there were already non-profits set up to help families in trouble. “We started funding existing organizations who knew the problems in their areas. We have given them a couple of bucks to spread around, but that’s only been a Band-Aid.”

To date, Willie’s Band-Aid has been close to $14 million, and he says quietly, “It’s a drop in the bucket. I don’t know that it’s saved any farms but it may have helped prevent a few tragedies.”

The generous Texan says he didn’t know what caused the problem until a few years ago when he read a speech by Eddie Albert. “He talked about the time when there was 100 percent parity, meaning a fair price for the producers in this country. Back during the war we geared up for it by making sure that all raw producers in this country got their production costs and labor guaranteed. Hitler was doing the same thing in Germany and that’s why they got so strong. Their raw producers got government guarantees that they weren’t going to lose money no matter what the market did. Over here our farmers, our oil producers, our iron producers, everybody was being took care of pretty good with their 100 percent parity.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “after the war they decided, hey, wait a minute, we got eight million people out here in the farm areas, they are getting organized and becoming a problem. We have all these people in Detroit getting unionized, labor is high…let’s move a couple of million out of the country and into the city. And that’s exactly what happened. It’s all documented. You can check it out.”

Many Hollywood stars and musicians are helping causes that are destroying U.S. food producers. Willie stands pretty much alone–independent, soft spoken, earnest, modest and intelligent, much like the folks he is trying to help.

“There are lots of people trying but they don’t have the power to do anything about it. We are a very generous country. With the world bank, we just forgave millions of dollars worth of debt from dozens of foreign countries. I think that was a wonderful idea but to follow that up Clinton should do the same thing for our raw producers. It would be great if President Clinton on the way out would sign a piece of paper where all U.S. raw producers would get 100 percent parity. I think he would save the country by doing it and the country is in big trouble if he doesn’t.”

Outlaw Willie runs horses on his own ranch in Texas close to Austin. He’s clearing out cedars, which take a strong hold on his 700 acres. He’s going to call Slick Willie, who’s still got a peculiarly strong hold on the country, to ask for his help before it’s too late and we become a weaker, food importing nation.

“I like to think that I was raised to be somewhat of a cowboy myself,” Outlaw Willie says, “so my heroes have always been cowboys. I guess I’ll be singing about them until it’s all over. That’s about all I can do.”


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