A focus on farmers and farming
But the reason a tribute appears in this space today isn’t because Willie Nelson is someone we only remember from yesteryear, but because when he could have dialed it down, he stayed in the game, embracing an entirely different mission: Launching, funding, supporting and promoting Farm Aid.
Let me say upfront I don’t agree with that group’s mantra that Big Ag, so-called “factory farming,” is a blight on American agriculture. Nor am I always onboard with Farm Aid’s policy prescriptions, mostly aimed at redirecting USDA subsidies and curtailing the (alleged) hegemony that large-scale farmers and producers exert over the business of food production.
The answer to many of the legitimate concerns raised by farm activists like Nelson—rampant consolidation among growers and producers, coupled with a decline in domestic production of specialty crops, as wheat, corn and soybeans occupy the lion’s share of arable acreage—isn’t to dismantle our current farm infrastructure. Instead of pretending that small-scale, labor-intensive family farms should (or could) displace larger, more efficient farms, a better approach would be to support opportunities for more specialty farmers and producers—organic, natural, grassfed, whatever—to enter the business.
By analogy, it’s wonderful that there are master furniture makers out there crafting handmade, heirloom pieces. It’s a valuable addition to the choices available in the marketplace.
But individual artisans—or even a collective—making hand-built tables, chairs and bookcases aren’t going to displace “industrial” furniture manufacturers. Instead, like organic growers or grassfed producers, they’re a supplement to, not a replacement for conventional, “corporate” production, whether we’re talking bed frames or beef steak.
That said, we—meaning all of society, not just production agriculture—benefit from a strong, thriving family farm sector. The more people engaged in raising livestock or food crops, the more strength agriculture possesses. The more specialty crops or heritage livestock being grown, the better it is for protecting farmland from development and engaging the public with how and from where their food is produced.
For those reasons, I admire and respect Nelson for the nearly three decades of his life he’s devoted to promoting family farming—especially when he’s never profited from any of it, financially or career-wise.