August 13, 1995 in Nation/World

We Must Not Let Family Farms Slip Away

Willie Nelson Special To Roundtable
 

When I was a boy growing up in Texas, I was told that farmers were the backbone of our community. The theory was, if the farms were doing well, the schools, businesses and churches in rural towns would do well, too.

In the ‘80s, rural America’s backbone was broken. Farmers were hit with an economic crisis that caught the attention of the entire nation. It seemed like every nightly news report brought new images of devastated families watching their precious farms being sold piece by piece on the auction block.

In 1985, when we organized the first Farm Aid concert, we never imagined that we would still be around 10 years later. The artists and farmers involved in putting together that show honestly believed that, if enough people were made aware of the difficulties facing rural America, the problem would be solved.

But it wasn’t solved. In fact, the family farm crisis is more serious today than it was a decade ago. True, farm auctions and foreclosures no longer end up on the front page or the evening news. But, while many view this as a sign that the farm crisis is over, the fact is, the dilemma in rural America is less evident today because there are so few farmers left to tell their stories.

Just last year, the Census Bureau announced that they would no longer include farmers as a category in the census, because farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the population.

Since 1980, nearly 400,000 family farmers have lost their land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Every week, more than 500 farmers are still going out of business - that’s 70 every day. Those family farmers who survived the crisis in the ‘80s have taken second and third jobs just to pay the bills, let alone to raise food for our tables.

It’s no wonder that young people are moving out of rural areas to find opportunities in the cities. This shortage of young people entering farming could create an even bigger crisis in the next 10 years as a whole generation of farmers reaches retirement age.

As Farm Aid’s president, I have had the chance to talk with thousands of America’s family farmers. They tell me that the reason so many of them are going out of business is very simple - farmers are paid less for their crops today than they were 10 years ago, even as their production costs have continued to rise. For example, in 1980, a farmer needed to grow 12,000 bushels of corn to be able to buy a new John Deere tractor. Today, it takes more than 30,000 bushels to buy an equivalent tractor!

With every family farm we lose, another piece of America’s heritage is lost. Drive through rural America today and what will you see? Main streets boarded up, along with grocery stores, hospitals, churches, and schools. Poverty rates and homelessness in rural America have risen over the past decade even faster than in urban areas.

The solutions to these problems are complicated, but the future doesn’t have to be bleak. In hundreds of America’s communities, farmers and residents are working to rebuild rural America. Since 1985, Farm Aid has distributed over $12 million to farm and rural organizations that are making a difference in these communities. These efforts have helped to keep thousands of families on their farms.

Now is the time for the 98 percent of us who depend on farmers for our food and clothing to do what we can to help families stay on the land. Here’s what you can do to help:

Call your representatives and make sure they support farm policies that ensure increased income for family farmers and increased opportunities for young farmers.

Support grocery stores and restaurants that buy their food locally from family farmers.

Shop at farmer’s markets for fresh, locally grown food.

Find out what organizations help farmers in your area and get involved.

As long as there are people who are willing to get up before dawn and work the fields all day, Farm Aid will continue to work for them. We will provide a stage for farmers to tell their story and give them the support they need to continue work that is vital to America.

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