Farm Aid 2003 Salutes the Family Farmer

It may be the exhaustion from watching a 10-hour concert, but sometimes I think Willie Nelson’s face must look an awful lot like the face of God.

After all, he’s got a big smile, he’s generous and he’s everywhere you turn. Plus, he knows everybody, and you’d hardly find a soul who’d speak a bad word about him. That was especially true at Farm Aid 2003, the sold-out event held Sunday (Sept. 7) in Columbus, Ohio.

“We need everybody to get the word out, and the word is, the family farmer needs help,” Nelson told reporters at an all-star press conference prior to the concert. “And the country needs help. I think there’s a direct link between helping the farmer and helping the country at the same time, because we’re all connected.

“I was raised up to believe that the farmer is the backbone of this country, and I still believe that. We have to take care of the small family farmer. He lives off the land. He drinks water out of the well. He eats the food that he produces. It has to be good if he’s going to feed it to his family. We need to keep them on the land to make sure that what we eat, and what he eats, is good organic farming.”

Nelson was joined at the concert by fellow founders John Mellencamp and Neil Young, Dave Matthews (the newest artist on the Farm Aid board of directors), Sheryl Crow, Brooks & Dunn, Emmylou Harris, Hootie & the Blowfish, Trick Pony and several other bands.

Brooks & Dunn and Crow donated their time for the show but didn’t skimp on the entertainment value. In a lineup that encompassed rock, folk, pop and Latin, the hard-working duo did the world of country music proud with their patriotic set. Crow also relied on her hits to pump up the crowd.

Already, the audience had gotten into the spirit of their surroundings, carrying plates of organic pork chops back to the lawn and sampling soy milk on their way to buy an American-made T-shirt. At any given moment, people were flocking to order a healthy $5 burrito.

During his nine-song set, Mellencamp announced Bush’s request for $51 billion — which is actually $87 billion — to finish the war in Iraq. “Think about what that money could do for the family farmer,” he said. A few people booed while others cheered. Otherwise, the crowd didn’t get into his set much because he spent the first eight songs singing mostly unfamiliar folk songs. He finally closed with “Pink Houses.” Farm Aid seemed like a natural setting for his hit “Small Town,” but it didn’t happen.

Young fared better, sticking to familiar tunes and encouraging the crowd to frequent small grocery stores rather than large supermarkets. He also announced that a two-hour version of the Farm Aid would air on PBS on Thanksgiving evening and delivered his own long-winded yet heartfelt thanks to family farmers. Among the day’s performers, Young remains the most outspoken about the issue, although numerous other singers had personal reasons to appear.

“I get energized by being a part of something that is grass-roots, that really puts their money where their mouth is,” Crow said at the press conference. “I’m from a really small town in the Midwest, which I still consider to be my home. Three-fourths of my town is farmers, and they raise hogs, soybeans and, now in the last few years, rice. I know what it means when the prices are low and the prices are down, and I know what it’s like to be from a small community. My parents are cotton farmers. I’m just really proud to be here, and I’m glad the media has taken such a huge interest in this. As an artist, it really propels the spirit when you’re involved in something larger than yourself.”

“My family’s been farming in central Louisiana for 200 years on the same farm,” noted Kix Brooks at the press conference. “We’re managing to hold on to our farm. It’s about 1,000 acres, which by some standards is large. But by the standards we’re talking about here, it’s very small. Especially in the last five years, they are seriously feeling the crunch of all the expenses — the prices of tractors have gone up and yet our crops have actually gone down.”

He continued, “There’s a small group of people who totally get it, and there’s a small group of distributors who get what real food is. I think there are a lot of us who grew up in the system of large supermarkets and don’t really understand the other thing, and Farm Aid brings greater awareness. For that group on the cusp, if you stop at a roadside stand, or pick up that cantaloupe at a grocery store that comes from an organic farmer and eat it, [you’ll] realize ‘My God, a cantaloupe actually tastes like something.’”

Also at the press conference, Trick Pony’s Heidi Newfield said, “This cause hits home for me personally, very much so. I grew up in a very small town in northern California. My family has been farmers and ranchers for many, many generations, and it hits home especially because we lost our ranch and our farm on the courthouse steps about 10 years ago to corporate America. I remember getting that phone call, and it was one of the worst things in my life. So to be here today with my partners and so many wonderful people for such an incredible cause means the world to us.”

Crow, Brooks & Dunn and Trick Pony had never performed at a Farm Aid concert prior to Sunday, but Harris appeared at the first one in 1985.

“God bless Willie Nelson, that’s all I have to say,” she noted during her set.

Amen, sister.