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In one of the most turbulent years for U.S. farmers in decades, it was somehow fitting that Willie Nelson’s annual Farm Aid benefit was doused in a steady drizzle.
The crowd of about 30,000 that gathered in Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre Saturday was ready to blow off some steam after an annus horribilis marked by wild weather and the trade war with China.
They braved the rain in disposable plastic parkas, sprawling out across the venue from the auditorium seats to the outlying areas with lawn chairs and blankets. Some set up tents to tailgate and grill in the grassy parking lot. They came to see the benefit’s three original founders -- Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young -- and other artists including Dave Matthews and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats.
Rain didn’t damp the enthusiasm of the audience, many of whom have endured a multiyear downturn exacerbated by the loss of their main buyer, China, in the tit-for-tat tariff spat between Washington and Beijing and record downpours that disrupted planting this year. The concert also helps put a spotlight on tough conditions facing rural communities.
Wisconsin has been particularly hard hit. The state where license plates boast “America’s Dairyland” has lost 1,745 dairy farms since January 2017, government data show. Broadly, net farm income is projected to be down 29% from 2013 levels, while debt’s estimated to be at record levels.
Ben Burkett is a fourth-generation farmer from Petal, Mississippi. He says he’s been to 32 of the 34 Farm Aid concerts and was at the first one. He grows soybeans, vegetables and pine trees. He recently started growing black beans, which made their way to the concession stand menu as a topping for nachos.
Burkett says his farm is paid off and that frees him from some of the financial stress affecting other growers. Still, for the first time since he’s been a farmer, he didn’t plant soybeans. “I couldn’t figure out this China thing.”
Rateliff, performing at Farm Aid for a fifth year, grew up in rural Missouri and says he sympathizes with the plight of farmers. “If we weren’t in a trade war that we had no reason to be in, yeah, it’d probably be a little better, but we’ll see,” he said.
The Block family traveled from Fenton, Missouri. They grow pumpkins, asparagus and other crops. They also “love John Mellencamp,” Jerry Block, said. While they run a part-time operation, his niece Alyssa says they’ve seen quite a bit of farm auctions that she says are “very sad.”
Joel Greeno from Kendall, Wisconsin, says his family’s been farming since 1872. He helped organize a so-called tractor-cade that came to the concert.
“A lot of it was to be symbolic of the ’79 tractor-cade,” Greeno said. “It’s really tough. The tariff stuff is almost the nail in the coffin. A lot of farmers thought it would be their saving grace,” but it hasn’t proven to be so far.
Randy Roecker milks more than 300 cows on 800 acres on his fourth-generation farm. Back in the 2008 financial crisis, he says he battled with depression. Last fall, during this current downturn, a neighbor in Loganville, Wisconsin, succumbed to the same condition. Since then, he’s joined with a fellow citizen in his town to start holding meetings at the local church where farmers can come and talk about what they’re experiencing.
“This brings it to the national stage,” Roecker said of the concert.
--With assistance from Sam Hall.
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