On the sunny, first Sunday of October, Willie Nelson, 76; Neil Young, 63; John Mellencamp, three days shy of 58, and Dave Matthews, 42, brought their Farm Aid road show, now 24, to west St. Louis.
Having interviewed the three Farm Aid founders at the inaugural 1985 concert in Champaign, Ill., (Matthews joined the effort in 2000) and, then, seeing both Willie and Neil eye-to-eye in St. Louis, I can report the spectacularly unimportant fact that neither appears to have taken on most of those intervening years.
Six, maybe; 10, max. Nelson’s smile is still as warm as a Texas sunset and Young’s eyes remain as dark as two holes in a snowbank. Time has sawed an inch or two off both yet each stands as straight as a nearly-straight fencepost.
What was missing at this almost-annual (it skipped 1988 and 1991) event were major farm and ranch groups like the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and the American Soybean Association. None was represented on stage, at press briefings or in any of the event’s information tents.
It’s as if Big Pig, the Packer Lackeys and the agbiz apologists were all too busy lobbying Congress for more taxpayer cash to show up at one of the very few national events to honor “family farmers.”
Maybe it was too far to come for some groups like the National Corn Growers Association, whose national office is, after all, 22 miles from where Willie and friends had 22,000 farmer-friendly fans standing and cheering from noon to 9 p.m.
And I suppose it’s possible that no one from the American Soybean Association, located less than 8.5 miles — or 12 minutes drive time, according to MapQuest — from Farm Aid’s outdoor venue, was available. Most could have been in China or Chile or the Czech Republic peddling your 3 billion-bu.-plus crop of now-$9 beans.
It’s easy to guess where the cowboys were Sunday: tamping down the bad press surrounding their partners, the meatpackers, after a Saturday New York Times story — again — explained how America’s meat inspection system has been so co-opted by profit-blinded meatpackers that “the potential for (meat) contamination is present every step of the way…”
The story, a stomach-churning expose that included trips to beef “trim” plants in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and, no kidding, Uruguay, centered on self-imposed rules not to inspect meat going into Cargill’s “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.”
The ground beef, investigators discovered in 2007, was tainted with E coli. (To read the story, go to www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/10/04/us/20090917-meat.html.)
In many ways the Times’ piece is a near-perfect metaphor for agbiz today. Massive Cargill, with revenues of $120 billion in 2008, ever remains on the global prowl for cheaper inputs to maximize profit, not quality.
And, at the same time, it and other ag giants are equally successful in the 24/7/365 Washington influence game. In short, gutting food safety rules is just as profitable as gutting a mossy-backed South American cow.
And where are farmers and ranchers in all this?
Almost all are falling further behind. The three biggest money losers in ag today are beef, dairy and hogs, and the only action farm groups seem able to take is to ask Washington for more handouts — most which will be handed over to agbiz.
Golly, when government injects money into every aspect of today’s food production system isn’t it at least possible that yesterday’s get-big-or-get model is broken? Had you been at Farm Aid that sunny Sunday you’d have heard exactly that.
Then again, that’s probably why the big farm and livestock groups weren’t there. They don’t need a bunch of old rockers reminding ‘em again not to grow up to be cowboys.