David Senter said he remembers when singer-songwriter Willie Nelson called him in 1985 and told him that the agricultural economy in the United States had left family farmers behind in one of the worst farm crises in American history.
The trouble was that it did no one any good that the two of them were the ones talking about it.
“Willie said we can’t just sit around and talk to farmers and each other,” Senter, the former national director of the American Agriculture Movement, said over the phone as he drove across the country from Maryland to Wisconsin. “We have to talk to everybody else.”
That was the conversation that inspired Farm Aid, an annual concert series and a farm advocacy organization, now in its 34th year and taking place Saturday at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. That's where Senter, a former farmer turned advocate turned unofficial farm movement historian, was heading when he spoke to NBC News.
Led by Nelson, the festival began with the help of musicians such as Neil Young and John Mellencamp — both board members — as well as acts including B.B. King, Paul Simon, Elton John and others over the ensuing years.
More recently, well-known bands artists such as Imagine Dragons, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, the Avett Brothers and Sheryl Crow have joined Nelson and Young on stage. The stars of the show are not the musicians, however, but the advocates and the farmers who are given microphones to highlight issues they face.
For some, this year feels like a flashback to the mid-80s as Farm Aid takes place amid another crisis: A record number of farm bankruptcies and difficult financial circumstances are forcing longtime farm families to question whether they can continue their profession and their way of life.
“I think we’re going to lose as big a percentage of farmers as we did in the 1980s, but it will be far fewer individuals because we have far fewer farmers.”
“Right now, we have low [commodity] prices, we have an ongoing trade war that has taken so many markets away from farmers and we have a failed policy in place,” Senter, who was the first director of Farm Aid, said. “Now we have another farm crisis and unfortunately, I think we’re going to lose as big a percentage of farmers as we did in the 1980s, but it will be far fewer individuals because we have far fewer farmers.”
The loss is being felt around the country and is deeply personal for those affected.
It’s a concept very familiar to Jim Goodman, 65. In March, he sold the 350-acre Wisconsin dairy farm that had been in his family for generations. The sale included his 45 certified-organic cows. While it was one of the most emotionally difficult decisions he has ever had to make, Goodman said, he had few alternatives.
The longtime farmer explained that all markets — especially dairy of late — are seeing a vicious cycle of overproduction. That, in turn, is causing prices to plummet and forcing farmers to grow more to make up for their losses.
Crop and commodity prices then only fall further.
“It just doesn’t look very promising. Not many farmers see a real upside to the prices, and they know the costs continue to go up,” Goodman said, referring to the growing prices of equipment, supplies, repairs and farm upkeep. “The value of land has held steady, which means, for farmers of my age who owned their farm, we at least have the ability to sell as a retirement income.”
Small farms continue giving way to much larger operations, and a multiyear trade war with China presses on without an end in sight. Meanwhile, the unpaid debt for farms across the country is at a level not seen since the 1980s, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in testimony before Congress earlier this year.
“Farm debt has been rising more rapidly over the last five years,” he said, noting that it has increased by 30 percent since 2013 and has reached levels last seen in the 1980s. Farm bankruptcies are also at a record high with more than 500 filed over the past year — a 13 percent increase over the previous year, according to the American Farm Bureau.
For members of Farm Aid and for agriculture families across the states, the stakes are almost as high as they were more than three decades ago.
“Farming is not just a livelihood — it’s a way of life,” Alicia Harvey, the advocacy and farmer services director at Farm Aid, said. “They sit with this shame and burden of being the ones to lose the land that’s been in their family for generations, and there is such a blame and shame in that.”
That’s a heavy weight on a lot of farmers, and Farm Aid, which is one of the few organizations to provide a hotline to distressed producers, has seen a shift in tone. Last year the group saw a 109 percent increase in the number of calls it received. It has seen an additional 8 percent increase so far this year, but expects a bump as harvest comes closer.
“To me, the one thing that maybe gives me the slightest bit of hope is that there are now so many more organizations that are doing the work and advocacy for farmers,” Farm Aid’s hotline manager Madeline Lutkewitte said. “Absolutely not enough organizations, but there’s some that when people call us looking for help, I feel confident referring them.”
Back in the 1980s, Nelson brought farmers to Washington, D.C., to testify on Capitol Hill about their hardship and pressure Congress to change farm policies. While that brought a lot of attention and organization to the issue, Lutkewitte and many others are now worried some of that has dissipated.
Today, after the passage of the most recent Farm Bill, that approach for farmers to push for policy change is shared by Farm Aid and its collaborators.
It’s something that drove Mark Rohr, 59, who owns 300 acres of farmland in central Minnesota and sold off his own dairy business in 2012, to attend Farm Aid for the first time.
“Today’s agriculture policy is not the 11th Commandment,” he said. “It’s not ordained by God that it has to be this way. Human decision set this policy and human decision can change it.”
Rohr said that, just like in the 1980s, the people with the power to make change for farm families and rural communities are those in Congress.
He just hopes that they would listen.
“Something has to give,” Rohr said. “The current road we’re heading down, the current policy, the current prices, all that: Either the small farmer is going to go away other than a few niche markets — organic or whatever — and agriculture will be dominated by large farms that are probably connected directly to a processor, or policy is going to change and the advantage will be back with the smaller farmer and prices will be higher and the smaller farmer will flourish.”
He paused for a moment and took a breath.
“It just can’t continue like this forever,” he said.