Blog | May 20, 2021

A Conversation Between Willie Nelson, Farmer Michael Kovach and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

by Jennifer Fahy

Farm Aid President Willie Nelson and Pennsylvania Farmers Union Vice President and farmer Michael Kovach had a chance to talk with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on May 17, 2021. They spoke about the Administration’s plans to strengthen family farmers and invest in America’s rural communities.

The discussion brought up many points of how farmers and ranchers will be helped by the funds allocated in the recently passed American Rescue Plan and additional support that is being proposed in the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. Watch to hear more or read on for highlights.

Secretary Vilsack asked Willie what family farmers and Farm Aid mean to him.

Willie: I grew up in a farm community, around Abbot, Texas. A lot of cotton and corn up there. I worked in the fields, pulled corn, baled hay. So, I know how hard the work is. I know how hard it is to work all day long and come home and not have a lot of money in your pocket when you do. I know the family farmer, and I have tried to help however I can. And over the years, and with a lot of help from a lot of friends like Neil Young and John Mellencamp and all those great folks who have helped me, we’ve had 35 Farm Aid concerts. I’m glad we’ve been able to do it. I think it’s probably done some good. It’s brought attention to the challenges.

Secretary Vilsack: Well, it certainly has done some good. A substantial amount of financial help, but more importantly, it has elevated the struggle of farmers, especially small and mid-sized farmers, and among those are minority farmers. And as a result of the advocacy that you and others have been engaged in, socially disadvantaged farmers (a USDA definition that refers to farmers and ranchers who have experienced barriers to service due to racial or ethnic prejudice) are going to get a real boost from the American Rescue Plan. We’re in the process at USDA of focusing on a debt relief program that’s going to relieve thousands of these farmers from the debt loads that they’ve incurred, in acknowledgement of the challenges and struggles they’ve had a result of past discrimination and the cumulative effect of a system that hasn’t been structured to assist them, plus additional resources for technical assistance and land access.

Secretary Vilsack asked Michael, “What do we need to know about COVID and its impact on the supply chain?”

Michael: The pandemic really shined a bright spotlight on the fallibility that came along with the efficiency that we’ve built into our food system. When one plant takes down 5% of the processing capacity for beef in the US, that’s a pretty sure sign that we’ve got too many eggs in too few baskets. Farmers Union, at the state and national level, has been engaged in conversations about how to rebuild that local and regional infrastructure that has been lost over the years as the industry has consolidated and vertically integrated. One of the big things that we’re pushing hard for: How can we rebuild infrastructure so that small and medium sized farmers can do things the right way and have access to markets for the products they create.

Secretary Vilsack: The American Rescue Plan allocates several billion dollars that can begin the process of addressing the supply chain resiliency issue, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to begin to have a conversation not just about yield, but also about profit, and the ability for small- and mid-sized producers to have local markets where they can negotiate their price and have greater control over what they get, and also to expand processing so there’s more competition for that farmer dollar and the products that farmers are producing. The American Jobs Plan can also create significant opportunities, particularly around broadband, which is critical for the local and regional markets to really take off.

Secretary Vilsack told Willie, “You’ve been an advocate for a number of alternative crops and one of them is industrial hemp. Why is that important to bring into this conversation?”

Willie: With industrial hemp, we’ll have a way to grow food, fuel, fiber and we can also replenish the soil. I think it’s something we need to seriously consider, because we need it right now.

Secretary Vilsack: The Department of Agriculture has finalized its rules to give clear direction to producers of industrial hemp to begin creating that market opportunity.

Secretary Vilsack asked Michael about the role of agricultural practices for soil health.

Michael: The beauty of it is that building soil helps with the farm’s bottom line, as well. Building that soil instead of keeping it Inputs go up in price and never seem to come back down. For the last 6 years or so it costs more to plant a bushel of corn than what you can recover from it at the end of the season. Climate smart agriculture takes the carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back in the ground where it can do us some good instead of leaving it up there where it’s doing bad, has a lot of benefits aside from the obvious. Carbon sequestration is great for the planet, it’s also really great for family farmers in allowing them to keep profitable and solvent on the land in order to keep on feeding us. It’s a very small percentage of the population that is feeding a growing population. And we’re needing to look at things a little differently, we can’t continue doing it the way we have. This is the perfect time to have those discussions and help shore everybody up.

Secretary Vilsack: The American Jobs plan invests in climate smart agriculture, recognizing the value of green infrastructure, in addition to gray infrastructure.

Secretary Vilsack asked Willie and Michael, “Are you vaccinated?”

Willie: Yes, it’s been a rough year, for musicians and people that enjoy music. They haven’t been able to go to a concert in more than a year. For a guitar player like me, that’s rough. I want to make sure that it’s safe, before we go out. That everyone in the audience has been vaccinated. I think that’s important. And we’re headed that way.

Michael: Yes, I am! (as he showed the arm in which his vaccination was received.)

Watch the full video above to learn what Secretary Vilsack picked up at his local farmers market last weekend, learn what the heck is a cowpot, and to see Michael’s tattooed arm!

Further Reading

Learn more about how farmers, ranchers and rural communities will benefit from the plans of the Biden/Harris Administration:

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