This Tuesday, Farm Aid had the distinct honor of joining the White House Rural Economic Forum in Peosta, Iowa. Attended by several Cabinet members and President Obama himself, this invitation-only event gathered farmers, rural business owners and organizations to discuss strategies that will spur economic growth in rural America.
Fresh off the heels of our Farm Aid concert in Kansas City, Kansas, so many thoughts crossed my mind as I drove through Iowa to attend the event.
I thought about the tiny town of Osceola, where I stopped for coffee. Despite the partisan politics that overwhelm Washington, there was little sense of divide in this town. Conversations revealed keen political awareness, sure, but also a shared concern for economic recovery, worry about things like post offices closing across the countryside and disappointment in political leaders bought out by corporate money.
I thought of the cornfields flanking the highway east from Des Moines. While the landscape wasn’t drought-stricken as parts of Kansas were, nor flooded like towns along the Missouri River, the corn stalks were lower than normal, hinting at ecological stresses on crops, and thus, on our family farmers.
I thought of the people heading to the Iowa State Fair as advertisements flooded the radio stations, boasting new attractions (the new red velvet funnel cake was a hit, apparently!) and sharing enthusiasm for the state’s agricultural heritage.
In so many ways, our annual Farm Aid concert combines all of this, as we join concertgoers in celebrating our family farmers, but also raise awareness and activism around the issues they face. The concert is a much-needed pause, where we honor the special population of Americans who feed us, while inspiring eaters to do their part to support family farmers and good food.
At the forum, I listened to President Obama’s opening remarks. He was hopeful about America’s ability to come back strong from the economic downturn and acknowledged that the hard work of recovery will occur in farm fields and Main Streets nationwide. Sitting next to Joel Greeno, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and outspoken farm activist, we commiserated that true recovery was impossible unless family farmers get the prices they deserve in the market.
Following the opening remarks, I joined a small breakout session on Ag Innovation and Energy, led by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. With others, I insisted that innovation will be squashed if a few corporate powers continue to dominate farming, that economic development is impossible if farmers don’t receive fair prices and if farmers and eaters who join the good food movement aren’t supported by federal policies. We stressed the importance of fair markets and the Administration’s role in enforcing fair competition for farmers old and new.
To our surprise, President Obama joined our conversation (and sat right across from me!). No matter one’s political beliefs, it’s always an honor (and a thrill!) to meet a President. I’ve had some beef with nearly every President during my lifetime, but I deeply respect the stress and responsibility an individual holding the office must endure. Personally, I was impressed by his depth of knowledge of the issues and his support for fairness in agriculture. The sentiments are more than welcome, of course, but I don’t need to tell you that action is what we really need. As the President himself said, it’s our job to keep our leaders on the hook and accountable.
In the meeting’s final moments, the President approached each of us. Shaking his hand, I smiled and said, “We gotta get you to another Farm Aid concert.” (Senator Barack Obama attended our 20th anniversary concert in Chicago in 2005). He perked up and smiled back warmly, saying, “Some of my best times have been at Farm Aid shows.” I couldn’t help but smile.
A nice punctuation for a whirlwind – but fulfilling – concert week. And yet, with so much work to be done and so much need in the countryside, there’s little time for pause. Onward!