A couple weeks ago, Mark Peterson, an Iowa farmer and board president of Practical Farmers of Iowa, reached out to us to see if he could meet with Willie before Willie’s gig at the Hinterlands Festival in St. Charles, Iowa. In his request Mark wrote, “I would like to thank Willie for what Farm Aid has done and tell him about the work of Practical Farmers of Iowa. I watched and participated in what happened with the farm crisis in the 80s and remember how Farm Aid worked to help with all the problems. I even got to go to the second Farm Aid concert in Lincoln and it was a very moving experience for me.”
For decades, Willie has met with farmers as he crisscrosses the highways and back roads of the United States on his tour bus. During the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, this gave Willie a very personal understanding of what farmers were facing, and what was at stake for all of us if we allowed our family farmers to go out of business. I was happy to help Mark connect with Willie in St. Charles, and knew that Willie would be very happy for it too.
As the show date approached, I emailed Mark to confirm that Willie would love to meet with him and PFI’s executive director Sally Worley. The reply Mark sent back, though, was a link to an article titled “Cancer Isn’t Stopping This Iowa Farmer From Seeing Willie Nelson,” and a note:
I know that Willie probably only sees a few people per show, but it sounds to me as if the farmer in this article really should get to meet him. If it jeopardizes my potential visit with him, so be it.
I read the article about Dean Thomann, who is a lifelong fan of Willie Nelson. Dean won VIP tickets to the concert thanks to his daughters, who told his story and entered him into a contest. The article called Dean “a proud surviving farmer from the 1980s, a decade that saw many Iowa family farms sold in bankruptcy,” and mentioned that Dean planned to bring a sign to the show that reads, “Farm crisis survivor. Thank you, Willie.”
“I would love to say hello to Dean.” – Willie Nelson
I held back the tears I felt welling at Dean’s resilience and Mark’s generosity, and I shared the article with Willie. His immediate reply: “I would love to say hello to Dean.”
So on Saturday night in St. Charles, Mark and Sally met up with Dean at Hinterlands, sitting in lawn chairs on a perfect day and getting to know each other while listening to the music from the main stage. At 8:30 pm, an hour before Willie was scheduled to go on stage, they donned their backstage passes and went to find Willie’s bus. On the bus, with Willie in his usual seat at his built-in “kitchen table,” these Iowa farmers met one of their heroes.
Mark and Sally talked about the work of Practical Farmers of Iowa, particularly the initiative they call “Don’t Farm Naked,” which encourages farmers to plant cover crops to create healthy, resilient soil and prevent nutrient runoff, which travels downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and creates dead zones in the ocean. Both thanked Willie for his work through Farm Aid, and Farm Aid’s support of Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Dean talked of his experience in the 80s and 90s as a farmer who nearly lost his farm. He thanked Willie for standing by farmers and bringing the Farm Crisis to the attention of every American. In the 1990s, Dean and his wife Susan got out of the hog business, recognizing, as Dean put it, that there was no way they could compete in the increasingly consolidated business. He started a fencing company, and began raising Angus cattle. Today he owns and operates Trail’s End Angus, a 160-acre farm, where he wrangles around 140 cattle and calves.
Tomorrow, Dean undergoes a procedure at the Mayo Clinic that will hopefully restore his health. The thoughts of Willie and all of us at Farm Aid are with Dean and his family. As he and I discussed, he’s a farmer, so he has the will power and optimism to come through just about anything!