COLUMBIA — A little boy with flames on his button-down shirt waited behind caution tape outside of Jesse Hall, holding a red guitar that was almost bigger than he was. A server whisked past with a plate carrying fried chicken, a biscuit and black-eyed peas. She disappeared into a tour bus, then hustled back into the summer heat as quickly as she came.
Inside the bus was country music legend Willie Nelson, preparing to play for a sold-out crowd at Jesse Auditorium. But at the press conference minutes before the concert began, the Missouri River, rather than “Whiskey River,” was on Nelson’s mind.
“Well, as you know, we’ve got a bit of a flooding and water disaster, and we just had another 3 inches of rain this morning to help us out,” said Missouri Rural Crisis Center Director Rhonda Perry, briefing Nelson on the most current plight affecting Missouri small farmers. “We’re dealing with 40 counties in Missouri that are in dire straits for farmers.”
Nelson, wearing his trademark braids and a black T-shirt, shook his head.
“We do what we can do. It’s a tough year,” he said.
Nelson is a founder and driving force behind Farm Aid, a nonprofit organization that was started in 1985 to promote and support family farms across the country. Both Nelson and Farm Aid have a history of advocating for Missouri’s small farms in particular.
“Missouri is always helping us,” Nelson said. “So we help them.”
This help includes statewide flood relief for small farmers and an average of $10,000 a year in support of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center for programs such as a food co-op for small farmers, and for challenging factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations.
“Willie sort of helped us kick-start this whole challenge of factory farms in the state, even back when everyone loved factory farms except for us,” Perry said. “We’re really doing great here. In Missouri, less than one-half of 1 percent of the farming operations are CAFOs. We’ve really been able to limit the spread. It’s less than 500 in a state with over 100,000 farms. Our work legislatively, every year those corporations head to the capital and try to take away local control, and every year we’ve had to fight them on it and so far we’ve prevailed every year.”
“Yeah, you all are tough,” Nelson said. “I’ve been watching you for 20 years.”