Farmers hope concert, rally gets attention of Congress
By RANDY LILLESTON/CNN
September 13, 1999
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EDT (1654 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawyer Reed Jr. opens his cigarette packs on the bottom -- an old habit that lets him leave them in his shirt pocket without fear of having them covered with dirt from the 10 acres he farms near Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Reed was born on a farm, raised on a farm and now tries to scratch a living from growing squash on his small farm. He had never been to Washington before last weekend, when, like family farmers from around the country, he came here for Sunday's Farm Aid concert and a rally Monday morning near the Capitol.
The Sunday concert was the 12th Farm Aid benefit since the original event was held in 1985 at a college football stadium in Illinois. But this Farm Aid was different for two reasons: It was the first one held near Washington, and the combination of this year's drought in the East and lingering concerns over farm legislation have spurred farmers into a new round of political activism.
On Sunday, Reed and his business partner and friend, Robert Smith of nearby Petal, Mississippi, discussed the merits of planting squash and lobbying Congress. Sitting at a picnic table at an amphitheater near Washington, while more than 20,000 people listened to country singer Deanna Carter perform at a nearby stage, the two talked about the problems they face as small family farmers and what they want Congress to do about those problems.
"Me and him, we combined together this year," to farm a total of 20 acres, Reed said while nodding to Smith. The two purchase their seeds together pay someone to till their land and share other costs, in hopes of scratching out a living.
But they openly admit to the difficulties of trying to make such a small farm work, and they see the federal government as a major source of their problems. "You know, we can't go to a bank. We can't go to the FHA," Smith said.
But the two see other farmers and farm interests -- including large corporate farms and grain companies -- receive government assistance in various forms, and they wonder what they are missing. They and other farmers in Washington complain openly about the Freedom to Farm Act, the 1995 legislation that they claim aids large farmers without providing adequate support to small farms.
"We think politicians who are working through the agricultural field have let us down," said Aaron Hodge of Epes, Alabama. Hodge was in Washington as a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a farming cooperative group. "Without Willie Nelson and Farm Aid, there's no other help for the farmers."
"We're looking to get rid of (Agriculture Secretary Dan) Glickman and all the other people who are supposed to helping to support us," Hodge said.
Like many farmers this year, Reed was hurt by unusually dry, hot weather. Squash blooms continuously once mature and Reed said that in a typical year, he might pick squash between 15 and 20 times from his field. "I didn't get but seven good pickings this year," he said. "The squash ain't made of nothing but hollow."
It is a story repeated in many places this year, so much so that this year's Farm Aid concert focused its attention on widespread drought. Since it began, Farm Aid has given $14.5 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and service groups in 44 states.
Hodge and other farmers in Washington on Monday say they want, as much as anything else, a sign the federal government cares about their needs. "We want them to realistically support the farmers the way they should be," he said. "There are a bunch of issues that we face where we feel they sold us out."