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On the Road Again ... for Farm Aid

Singer Willie Nelson is giving the proceeds from several concerts to Midwest farmers

EVEN if country singer Willie Nelson still sings about lost and forgotten love, it is really flood-stricken Midwestern farmers who are always on his mind these days.

On tour in the Boston area this month, Mr. Nelson is raising money for the farmers through Farm Aid Inc., a national family-farm advocacy organization that he founded in 1985. So far, the group has distributed $10.7 million to farm groups, churches, and service agencies in 43 states.

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And in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1993, the famed musician has donated the proceeds of three recent Midwest concerts to the organization's new Family Farm Disaster Fund.

Seated in his tour bus after a rollicking two-hour evening performance at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, Nelson says Midwest farmers need more help than they are currently getting despite good efforts on the part of the Clinton administration. Last week, President Clinton signed legislation that will provide $6.2 billion in federal assistance to farmers and other Midwestern flood victims.

"This new administration is passing some very important legislation to cover a lot of little problems ... but [farmers] need more, more, more," he said in a Monitor interview. "It is very devastating in that part of the country."

Nevertheless, the administration is making a solid effort to at least listen, he says. Earlier this month, Nelson and other farmers met with United States Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy to present suggestions on how to assist Midwest farmers. Specifically, they recommended the passage of a second disaster bill to help the farmers this fall.

But, in the long run, family farmers need to stay in business to keep the US economy moving forward, Nelson says.

"We've knocked the bottom rung off of our economic ladder, which is the farmer," he says. "So until we put it back and put 7 million of those farmers back on the land, you would immediately have 7 million new taxpayers, sell 7 million new pickups, 7 million new tractors, and jump-start the economy," he says.

Though Nelson originally set up the Farm Aid office in his native Texas, the organization is now based in Cambridge, Mass. Tucked away in a small office of a renovated Victorian-style home, Farm Aid has only four full-time staffers plus one summer intern. Long-term assistance is just as important as emergency assistance, says Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid's executive director.

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"We have, over the eight years we've been here, responded to the emergency needs of farmers because, in a lot of cases, farmers need something just to tide them over in terms of food, heating, and medical bills," she says. "But what we're trying to do is make it possible for farmers to stay on the land, in the long run."

Though Farm Aid officials say they don't know how much money they raised for the disaster fund, they did receive a $100,000 donation earlier this month. And calls for donations have been pouring into the office ever since.

Farm Aid grant money goes to diverse farm groups. The organization supports groups that train farmers in debt-restructuring and in ways to work out debt problems without foreclosure, for example. Farm Aid also funds groups that promote sustainable agriculture or farming that avoids use of harmful chemicals, hormones, or pesticides.

Nearly a quarter of Farm Aid grants have been emergency ones. Other grants include: an Adair, Iowa-based program that helps farmers get through the Christmas holidays; an Atlanta group that provides financial aid to African-American farmers, a minority population that loses farms at twice the rate of whites; and an Oklahoma City-based group that operates a hot line to address the increasing suicide rate among farmers.

Tim Atwater, director of Rural Vermont, a Montpelier, Vt.-based group, says his organization receives about $10,000 yearly from Farm Aid. Such money is sorely needed in a state whose dairy farmers are constantly struggling to stay in business.

"The price of milk is half what it was 12 years ago in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. And the cost of producing milk is higher, so most of our farmers are literally losing money every time they milk their cows," he says.

* Those interested in contributing to Farm Aid can dial 1-800-FARM AID.

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