Nelson shares Ag Hall honor with Farm Aid partners
Joe Steineger didn’t know legendary singer Willie Nelson personally until Saturday, when Nelson was inducted into the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame.
But in the 1980s, when Steineger was going through one of the worst periods of his life, he remembers feeling like Nelson was the only one who cared about him.
After a severe drought in 1980 in Wyandotte County, Steineger was a struggling farmer on the brink of bankruptcy. Enter Nelson, who along with John Mellencamp and Neil Young, began organizing annual Farm Aid festivals in the mid-1980’s to support small family farms.
“Right when that was going on, we didn’t have a friend in the world,” Steineger said. “… The fact that (Nelson) brought the attention of what was going on with the Midwestern farmer and what was happening, as far as I was concerned, he was the only person that really cared.”
Steineger survived the hardships of the 1980s. He since has served as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., is still a farmer and currently serves as chairman of the board of governors of the Ag Hall, which is based in Bonner Springs. While he says he “never collected a nickel” of funds raised through Farm Aid, Steineger notes what Nelson did with Farm Aid was so much more than help raise money: He showed family farmers that they weren’t alone; that they had someone out there who cared enough about them to start a movement like Farm Aid, which is now in its 26th year and still going strong.
That’s why Steineger says he is proud to include Nelson in the Ag Hall of Fame, where on Saturday Nelson joined 38 inductees that include George Washington Carver, John Deere and Thomas Jefferson. Nelson is the first to be inducted into the Ag Hall of Fame since 2006.
Nelson’s induction ceremony took place Saturday, Aug. 13, during a news conference prior to the Farm Aid 2011 festival at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. The award was presented to Nelson by Ken Root, a well-known farm broadcaster and longtime supporter of the Ag Hall.
“You’ve made a lasting difference in (small farmers’) lives and the lives of all of us who have benefited from their labors,” Root said prior to presenting Nelson with the award.
After several moments of wild applause, Nelson gave credit to those who have helped organize Farm Aid over the years, as well as Young, Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, who also serve as its board members.
“So thanks to all you folks, and I gladly accept this as long as I can share it with you good guys,” Nelson said, gesturing to Matthews, Young and Mellencamp, all of whom participated in the press conference, as well.
Despite a roomful of Nelson supporters Saturday, Cathi Hahner, Ag Hall executive director, said there were some who were not entirely pleased with Nelson’s induction. Once word got round that he was a possibility — Farm Aid submitted a formal nomination to the Ag Hall in May — Hahner said she had received emails from some opposed to the nomination. She said most of the opposition stemmed from disagreements with some of the stances Farm Aid has taken over the years against such areas of farming as the livestock industry.
But Hahner said the Ag Hall being in agreement or not with Farm Aid’s mission and goals wasn’t why Nelson was chosen as an inductee.
“Our point on that is that we are a big tent for agriculture and our point is just to tell all sides and let the consumer make up their mind,” Hahner said. “We’re not saying we agree with everything Farm Aid stands for … but (Farm Aid) represents a segment of family farmers and that’s what we are recognizing here.”
Prior to 2006, when Bob Dole, Justus von Liebig and Oliver Hudson Kelley were inducted, Hahner said the Ag Hall’s policy had been that anyone inductee had to have been dead at least 10 years. With the policy change, she said continues to look forward to future possible inductees.
“It was just exciting for me,” Hahner said of Nelson’s induction ceremony. “And I just thought of all the people that have made significant contributions that are still alive, and just to be able to receive the honor and to accept it and to be rewarded for the work they’ve done … I’m just excited to see this new opportunity of us being able to honor people while they’re still alive.”