Farm Aid Through the Eyes of One Farmer: Joel Greeno

By Nick Krewen 9/28/15 |

Dairy farmer Joel Greeno at Farm Aid 30 — photo credit: Nick Krewen.
Joel Greeno, a Kendall, Wisconsin dairy farmer, first became aware of Farm Aid when he became an activist in 1994. Joining Family Farm Defenders, one of many grass roots organizations that have popped up across the U.S. to help farmers in need, Greeno said Farm Aid came to his attention after his organization applied for funding.

“One of the first grant proposals we wrote was to Farm Aid, and they provided us with funds do the work of advocacy, rural crisis work, and suicide prevention work,” Greeno told Samaritanmag at Farm Aid 30 Sept. 19.

Started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 “to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land,”  according to Farm Aid’s web site,  Farm Aid has raised $48 million “to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on the land.”

Since 1997, Greeno has appeared at every Farm Aid for “the shot in the arm” the annual festival gives the U.S. farm community.

“We have hope,” he said. “We all come to Farm Aid and share the message. It sort of refills our gas tanks and we go back home for the fight. We organize and we work those tools on what needs to be done to make significant change.”

The 49-year-old Greeno, whose family settled in Wisconsin in 1872, has personally witnessed how devastating the loss of a farm can be.

“My parents were foreclosed on in 1992 and their farm was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1993, a few days before their 30th wedding anniversary,” he said. “ I went to the auction and people that I thought were our neighbours and friends stood there and criticized, humiliated me, ran me down and I never understood why.”

Greeno said his parents lost an estimated $500,000 at the time due to an issue of back taxes, and accused the bank of misleading them when they tried to settle the debt seven years earlier.

“My parents got nothing for the sale,” he explained.  “They weren’t in debt that bad, but a tax preparer had made a mistake on my parents’ tax return, and that started a chain reaction. They got behind on their taxes and went to their bank to immediately take care of problem. The bank said, ‘You don’t have to take care of taxes for seven years…not knowing that after seven years, the bank has a right to foreclose on you, and after penalties and  taxes compound interest, it’s such an astronomical amount that you can’t even comprehend it. So the bank basically pulled the plug on them and said, ‘We’re going to sell it to someone else. We can make money on you, so why wait?’ They lost everything. It was heartbreaking.”

Greeno said the emotional toil also took a heavy toll.

”When farmers who have lived on their land their whole lives and are on family farms are suddenly in a situation where they’re going to be foreclosed on, there’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of guilt — ‘it’s my fault; I did something wrong…I wasn’t smart enough’ — and they don’t have the answers.

“What they need at that point is someone to talk to, to say, ‘You know, it wasn’t your fault — it was the market and you weren’t paid enough for what you did, and that there are tools out there to help you.’”

Although Greeno’s parents’ situation occurred back in the 1990s, little has changed in terms of the farm community when it comes to scavenging for a living: many farms are still spending more in overhead than they receive in income due to insufficient crop pricing.

 “The work you do, and the equipment you need, and all the things you do cost more than what you make, whether it’s milking cows or raising corn and soybeans, and affects most farmers,” said Greeno.

Greeno said Farm Aid is useful, because the non-profit organization takes an active role in helping the farm community navigate through the red tape.

“Farm Aid staff is present and you learn their role in things,” Greeno explained. “They help facilitate meetings and how people interconnect. It all adds up to help farmers.”

READ Nick Krewen's feature story on Farm Aid 30, including comments from Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Jack Johnson and Imagine Dragons.

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