Agriculture's Story in Song: Q&A with Susan Werner - Modern Farmer

Agriculture’s Story in Song: Q&A with Susan Werner

Susan Werner’s new album goes back to her roots, specifically her family farm in Iowa. But this singer, songwriter isn’t looking back with rose-colored glasses, or at least she removes those glasses for songs like “Herbicide,” which gives her listeners a feel for the complex story that is American agriculture. In addition to stirring up […]

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Susan Werner’s new album goes back to her roots, specifically her family farm in Iowa. But this singer, songwriter isn’t looking back with rose-colored glasses, or at least she removes those glasses for songs like “Herbicide,” which gives her listeners a feel for the complex story that is American agriculture.

In addition to stirring up a bit of controversy, the album includes lots of humor and storytelling. There’s a mix of the two in songs like “City Kids,” which Werner describes as “revenge of the nerds” for farmers. All those “city kids” that Werner was jealous of growing up now spend big bucks on farm-fresh produce. “There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the whole thing turn around,” Werner said.

Hayseed, Werner’s twelfth major release, is more of a project than a stand-alone album, she said. The project was commissioned by the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center for Performing Arts and the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, and it includes a traditional tour schedule along with appearances at local farmers markets throughout the nation.

These farmers market visits have encouraged Werner to make some unusual additions to her shows. Recently she purchased Chinese yardlong beans and “threw them out to the audience like Mardi Gras beads,” she said.

Beyond her personal connection to farming, Werner sees this moment in time as a vital one for agriculture.

“For those us that have a long-term interest and passion in sustainable agriculture, we have to push as hard and as far as we can right now while this is a trend, while this is hot, because next year or the year after, the United States will have moved on to the next version of Pilates. So we should, forgive the turn of phrase, make hay while the sun shines,” Werner said.

We spoke to Werner about her album and her farming roots.

Modern Farmer: Why did you choose to focus on agriculture for your latest album?

Susan Werner: This project came about when my parents announced they were moving to town. For any farm family this is an enormous and emotional event and it caused a lot of soul searching for everyone in my family and an upheaval in our identity. Who are we if we are not farmers? What are we if none of us continues to farm? My grandparents were farmers, my great grandparents on both sides, my great-great grandparents all the way back to Germany in the 1870s.

Songs started to show up, and I played them in public, and the response was so strong I began to suspect that there was something more going on then just a memoir.

MF: How did you connect with the University and what was it like working with them?

SW: I had done shows before in Lincoln for the University, and I was having a cup of coffee with the artistic director Ann Chang, she said what are you doing next? I told her, ‘Well I’m working on songs about farming.’ She said we have been looking to support something like that. An arts project about agriculture or football. (She laughs). Chang said, ‘We’d much prefer football, can you do that?’

I said, ‘Well, maybe next time. The farm thing is already underway. Sure, Nebraska football makes sense. I’ll put that on the back burner.’ (She laughs again.)

I give the University of Nebraska so much credit for getting on board with something like this, especially a big ag school like that. Ag schools in general are rather conservative, as is most of rural America, and it showed lots of guts for them to step into this. But it also showed a desire to mix it up and welcome innovation and new ideas. Agriculture is one of the hottest things going right now. There’s so much innovation, and new approaches, and experiments going. Yes, research, but I think a lot of the innovation is going on in smaller operations and individuals instead of corporations.

MF: What sort of innovative or interesting small-scale farming projects have caught your eye lately?

SW: Heritage hogs, pastured poultry, livestock really interests me, probably because I grew up on a hog, dairy and poultry operation. How odd some of these heritage breeds look. They look odd, but they bring the flavor back into food.

MF: Some of your lyrics could be considered controversial, your song ‘Herbicide,’ for example, incudes descriptions of iconic farming scenes along with the names of commonly used herbicides. Why was it important to include agricultural issue like this in your album?

SW: It crossed my mind that some people might be unhappy with the point of view in these songs. But what I really aimed for was to appreciate the traditions that raised me and to encourage innovation going forward. My parents generation got certain things right, and I think we have to appreciate that they were able to keep the rural community going which was not obvious in the 80s. Those of us who remember growing up on farms in the 80s remember farms were going under every week. So let’s appreciate the success of American farming, but now look to what’s going to make it successful going forward. What’s going to make it sustainable?

But in terms of controversy, the marketplace in the United States operates by the principle of buyer beware. There is no precautionary principle in American business. Industry will not police itself and the government is not doing what it should do in terms of guaranteeing the safety of our food supply and the safety of the agricultural workplace. So it’s up to us to do it. And it’s exciting to be around so many people doing exactly that. Taking the reins, creating an environment for themselves that is safe that is abundant, and that is profitable. That’s the trifecta. The triple bottom line of good policy, good for business, good for the environment and good for you.

MF: Have you thought about working on a farm again yourself?

SW: Oh I have, yeah. My parents still own 140 acres. And I have ideas about what I’d like to do. But that’s my parents land, and as long as they live, it’s theirs and should take care of them. If it should come to me, should I get an opportunity to farm myself, I have ideas about what would be next. And yeah, I wouldn’t rule out heritage hogs.

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