Artivist Micah Nelson on music, sustainable ag, and being part of the solution
An interview by Hannah Apricot Eckberg

Willie, Lucas, and Micah Nelson join Sheryl Crow and others during this year’s Farm Aid. Since 1985, the concert has raised over $50 million to help family farmers.


This is the full interview from a condensed version originally printed in PMNA #07.

How and Where did your passion for sustainable ag practices develop?


From my parents mostly, and growing up on Maui, where I learned the importance of respecting the “aina” (Hawaiian for ” the land”). In my elementary school we had a big community garden and organic gardening was part of the curriculum. We even built an ancient Hawaiian style irrigation system called an Awai, using lava rocks and gravity. When I was but a teenager, my mom, along with Bob and Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel, started The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance and my dad started his biodiesel company, Bio-Willie. One Thanksgiving we used the grease from the turkey to make Biodiesel in the backyard and Bob and Kelly King drove home on it.

My dad founded Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert for American family farmers. The passion for returning to sustainable agriculture and exploring renewable energy alternatives is in my blood. I was raised with the understanding that caring for the environment is basic logic.


Farm Aid is always like a big family reunion, but especially this year. I hadn’t played a show with Insect vs Robots in a very long time, mainly because our violinist Nikita had been in Russia taking care of some family matters after his father passed away. I hadn’t even seen him in over two months. Our first encounter since he had left the country was about 20 minutes before our set time. It was like “Hi!! Wow you’re alive! Okay let’s go play this show!” No time to rehearse, no soundcheck or anything.. barely any time to even tune our guitars before we were on. It was totally bonkers! Super fun though. We were all feeling great and happy to see each other and it was this crazy whirlwind of a set, clinging on by its teeth. The sound on stage was like being inside an inter-dimensional vacuum, we were basically playing by smell. Before we knew it the set was over right as we were just starting to get warmed up. I think it was one of our best Farm Aid sets energetically because there was no time to think about anything and we only had like 15 minutes to make an impression. We’ve been a band for about 10 years at this point, so sometimes I do think we actually play better when we haven’t rehearsed.


It wasn’t much different with Neil Young, actually. We (Uncle Neil, myself and Promise of the Real) hadn’t played live together since the “Desert Trip/Old Chella” concert about a year ago. We sort of rehearsed a little backstage, but of course Neil tossed all that out the window last minute. From the first opening drum pulse of “Fu*$%n Up” (which Neil called for about 5 seconds before we went on) the whole set was pretty much like driving a locomotive down the side of a mountain with no track. It was fantastic. A very cathartic set. So many things happened that you just can’t rehearse. It was totally wild and satisfying. Some perfect fu*#-ups went down. I got the feeling Neil had been charging up all year for that. It was a spontaneously raging explosion of a song list that will go down in my memory as one of the greatest Farm Aid sets ever.


Are there any projects you are involved with or particularly care about that you would like to help promote?


I was recently elected as a board member of the National Hemp Association. The main goal we are working on is ending prohibition of American grown industrial hemp for commercial use, as soon as possible, so we can reestablish a sustainable agriculture economy in America. Hemp can be used to (sustainably) make every product fossil fuels claim to have precedent over. It’s baffling how miraculous the plant is when it comes to growing and manufacturing everything from bioplastics and textiles to renewable fuels, powerful medicinal oils, and non-toxic breathable concrete or hempcrete, which has been used for thousands of years in structures that are still standing today. Ending prohibition of hemp in America is a huge step toward empowering American family farmers. Currently hemp is federally classified as a Schedule One narcotic. This is a total joke, considering it has no psychoactive properties whatsoever.


What do you think are the main ways that the general public can support sustainable ag and permaculture practices?


Educate yourself. Educate your children to think critically and ask questions. Vote with your dollars. Understand that there are deeply established forces that feed off our ignorance about important issues – for their own profit. Learn how to grow your own food. Learn permaculture practices. Learn about the history of industrial hemp and how it’s deeply entwined with our nation’s history and the history of the world. Educate yourself about the corporate stranglehold on our basic human needs and how the abundance of sustainable alternatives will make toxic products obsolete – which is fundamentally why they don’t want people exposed to these facts. They actually go so far as to spew bullshit propaganda in order to confuse and nullify us. This isn’t a political issue, although they want it to be. Politics divide people and dilutes reality. It is not a left or right issue, it is not a Republican or Democrat, or Libertarian or Conservative issue. This is about people versus sociopathic, hyper-consumerism, profit-driven insanity. Sustainable agriculture, especially when you bring hemp into the picture, is not merely a countercultural left-wing hippie agenda. In fact, sustainable ag and hemp intrinsically hold deeply rooted conservative values, such as taking power from big government and honoring our freedom and rural traditions. This country was literally founded on the cultivation of hemp and products created from the hemp crop. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Hemp is patriotic as hell. Educate yourselves. Then act accordingly. Knowledge is power. Action is change.


What do you think the future holds for North American farmers?


It doesn’t look good. There should be more farmers. At the same time, I feel optimistic about the masses becoming more aware of the importance of real family farms, how they are the environmental and economic backbone of the entire country. Awareness seems to be on the rise.

Farmers’ markets are becoming much more popular and accessible. Organic food is a rising trend. Let’s hope that it becomes much more than a trend and maintains its integrity within the grinding machine of popular culture and doesn’t become a mockery of itself. If more iconic artists, especially those with big voices were to represent a sustainable lifestyle, I think their examples would benefit the family farmers of North America, and the result would better all.  Every school should teach the basics of organic farming and permaculture principles and have local farmers take kids into the field to experience tending the earth.

We need to grow more organic farmers. Being an organic farmer should be a viable career choice, something to aspire to. We have too many false idols in America. We worship egomaniacal reality TV stars who show nothing of real integrity or substance, when we should be looking up to farmers, scientists, and thinkers. It’s not just about talking the talk though, we have to walk the walk.

I  recently took up gardening myself, and now I’m addicted. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. I don’t have my own farm, at least not at this point in my life, because I’m on tour too much. However, if you’re someone looking for a purpose in your life, I suggest becoming an organic farmer – as soon as possible! Taking care of my garden is something I have come to deeply enjoy, and someday I want to have my own hemp farm.

Being a farmer might not sound sexy, but I cannot stress how satisfying it is to have something so meaningful, so purposeful in life. Nothing is sexier than being a self-reliant person. We sometimes forget there is  a war occurring right now, just like during the original Hemp for Victory campaign in 1942. Except this time the war is here – now within our own borders. It’s a war against our health, our intelligence, our freedom, our prosperity… It’s a war against our seeds, our food, and our right to choose.

Be a farmer. Get your hands dirty and grow some organic food. Grow some hemp. Plant some trees. Open your mind. That is probably the most heroic thing anyone can do right now. We have important work to perform here at home.


Where do you think the hope lies for small family farms to survive and even flourish as large ag and chemical companies, like Monsanto, work to take over our farming and food system?


The hope really lies in you and me to put it simply…voting with our dollars and living by example. Staying educated. Shopping at local farmers markets. Getting to know your local farmers and strengthening that community. Electing leaders who understand that the path we are currently on is a totally insane dead end road and that Monsanto is a CHEMICAL CORPORATION with a long history of bullying and destroying organic family farms. We need to big money out of politics. Speak truth to power. Electe people who understand that there is a time for practicing your faith and a time for listening to science – and logic and that there is a difference… and that difference should be taken very, very seriously. Reality is the thing which is still there even when you stop believing in it. I think we need to focus more than ever on reality, and the reality we face is incredibly grim. Until we stop electing people with massive egomaniacal God complexes, we are screwed.

At the end of the day, it’s you and me. We are the hope. Every day I try to ask myself how I can use whatever influence I have to create more of what I wish to see in the world. It doesn’t happens overnight. Most people think they can’t have an influence, but they forget they are the “most people!” When the most people wean themselves off spending their money on poison crap like GMO food and/or and/or big fossil fuel giants and start supporting their local farmer instead, that is huge!

If you are someone who does have a huge influence either monetarily, culturally, or both I think it becomes a responsibility to take it further. I recently put a custom veggie oil dual-tank system in my car. My friend Mario designed it. Basically, I have one tank for diesel or biodiesel. With his custom designed 23 gallon tank in the back for veggie and I can switch seamlessly between the two even while driving. We use waste cooking oil from restaurants to fuel our cars. If I run out I just switch back to diesel or bio, but all that time and money I’m not wasting at the gas station or spewing carbon into the atmosphere makes a phenomenally smaller impact on both planet and wallet. I got sick of paying big oil companies to invade other countries and poison people, the oceans, and the land with their fracking just so I can get from point A to B, when I know sustainable alternatives have existed since the invention of the combustible engine: the Diesel engine was originally designed by Rudolph Diesel to run on peanut or hemp oil. Now, there’s a perfect example of a fact that has been systematically suppressed to keep us all blindly feeding the fossil fuel profit agenda! Electric vehicles are great too, but we need to take care of the non-biodegradable battery issue.

Other examples are on the market as well. There is a company called Mycoworks making sustainable tougher-than-leather textiles grown from mushroom mycelium. The turnaround from spore to finished product is only 2-3 weeks and it’s a completely non-toxic carbon-neutral technology with literally millions of applications from clothes, to furniture, computers, batteries, buildings, even cars and planes. It’s incredible!!

It doesn’t have to be a top down pyramid power structure anymore. Technology and awareness of the natural organic technology that has always existed around us has begun to create more of an interwoven web of resources and information sharing that has no real hierarchy. We live in an amazing age of information, but I think, finding the truth still requires pragmatic action and actually seeing for oneself, not just simply taking it all as fact. At least we have the choice now. For instance, nobody can tell me I can’t run my car on pure grown-in-America used vegetable oil because I DO. I didn’t just read about it. I do it. Nobody can tell me I have to support Chevron or Shell or any other toxic companies, because I actively DON’T. That’s what America is supposed to be all about. The freedom to say No. Right? The fossil fuel industrial complex wants us to believe we have no other choice but to rely on its ultimate superiority. Once we pull our heads out of the sand and stop buying into this fossil fuel and chemical farming monopoly rubbish, we start to see the solutions are abundant and fairly simple. Sifting through the bullsh@# and knowing about the alternatives is key. Keep an open mind. Then act. Nothing like experiencing it for yourself. You can’t go back from that knowing.


Any other thoughts you’d like to share with North America?


Word of the day: “AKRASIA”    a·kra·sia   noun

The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.



For more of Micah’s projects, check out