Praying for Rain
The “independent” farmer, explained
April 6, 1989
One wouldn't think that there might be new things to say about such hoary topics as America's yeoman farmers, but the contributors to this collections of essays managed to find one or two.
Reviewed: A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest, edited by Michael Martone. University of Iowa Press, 1988
Talk about getting your seed into the ground early. Farm groups alarmed by predictions of another drought are already lobbying Congress for extensions of last year's federal aid. Subsidizing inept business people is not new. Chrysler guessed wrong about small cars ten years ago, after all, and war contractors guess wrong about practically everything—more Army helicopters and B-l bombers fell out of the sky in some states last year than rain, at no apparent sacrifice of profit for their manufacturers. Why should uninsured farmers have to lose money because they guessed wrong about rain?
Entrepreneurship without risk is one of those daydream notions that sustain the U.S. as the American half-century draws to a close. Farmers, however, are not guilty of the simple hypocrisies that have made our union leaders and corporate officers so lovable—however much their running to Washington, like toddlers scampering to hide behind their mother's skirt every time the loan comes due or the levee breaks, contradicts our image of the elf-reliant yeoman.
Such contradictions make interesting what would otherwise be just another tedious bunch of grafters. Why, for example, do farmers who are uncommonly generous in helping out a neighbor who is sick or busted up refuse to join that same neighbor in any cooperative enterprise manifestly in the interests of both to limit production or market their goods? How did he come to be a democrat who hates government? A xenophobe who leaves the barn door unlocked? Such questions have also nagged at Douglas Bauer, an Iowan who helped fill a new book titled, A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest and published last year by the University of Iowa Press. Bauer, like most of us, grew up thinking of farming as a life of recurring, daunting risk, a mad adventure that each year pitted one man against weather and the clock, not just in his but in all foreign lands whose farmers sold to the same cruel brokers.
On a recent visit to his hometown, Bauer came to a new insight about farm folks. In the open country of the Midwest small town, he realized, one's life is laid on plainly in front of you. You can see everywhere, and what you can see is what you will be. What appeals to the people who embrace life in such places, Bauer concluded, was not its adventure but its absolute certainty. The changing seasons that seem to the rest of us to portend change in fact are "clean and ordered steps toward death."
Whatever else may change (the farmer himself) people will always get hungry. Whatever else may change, there will always be another spring. Farmers are willing to ruin the land and a democratic impulse. make themselves slave to foreign money, foreign oil, and foreign markets in their attempts to make nature just as regular by rendering their fields immune to the upsets of insects, weather, and soil. The farmer is in fact at war with nature, provoked by its potential for mischief. The appeal of the industrial model of agriculture is not its profitability—it has none, at least not for the farmer—but its predictability.
The farmer's independence, Bauer hints, is actually a fearful disinclination to deal with the human world. Spring will always come eventually and within acceptable limits will be like every other spring before it. That's something you can't say about the next farm bill. Or GATT agreement. Or EEC tariff. People and their institutions, on the other hand, are anything but predictable. History is fluid, subject to spasms, and not to be trusted in versions larger than a fish-fry committee. The neighborly farmer up the road in fact harbors a deep distrust of people, borne of frustration and befuddlement. So they retreat to the pieties of a politics so indiscriminate that it embraces anti-Communism and Soviet trade, self-reliance and massive government subsidy; what is too complicated to reconcile is simply accepted.
The local drainage district, the one-room school system is sometimes offered as an expression of a democratic impulse. They may also be taken to reflect a profound impatience with the abstract, indeed with any system whose mechanisms are too intricate to have a face and a name. Farmers distrust any machine that won't respond to a well-placed kick or any deal that can't be done over coffee. It's why they make such lousy economists, prey to conspiracy theories that purport to explain how Wall Street works in terms of Sunday school good and evil.
Gary Comstock, a religious philosopher at Iowa State, ponders in A Place of Sense how farmers have been turned into cultural archetypes. "For them, it is not a battle of the Humanizing Powers of the Agrarian Tradition versus the Dehumanizing Powers of Industrial Modernism . . . . It is a little fight . . . a very specific battle with the Federal Land Bank, or the 1986 tax form, or a troublesome acre of buttonweeds." With nothing out there to block the view, they hardly see anything at all.
Younger farmers, of course, have gone to school. They work in the cities. They keep their farms going with jobs that are vulnerable to corporate relocation decisions, interest rates, the outcome of the next union bargaining round. They are as other-reliant as any commuter who gets up every morning assuming that his fellows will provide him a subway car. People still get hungry, these farmers have learned, but people no longer have to buy the food that our farmers grow. The fathers' springs were never interrupted by a strike, but the sons and daughters are having to learn how to trust human weathers. □