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The myth of the self-made yeoman

No figure is more endearing and enduring in agriculture than the lonely plowman out there on the horizon who raises himself by his own bootstraps to financial success. Only problem is, there is no occupation more dependent on the cooperation of society and nature to achieve success than farming.

We like to say that every farmer today feeds 155 people but to do that, he or she needs an army or two of support troops supplying the information, fuel, seed, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and what have you, not to mention another army getting all that food transported and distributed to the consumer. Even then, we are totally dependent on the weather. Also, although we seldom think about it, maintaining a society where 155 people can afford to buy a farmer’s food output requires the work of the entire population. Even in pioneer times, when a farmer did supply many of his own inputs, he was far from lifting himself by his own bootstraps. He needed a wife to help lift too. Sometimes he wore out more than one of them on his way to “success.” He also often wore out a couple of farms— got rich because he took advantage of the virgin fertility of the soil without replacing it. But even in the best of circumstances, he was not the stalwart capitalist of the backwoods. For example, on the frontier he was inclined on all occasions to beg the government to build more forts and bring more troops to protect him from the “savage red man” whose land he, with plenty of help from the government, was stealing. When I study history, I come away completely baffled over why rural America has made such a righteous religion out of capitalism. Farming has never been a capitalistic enterprise and never can be.

A close acquaintance, very successful in farming by money standards, is much admired locally because “he made it all on his own.” What that means in this context is that he did not inherit much wealth, the usual way farmers get rich. But he will be the first one to tell you that he is not a self-made man, freely admitting with a big grin on his face that he is successful because he learned how to “farm the government” as well as the land. He is one of only a very few large-scale farmers I know well who usually votes the Democratic ticket because, he says, the Democrats almost always pass out more subsidies than the Republicans do. His honesty is so refreshing.I also enjoy the confidence of staunch politically-conservative farmers who are honest enough to admit, at least privately, that they are not self-made men. When one of them realized I was more sympathetic to his situation than he thought, he told me about his adventures in farming with such honest frankness that it left me astonished. He said things no one should tell journalists, but maybe novelists. I will omit the details, but on more than one occasion he and his partners made mistakes of judgment that nearly plunged them into bankruptcy. “All I can say,” he concluded, grinning wryly, “is that without government help, we would have gone under.”

“Self-made” successful farmers are a complicated bunch and that’s why I like them even if I don’t like everything they do. Neither the adulation they receive from conservative Farm Bureau types nor the criticism they get from liberal-progressive Farmer Union types does them justice. They sometimes sound ignorant because, not having gotten much formal education, they murder the English language when they talk. But they can outwit the collected brainpower of the entire Department of Agriculture. Sometimes they use bad grammar as a disguise to lull the suit and tie crowd into thinking they are stupid. As one rich farmer I worked for years ago in Minnesota told me in the broken German-English he used to fool salesmen and government agents: “Alvays let de udder guy t’ink you are dumber dan he is and you got him every time.”

Most historians see the astronaut in his spaceship vainly rocketing across the endless skies as the tragically heroic symbol of the century now passing. But when all the stardust has settled, I have a hunch a more appropriate model will be the industrial farmer in his monster tractor fruitlessly plowing across the endless acres.

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