What's Your Status?

Prepare yourself. I'm about to drop some impressive names. Well, two of them, anyway.

1. Jane Smiley. Author of A Thousand Acres and Moo. Famous writer and writing professor.

2. The New York Times.
I am too old to be overly impressed by two such symbols of the writing world outside Denver. I am too old, but it's thrilling to be able to casually mention that the two made cameo appearances in my life two weeks ago, when I received a call from an editor at The New York Times Magazine. He was in a bit of a jam, he said. The magazine scheduled for Sunday, November 15, was to be devoted entirely to the subject of "Status in America."

"A subject about which I know squat," I opined. (Irreverent, I told myself. With the New York Times, yet!)

"Well, yes," he agreed. But the thing was, he still had a problem. He had retained Jane Smiley to write 300 words on what a farmer considers a status symbol, but she had come up dry.

Perhaps I would like to try.
Would I! After promising to deliver frequent updates, I hung up, feeling elated yet superior. How amusingly naive that the New York Times, whose collective crowd must consist entirely of bond traders, fashion designers and socialites, was acquainted with no rural types--let alone people who actually knew a farmer. West of the Pecos, I noted, we mingle with humans of every sort.

And yet there were no farmers in my Rolodex, either, unless you count organic, Wild Oats types, and I got the distinct impression the New York Times did not. What it wanted was a thousand acres--of corn, or wheat, or sorghum, or something. Heartland.

My husband knew of a Brighton city councilman whose day job might involve farming. When I called his number, a woman on the other end answered, "Farmers, may I help you?" Unfortunately, this meant he headed up a Farmers Insurance agency, which is happy to write policies for farmers and other working folks but does not farm itself.

"I need to talk to a farmer," I said anyway.
"Why?"
"For the New York Times," I said. She may have been impressed. Five minutes later I got a call from the councilman's cousin, Sheila Hollister, who had been alerted to my quest and gotten the number off the insurance agency's caller ID.

"I'm a farmer," she said, "and the story you're working on is a sad one. Things are awful for farmers anymore. We do own our 800 acres, but we got it all from my dad. There's no way you can make a living if you don't inherit the land from somewhere. Starting up a farm? Forget it. There's the cost of land, equipment, water --and there really is no water, but anymore, this land can't be dryland farmed. Dad always grew sugar beets--everyone's dad did, and most farmers worked the sugar factory in the winter. But of course, the factory closed down a while back. Now we do hay, corn and wheat, and we used to do beans, but my husband still works at K-Mart, and I have to get a second job in the winter, and I tell you, pretty soon the kids around here won't even know this used to be farming country anymore. It's just impossible. It's sad."

"So," I said. "What would you say is a status symbol for a farmer?"
"Excuse me?"
"I mean, if things were going better, how would you know you'd made it--I mean, if you'd made it?"

A long silence. "Boy," Sheila finally said. "Owning all your equipment? Actually showing a plus at the end of the year? It'll never happen for most of us. The only reason I even farm anymore is because I can't imagine having kids and not farming. We have so much going on here to keep them out of trouble. Cows, horses, pigs, 4-H..."

As she talked, I stared out the window of my former-chicken-coop-turned-office and took in the majestic sight of the two undeveloped acres across the road that I happen to own. Suppose that blank field were to contain a horse, a pig, a cow. And an entire 4-H club happily engaged in animal-husbandry projects. And a red barn. And some sugar maples. And the most powerful rototiller money could buy. Fill in the blanks with amber waves of grain, which I would turn into loaves of bread, having done every step of work all by myself.

"People like you fantasize about farming," Sheila observed. "You have no idea."

"Probably not," I agreed.
This seemed to inspire some sympathy. "They do have some pretty fancy tractors out there," she offered. "Computerized and everything. I guess there might be some farmers who could afford them."

I called the editor and told him that status, for a farmer, was inherited land.

"How interesting," he said politely. The problem was that status, as the New York Times saw it, was not a thing a person was born with, but a perk he could struggle to attain, this being America.

"Oh," I said. "Well, they do have some pretty fancy tractors out there. Computerized and everything."

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