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What's Your Status?

"Really," he said. The thing was, though, the New York Times did not want to hang a whole issue on products. Otherwise, he explained, it would be a simplistic read: the businessman and his hand-held computer, the plumber and his wrench, the farmer and his tractor. Little more than a product-advertising supplement, when, after all, the point was to explore the much more complex subject of status. In America.

I said I would get back to him.
So I called my friend the sculptor whose dad is a Nebraska Pizza Hut magnate who also does some farming. The magnate, his wife and several farmers-for-hire just happened to be sitting around the farm office when I called. Even over the phone, I sensed that their outfit was anything but a subsistence farm. Still, I was dealing with farmers, who, no matter how big-time, clearly do not have time to waste debating issues of status and their attendant symbols.

"I've never thought about it," the magnate's wife finally said, "but I suppose it could be paying off all your bills, or owning the latest technology."

"Like a really big, computerized tractor?" I asked hopefully.
"It could be," she agreed politely.
"It's a really big, computerized tractor," I told the editor. "These things are really big, and really computerized, but no one can afford them, and even those who can don't have time to think about how impressive they are. In fact," I said, taking a deep breath, "asking a farmer to discuss status symbols is like visiting a refugee camp to find out everyone's favorite hors d'oeuvre."

"Maybe status, for a farmer, is going organic," he suggested.
"Maybe," I said. "But is that what you want, a politically correct organic farmer? Or did you want huge fields of corn?"

He wanted the corn. I said I'd keep trying.
I called Short Bennett, who now works as a tour-bus driver in Branson, Missouri, but once farmed a western Nebraska spread with nothing but Belgian draft horses and 1880s-era farm equipment. Surely, I thought, he would have a pithy opinion on the big, computerized tractors of the modern age.

"Well, actually," Short said, "we just grew a little hay. The rest was ranching and doing tours of the Oregon Trail and giving folks a steak dinner."

"Did you ever want a really big tractor before you moved to Branson?"
"Nope," Short said cheerfully. "But I never was much of a farmer, like I say."

"Well, say you were," I pressed. "What would have been a status symbol for you?"

"That's easy," he said. "Status, to me, was doing the best job I could do. One I could take pride in."

Oh, brother.
I was about to take the drastic step of calling Roy Romer's own John Deere dealership to ask if they had any big, expensive tractors there and if anyone around Holly could afford one, when I suddenly remembered Dennis Hoshiko, a Greeley onion farmer so successful that he repeatedly got into fights with oil companies over surface rights, land use and other highfalutin matters. Here was a farmer whose inherited land went back to the 1930s, who had earned a degree in agricultural engineering, who was comfortable giving impassioned speeches before the legislature, and who not only understood what a cattle future was, but also dabbled in them on the side. This was my guy.

"Status?" he said. "For a farmer? It's paying the bills, if you can. I'm not even being facetious."

"So things are bad?" I asked.
"No, things are good," he said, sounding very morose. "Our capacity to produce is almost miraculously effective. What a blessing. We've gotten so efficient, we've almost put ourselves out of business--and crop prices are at an all-time low, below what it costs to grow this stuff. Our way of life is falling apart. Less than two million people are actually producing food and fiber in this country anymore. That's your real story."

"That, and those new tractors," I prompted, "those big, computerized--"
"Ha!" Dennis said. "I suppose you're talking about the global-positioning satellite technology. Sure. The satellite actually relays signals to the computer in your tractor, which tell you the soil conditions on every inch of ground as you move down the row. It'll tell you how much fertilizer and water to apply to each square foot. It was developed by the space program and military applications, and it's truly amazing.

"And you know what else? It will make us even more efficient, and we're already producing too much with the old technology."

"Is it affordable?" I asked.
"Not at all," Dennis said. "It's not the least bit feasible. Luckily."
I felt sorry for Dennis and all those other farmers who are so successful at growing big vegetables that they're putting themselves out of business, but I was happy for me. Here I had technology--in the form of global positioning, a high-tech phrase that rolls nicely off the tongue--as well as irony, and a status symbol so exclusive no farmer could attain it.

"Isn't that something?" the New York Times editor mused. It might even make a more in-depth story. At some point. For another publication, as it really didn't fit the parameters of the special status issue--but he was sure I could see that. I was sure I could, too.

So here is the story, in another publication. And here I am, the only other member in the exclusive club of two writers--Jane Smiley and me--who have failed to write about farmers for the New York Times. Which is all the status I can handle right now.

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