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."

"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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