A Tractor Ride with the Cream of the Crop
Written by Robyn O’Brien after visiting farmers in Iowa in August 2010.
Had someone told me four years ago that I’d be standing tractor-side, appealing to farmers who grow genetically modified corn and soybeans for their support on the cornfields of Iowa, I’d have thought they were nuts. But there I stood in August in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa for aTractor Ride for Tots.
The event had been the brainchild of a big-hearted farmer named Scott McAllister. Scott, a fourth generation farmer, had reached out after learning about my work. He wanted to show me the farms.
So there we stood on a humid August day – Scott, farmers and tractors- ready to kick off our 50 mile tractor ride across the small towns of Iowa, and I had no idea what to expect. As Scott introduced me to the farmers, they smiled in amusement eager to get out on their tractors (reminding me more of my boys on their bikes than the agricultural giants I’d been a bit fearful of meeting).
And as I spoke about how 1 in 3 children now has autism, ADHD, allergies or asthma, they nodded in agreement as they’d seen the TV commercials on their local stations that spoke of how pervasive autism had become in military families, now affecting 1 in 88 children and knew what was happening to their grandchildren. They then introduced themselves and we set out on our tractor ride.
It was pretty quiet.
As the day wore on, so did the stories. A man named Mark shared tales about his high school reunion, while “Pa” shared stories about his grandson. And one they called “Beauford” spoke of their stewardship of the land learned at their grandfathers’ knees, record harvests and record rainfalls (and told a funny tale about how his wife moved out on him). They shared stories about lost crops, lost livestock and lost loved ones. They were sincere and authentic, proud and humble, and dedicated to their trade in ways seldom seen in today’s culture. As fourth and fifth generation farmers, their legacies were deep and their commitment strong.
Yet at the same time, as they spoke about the recent changes in agriculture and its new costs structures, there was an ambiguity. With trait fees, licensing fees and technology fees now required of farmers, this wasn’t the same business model that their grandfathers had built, and they knew it, with numbered lot signs and logos down the sides of their fields. As we discussed the privatization and patenting of agriculture and the impact it was having on their business, one of them shared, “The toes they step on today will be the tush they’ll be kissing tomorrow.” As they had witnessed firsthand the impact that this new cost structure had on debt loads and declining income levels and spoke candidly about monopolistic practices and predatory pricing.
And as we road from town to town, they laughed about their lives and livelihoods being in the hands of Mother Nature, saying “It either makes you religious or alcoholic,” as all of them chuckled. And having seen billboards juxtaposed against each other on the side of the Iowa highway, I had seen what they were saying and couldn’t help but listen.
I asked about their friend, Tom Vilsack, who now serves as the Secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, and they shared stories about how he’d lived in their friend, Jimmy’s, childhood home, as well as his unusual political beginnings, quickly rising to Mayor, when a gunman shot and killed Mt. Pleasant’s mayor. And I listened as they shared their stories, shared their lives and shared their passion for farming.
And as the day came to a close, a farmer named John asked, “Did you see that lady with the white hair back there?”
“Yes. She smiled and waved and was so pretty,” I said.
“Well you see, you see…..that…well….she’s my wife. And, and, and…..” And as I looked into the face of this farmer, his eyes welled with tears, and my heart hurt, and I asked, “Is she sick?” And he nodded. Cancer. Twice.
And as the tractors were put away, we said our good-byes, reflecting on new dialogues, new knowledge and new friendships. And we knew that we were all in this together.
And while none of us could do everything, we also knew that all of us could do one thing. And sometimes that one thing is simply taking the time to listen. Really listen. Because if you do, you may realize that there is far more that unites us than divides us, as our hearts beat in unison for the love of our families.
Since the original posting of this article, Big John’s wife died of cancer. She was beautiful, and it was an honor to meet her