From Chapter 17:
Iím Glad Iím Not A "Real" Farmer
A friend stopped by on his bicycle the other day on his way to town to sell his soybeans. I was taken aback. In our county, it is not seemly for a farmer to pedal a bicycle in public, least of all to town. "Good thing youíre not a real farmer," I quipped. He smiled, understanding that I was referring to a little joke we share. He is also a school teacher, as I am a writer, so by some standards we are not "real" farmers. It is okay for a school teacher to ride a bicycle to the grain elevator to sell soybeans he has stored there, but a real farmer must drive a forty thousand dollar 4X4 to town even to buy an ice cream cone. Our neighborhood is fond of what one of our "real" farmers did a couple of years ago when he was relieved of his driverís license for repeated traffic violations. He ran out of cigarettes while harvesting soybeans, so he drove his fatherís $200,000 grain harvester to town to get a pack. My neighbor enjoys my incredulous expression upon seeing him on a bicycle on his way to sell his soybeans. "I hope to have enough money left over so I can buy gas for the pickup when I go to town the next time," he jokes sarcastically. Beans are $4.53 that day and rumored to go lower, which means that he is losing at least fifty cents on every bushel he sells. The only profit is in riding the bicycle, which helps keep him trim. I complained about low farm prices, the warm-up for any farmer talk in 1999, even when the subsequent conversation veers into buying a winter condominium in Florida. He only smiled. "Actually Iím fortunate," he said. "Think how much more money Iíd be losing if I were a real farmer with a thousand acres-worth to sell." Our in-joke about real farmers got started when agricultural economists at Ohio State and the University of Kentucky, in reply to criticism that Wendell Berry and I were leveling at them, said that we werenít real farmers, but writers. Later, as I watched Wendell trying to blow the breath into a newborn lamb, I couldnít resist saying: "Good thing youíre not a real farmer, Wendell." When, in my own barn, I picked myself up out of the cow shit after Elsie had belted me with her hoof for trying to milk out her swollen back quarter, Carol said it again: "Good thing weíre not real farmers, isnít it?" Even my grandson sensed the irony in the situation. As we ranked hay bales in the barn loft where the temperature ranged around 102, he observed: "Sure glad weíre not real farmers, Paw-paw." I try to joke about it, but I do not take kindly to agricultural economists who have not worked on a farm for thirty years, if ever, sitting on their gold-plated salaries and health plans, with pensions that I as a taxpayer pay nearly half of, saying that Iím not a real farmer. The "real" farmers, by the economistsí definition, are playing golf in Florida this winter along with the economists, while I am milking my cow, slopping my hogs, haying my sheep, feeding my chickens, and cutting wood for the fire.
What the expert economists mean, of course, is that I donít "make a living" from farming and for that reason my views on ag economics arenít valid. The economists do not seem to realize that they are intimating that their views arenít valid either, because they certainly donít make a living from farming. As a matter of fact, right now in this wonderful new millennium, hardly any farmer in the Midwest is making a living from farming. As market prices stagnate, industrial grain and livestock producers are living on past investments, government subsidies, and inheritances. Or going broke. If making a living from actual current farm production is the criterion of a real farmer, there ainít any left.