Deere John: It's Been A Good Ride

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

The riding lawn mower has long been a barometer of the American dream, been a symbol of having arrived in the suburban middle class. It says, "I have so much lawn to mow, I need to sit down."

It says, I've made it, I've escaped that funky old rowhouse neighborhood with the asbestos siding and yards like dirt-scabs. My land, my spread, not enough to plow, but way too much to mow the old-fashioned way. It says, I'm Jefferson's dream of the yeoman farmer. It says, I'm rich enough to not only raise a worthless crop, but to pay money for the privilege. It says, I'm a boy with a boy's rightful toys; a real American man.

Or that's what it said back when city dwellers would gather around the riding mowers at the old Hechinger north of Capitol Hill, and dream the dream.

Now it's saying something else. It may be a measure of the forces lined up against us. The riding mower seems to be on the wrong end of every headline. If economic news -- from gas prices to shrinking nest eggs -- is like the magnifying glass focused by an 8-year-old to fry a bug with sunlight, riding mowers are the bug.

The news: The riding mower industry "is deeply troubled by the decline in housing starts," says Kris Kiser, spokesman for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute in Alexandria. "New home construction is a good barometer for us. But you add foreclosures, decline in housing starts and the decline in housing sales, and you have the trifecta."

Three generations have run Smith Equipment in Warrenton, Va., 50 miles west of Washington. Bryant Smith, its director, has watched Fauquier County's center of gravity shift from genuine dairy, cattle and horse farmers to affluent people who like to think they have purchased agrarian virtue along with the views of the Blue Ridge foothills from their non-trivial acreage. Over the years, with this change has come a shift in Smith Equipment's business. Hay balers and corn-tilling equipment have increasingly given way to zero-turn commercial-style riding mowers that can cost $6,000 to $11,000.

"There were a lot of people using up home equity to buy Lexuses and $8,000 lawn mowers," he says. His sales of these mowers are down by a third.

"For competitive reasons, we don't disclose sales," says Maureen Rich, a spokeswoman for Lowe's. "But right now, big-ticket items aren't selling as well as smaller home-improvement materials. Painting has been very popular. It's quick and easy. But riding mowers are certainly a big-ticket item."

The price of gasoline should not deter people from buying these lawn yachts, Kiser says. "The bigger machines, the speed at which you can operate, they actually use a little less gas than the walk-behinds" to do the same job, he says. (His organization, OPEI, does however continue to sternly reconfirm its position against lawn-mower racing. Kiser says top speeds of more than 80 mph have been achieved on the Bonneville Salt Flats, speaking of cockeyed American dreams.)

Smith is less sanguine. "Gas has to be a part of it," he says. He admires the ads Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is paying for, advocating wind and solar energy and saying that foreign oil dependency is the greatest transference of wealth in history. "It's nice to hear somebody saying that whatever the solution is, it's something other than drilling more wells," Smith says. "If anybody has their damn thinking cap on, to really fix it, one of the pieces is conservation."

But what he really chews on is "the psyche or sense of the consumer right now." The economic perfect storm "creates an atmosphere of fear and trepidation," he says. Your money "is not growing. Its value is less. It's going to buy less. I'm going to run out of money before I die. I don't know what's going on. I sound like the morning news. But I've got two daughters who bought houses that are more than they can afford."

He worries about their dreams. And he worries about holding on. His overall business volume is down by a sixth. He's just hoping to "maybe get some stabilization."

It will be great, he says, if lawn tractors, like the rest of us and our dreams, can just "flat-line it through the next year."

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