For nearly 92 years, my maternal grandmother, who now rests under the Kansas prairie she loved so deeply, assumed that the sun and the rest of the universe revolved around western Kansas.
Oh, if you'd asked her this in so many words, she'd probably have laughingly denied it, but her First Principle was that bread is as basic as it gets and those wheat farmers who produced it were truly doing God's work. She was by no means alone in this belief.
In the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, incredible as this seems in hindsight, the tiny hamlets of western Kansas and eastern Colorado were blacked out at night. I can still remember Art Larson, who ran the lumber yard and was a block warden, tapping on our window to tell us light was showing through. The rationale was simplicity itself -- the only way the Axis could hope to win was to destroy our food supply.
There are still millions of Americans who share that feeling. Many of them have been or are going to be forced off the land and a cherished way of life in the nation's worst agriculture crisis since the 1930s. With some it's their own fault, but for many it's the historic fact that farmers have often been beset by forces over which they have no control.
One, of course, is a cruel and capricious Nature. Farmers also become pawns in politics, as during the Russian grain embargo. Now they are caught in a tangled web of federal government policies that helped raise interest rates, a strong dollar, worldwide recession and price supports that were supposed to help them but, paradoxically, are helping price them out of competition in the export markets that were a mainstay of their relative prosperity of the '70s. Many were prodded by bankers and government officials into the expansion that is their ruination now.
There is no reason we can't have a farm policy that can help preserve the family farm, which is still the mainstay of agriculture production. For starters, there is no reason to make federal price support payments to large producers, those whose sales are $500,000 or more annually.
And family farmers are worth saving. Most are not the greedy, reckless money grubbers that David Stockman seems to envision. It's not uncommon for a farmer capitalized at a million dollars to receive a 1 percent return on his investment. And if he wants to stay in business, we ought to help him. The farm culture has a value far beyond its impressive production figures and bottom-line considerations.
Grandmother had a true sense of the land. If you didn't own land, you had nothing, she believed, and she held on to the half-section -- 320 acres -- that she and Grandpa owned until she died. When we sold it, my uncle, who had farmed it for her after Grandpa died, told me that she could have sold it at any time, put the proceeds in a 5 1/4 percent passbook savings account and made more money.
My first reaction was shock. Was that why I'd spent all those blistering 12-and 14-hour summer days during my teens, eating enough topsoil, it seemed, to start a spread of my own?
But I knew he was right. Between 1945, when I first worked as a full-time harvest hand at age 13, and 1951 I worked every summer for my farmer uncles on both sides of my family. Each year a few more marginal farmers would have to sell out and take jobs in Denver as welders or auto parts salesmen or whatever.
Many had managed to scrape through the twin disasters of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl with a half-section of land and an old Model D John Deere tractor that had only about five moving parts and burned kerosene. They prospered during the World War II years, when the rains came and prices were high.
But what drought and depression couldn't do, the revolution in farm technology that exploded after World War II did. Farms in the wheat country had to keep expanding to justify the purchase of the bigger and more efficient technology. The predictable result was an exodus of people.
It was nothing short of revolutionary. In the South, poor blacks were displaced by machinery and moved to the northern cities, with profound social consequences that we are struggling with still.
In the summer of 1945, the sidewalk on the main street of McDonald, Kan., was so jammed on Saturday night when the movies let out and the grocery stores were closing that impatient kids ran out onto the street to get down to the pool hall, which was packed. Now you could shoot a cannon down that main street any time after 6 on a Saturday night and not endanger a living soul. It's been that way for years.
That's one of the most troubling things about the crisis of the family farm. A way of life that is the only one many want, a culture that shaped the nation's history and values, is destroyed along with it.
It's a heartbreak business. If the Argentine wheat farmers, OPEC and world economi recession don't get you, the drought and hail and rust (fungus) will. The only time I ever saw my grandmother cry, outside of the funerals of loved ones, was the summer we got hailed out, 1948 or 1949 it was, I can't remember which.
You want to know despair? Despair is 45-bushel-to-the-acre wheat coming off a winter of good moisture and just ready for the combine when that lethal, monster cloud fills up the western sky, roiling and glinting an evil green and brushed with silver, which tells you that the moisture in it will put bumps on your head, dent your car, tear off your shingles and break your heart.
That one came in the night, a racket that made you forget forever any sleeping nightmares you may have had. The next morning, it was my sad duty to drive grandmother out to inspect the damage. The hail hadn't just shattered the kernels out of their hulls. It had pulverized the straw and beat it into the ground with such ferocity that it looked like it had been turned over with a moldboard plow. Grandmother wept -- and the financial loss was the least of her regrets.