Sitting at the wheel of his big red tractor, Bill Parker looked the part - dusty boots and blue jeans, clear eyes in a weathered face, rough hands cracked by cold weather and hard work.
No doubt about it, he said. There's an image problem.
"People are always trying to associate farmers with people who carry lunch pails," Parker said as he eased the throttle forward toward Washington. "But we're businessmen, like GM (General Motors) on a smaller scale."
Together with his father and his brother, Parker owns 1,600 acres of Delaware farmland and more than 300 dairy cows. The two combines that work his fields are worth $50,000 each, and the tractor he was driving yesterday cost more than a Mercedes. But the portrait such statistics paint is not entirely accurate either, he said.
On paper, Parker said, he is worth nearly $2 million. But his standard of living, he said, is actually comparable to that of a man earning an annual salary of $18,000.
"I've worked 12 years day and night to get what I've got," Parker said. "Just about everything I have is tied up in the land and the machinery. There aren't any paid vacations or weekends when you're a farmer neither. But I guess it's sort of hard for people to understand."
Thus, Parker came to Washington to try to get the government to understand that losing $40,000 this year is not his idea of how to run a business. Luckily, the day he left Delaware was a cold damp day, too damp in fact, to cut soy beans. Otherwise, he said, the line of 200 tractors that crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on Friday would have been considerably shorter.
"Farmers are the worst group in the world to organize," Parker said. "If they could have been cutting beans they'd have been doing that, instead of fighting to save their way to life."
And it is the life style, Parker said, not merely the money that is at stake now. "All my life," he said. "I wanted to do with my life what my dad did with his. That's not so easy now."
He admits that as a farmer, he is "above average," in the amount of land he holds in the diversity of crops he grows and until recently, in the success he has had. Smaller farmers around Harrington, Del., where he grows his crops resent the success he has hand and smaller in fact have not had much interest in supporting the farmers' protest or the farmers strike.
"The smaller farmers think that the strike is just a war for the bigger farmers to get bigger," Parker said. "Farmers are as competitive as just anything that breathes. But they (the smaller farmers) don't understand. That's just not the way it is."
In fact, Parker said, it is the bigger farmers that have been hurt worst by the comparatively low prices their crops are bringing. Among the farms represented by the tractors chugging toward the Capitol. Parker figured he was about average.
"If you're a small farm and your land is paid for," Parker said, "you can go through a couple of bad years and still get by. But it's not that way with us."
The larger farms, he explained, go deeply into debt in order to expand and borrow on their land in bad seasons. "I guess," he said, "the bigger you are, the harder you fall."
But pride will go before Parker's fall, if that is indeed what he's headed for. Pride in what he has built for himself at the age of 33. "My dad told me that whatever I was going to do with the farm I'd better do by the time I was 37," he said. Farmers die young, his father told him, they get old before their time.
And so, Parker said, "I spent every dime I had on land and borrowed every dime I could. It takes a lot of land to make a farm successful," Parker said. That at least, was the common wisdom.
But that was before a year that began with high winds that scraped the barley off the stalks and forced them to plow up the wheat. That was before the drought that choked the corn as the first green shoots appeared above the earth. Parker brought in 30 bushels of corn to an acre this summer on land where he normally harvested 100 bushels an acre.
Never, he said, had he seen a year like this before, but all of it he could accept as part of what a farmer has to accept. All of it that is, except the fact that the price of his corn fell from $2.60 in the spring to $1.64 when he harvested it. "That's when I went to my first meeting," Parker said. "Something had to be done. If anybody had ever told me I'd be riding my tractor through the streets of Washington I would have told 'em they were crazy. But something had to be done."
Parker won't go under this year, he said. It's not a question of that. He'll borrow another $30,000 on his land, running his debt up to $280,000, the most the bank will let him borrow on it. He will gamble everything, he says, on the next season, on the next cycle of barley, corn and wheat.
But other farmers, he said, will go under, and when farmers with holdings the size of Parker's begin to weaken, he said, there is danger in it. "It's going to be big government or big corporations running the farms," Parker said. "And that's just not going to work. You have to be sort of radical to be a farmer, you have to love what you're doing to put up with it.How'reyou going to care about something that isn't yours? You can't run a farm from nine to five."
Nevertheless, Parker feels, the low prices his crops now bring make it even harder to bear the simplistic way in which, he feels, most people tend to view the work he does. They just can't imagine the kind of variety of skills we have," he said. "They don't know the technology involved, what we have to know about fertilizer, machines, crops, economics, decision-making. You put all that together and it's a whir of knowledge. If I were working in some office in Washington, I'd be getting paid $30,000 a year, you can bet your boots on that."