Since one thing leads to another, I recently thought about Dan Black of Rural Route 2 as I was reflecting on the outcome of the November election, and reading George Orwell.
"You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants -- all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward," Orwell noted in his classic "Road to Wigan Pier."
You and I and the editor of the New York Review of Books, etc. -- all of us, it came to me -- really owe the comparative decency of our lives to the not so very poor, but not so very rich, likes of Dan, crawling across the rolling hills of the Upper Mississippi Valley in their tractors and combines, and seasonally engaged to the elbow in the innards of their well-bred sows and cows.
Their impact is, without exaggeration, global. Ritually honored in the "major farm speeches" of presidential high-fliers, they also figure in the calculations of Chairmen Deng and Brezhnev, the supermarket managers of Peoria and Tokyo, the housewives of several continents and vice presidents for academic affairs at budget time.
Making sense of them in the comprehensive abstract -- 3 1/2 percent of the population on an estimated 2 1/2 million farms (down from 5 1/2 million in 1950) of wildly varying size, purpose and intensity -- is a job for lobbyists, professional and possibly heros.
But making sense of Dan Black's situation is a salutary exercise for any of us. It is also something of a challenge for Dan.
Born and raised in a local farm family, whose title dates back to the 1880s, Dan returned to farming two years ago at age 29 after college, a factory job, an MA and interim careers as a printer and commercial photographer in Colorado and Montana.
He currently farms 300 acres, but only a few of them his own, producing corn, soybeans and silage in a county where current market values approach $3,000 per acre. He also raises hogs, beef cattle and the sheep that testify to a sentimental Welsh heritage.
His machines are vintage Lyndon Johnson era. The house dates back to Grover Cleveland.
To make what most Americans consider a minimally acceptable living, Dan and his wife, Minnette, carry an estimated debt of about $120,000. Minnette's own job at an Iowa City supermarket is both an ironic counterpoint and an important complement to the family enterpise.
Yes, Dan concedes, the farm constitutes an attractive speculation on an inflationary future. Meanwhile, it means current annual payments of about $11,000, not including taxes. Investments in land, livestock and new machinery -- a tractor at $35,000, a combine at $75,000 -- are beyond his grasp.
Dan also fantasizes about alternative energy generation. But real life leaves neither time nor capital for building windmills, let alone tilting with them.
On good days, he still thinks of himself as "the man who feeds 'em all," on others as the last Jeffersonian yeoman. On some, to be sure, he regards himself as Charlie Brown.
But almost any day his situation recalls Alice, with Dan running as fast as he can to stay in the same place between the conflicting demands of foreign policy, domestic consumption, environmental responsibility, galloping fuel prices, an inflationary economy, a roller-coaster market and the inevitable idiosyncrasies of weather.
Even so, he says, he finds it a satisfying, independent and challenging way of life. But it is not, in the traditional sense, a conservative one. He patiently explains this to anyone who will listen. Last spring this included the local Democratic Party, which then wrote his views into its platform.
The platform called for support levels that would at least guarantee the cost of production. It proposed incentives and matching funds for soil conservation. It endorsed the principle of land-use planning. It recognized the contingencies of foreign policy, embargoes included, asking only that the farmer not be made to bear the entire burden.
While unwilling to credit the Carter administration for the remarkable recovery of prices since last spring, Dan appreciates its efforts to keep the bottom from collapsing altogether after last winter's embargo.
Subsidies, production controls, government intervention and all, he considers cheap food, stable prices and environmental protection as complementary priorities. None of them, he believes, can be expected from the new administration. On the contrary, he assumes that Republicans in power will mean still more aggressive farm exports, with their attendant damage to the environment, and an even more dramatic return to the roller-coaster prices of the Nixon years.
A mini-eddy in the roaring electoral ride, Dan nonetheless bobbed to unobtrusive victory in November as a candidate for the county soil conservation board. He was puzzled that his neighbors marched out in battalion strength the same day to vote for Ronald Reagan too.
Maybe, he says, it is because farmers, contrary to the conventional wisdom, are really romantic optimists.
In any case, he looks forward at the moment to helping spend $50,000 of state money in the public interest. He also looks forward to acquiring a few more of those well-bred cows as soon as he can manage it.