The roots of faith in farming and politics

Seeing a high school friend after 30+ years apart can be awkward sometimes. But usually the years melt away and you find common ground somehow through talk about family and friends.

Such was the case in joining up with a friend whose profile cropped up on LinkedIn. It was a little odd in his mind that he was on the business social network at all. He’s been a successful hog and crop farmer all his life, working land that his family purchased in the 1850s and still works today. But a politically minded mutual friend of ours decided one evening over drinks to create a LinkedIn profile for my farmer friend, and that’s how we connected.

We shared lunch at a restaurant near his place that happened to be on the south side of a small Illinois town to which our family moved from Pennsylvania in 1970. I was headed into 8th grade, knew very little about the world and was simply happy to find friends through sports at the middle school we attended in the middle of windswept cornfields.

In recent years I’d taken up cycling and often pedaled past my friend’s farm 15 miles west of the Chicago suburbs. Once in a while I’d thought about stopping in to say hello.

So it was gratifying in some way to close that loop, share a meal and catch up on his life and mine.

Rumor has it there is now a lot of money in their family, having sold off some of their prime property in a real estate boom a few years ago. But my friend showed no pretentiousness and in fact apologized for smelling like hogs when we sat down for lunch.

I come from farming stock myself with a mother and father who both lived and worked on dairy and crop farms in upstate New York. Our family visited both those farms frequently and as a kid I loved shoveling cow manure into troughs so it could be whisked away by the conveyor belt that took it to the fertilzer spreader.

Later when our family moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania there were Amish kids who showed up for class smelling like manure and walking around in bare feet. So farming was no particular mystery to us.

But my uncle who took over my mother’s family farm sold it in the 1960s and took a position as a land assessor. His advice to me at one point was, “Go to work for the government. You make good money and the benefits last you for life.” That uncle was a fabulously fun-loving man, known for driving his cars too fast and carrying on with ribald humor. He often showed off his tanned, muscular body while working around the farm, treating a ride on the tractor as if it were a surfing expedition as we flew down the two-track toward the Susquehanna River.

Trouble was, my uncle rather disliked farm animals. He named his cows after old girls friends so he could smack their asses when sending them into the stalls. Eventually he also developed a pretty bad back from the rigors of farm labor, and not because he was out of shape. In his early years he’d been a good runner and set a course record at his community college cross country course that lasted 25 years. His distance running skills were honed trotting after dairy cattle up the side of the Catskill mountain that formed the dairy pasture.

Nichols Family Farm circa 1958

My grandfather who worked the farm before him was a reportedly liberal thinker who sent most of his children off to college. My mother studied music and became a teacher. Several of the other children also went into scholarly professions. Farming was valued in the family, but not as the sole occupation of the generations.

And so it was that my uncle alsogot out of the farm business. Perhaps a spirit that can grow to love the liberal enterprise of a non-productive activity like distance running cannot adapt to the soul-wrenching difficulty of farming.  At any rate, he left that world and moved to Florida after years of employment as a land assessor and finally died in a car crash at the age of 94. Rumor has it he was driving a little too fast for conditions. In other words, he remained true to his nature, loving speed and excitement over the mundane. The land where our family once farmed is now overgrown. Only memories remain.

My father’s farm also was sold off when no one in the family wanted to continue paying taxes on it in the 1970s. Several families lived on the farm until it was sold to the power company that had always wanted the property. The family barn and house were finally leveled. All that’s left of that legacy is a pile of stone rubble.

With these farm roots nestled firmly in my past, I have always remained curious how “real” farmers think and live. And that was part of my curiosity about my friend.

It turns out that farming is just like any other occupation. There are wins and losses. Ups and downs. Family matters come and go. Some you resolve. Some you retain. Most of all you try to keep an even keel and maintain the family pride through thick and thin. Money doesn’t seem to change things all that much. People still have problems. People still find faith where they can, and when they need it most.

Our conversation turned to faith and my friend shared an interesting observation about his small little church. “We say this thing where we all confess our sins and say how bad we are as people. But I go to church to feel joy. I feel joy seeing people that have known me all my life. Sometimes I wish our church would find ways to do more of that. Find joy as well as speak of sin.”

As discussions of faith are often wont to do, our conversation soon turned to politics. My friend acknowledged that many of his fellow farmers were frustrated with President Barack Obama. “They don’t hate the man,” he shared. “They just hate his policies.”

Not wanting to turn the renewal of a friendship into a political battle, we both steered clear of digging too deeply into the issues of partisan politics. But it is a ready-known fact that many farmers declare themselves Republicans. Credit that to the Republican platform of economic self-reliance, firmly conventional social structures and a strong proclamation of faith-based values. Yet it seemed to disturb my friend that the people who were his friends had become so adamantly opposed to any sort of consideration toward the President. Something about that form of rigidity bothered him.

Perhaps there is no joy in service to such rigid doctrine, which has a confessional effect upon the masses. But there is little room for joy when criticism of the perceived enemy becomes the primary basis for your politics. Because what happens when (not if…) your own party fails you somehow? Then your confessional values, your whole world even, can get turned inside out.

It is not likely that farm politics will shift anytime soon from conservative to liberal. The perceived relationship that Republicans are the primary supporters for farm subsidies may be one facet of that loyalty. But the deeper claim to conservative values is another anchor to the farmer’s penchant to vote Republican.

These instincts can hardly be criticized without tugging at the fabric of American culture itself. Our original and continuing role as an agricultural nation is such a firmly established tradition that our national identity is at stake when one questions the role farmers play in our economy and culture. Even many of the Founding Fathers were farmers.

And so Republicans seem willing to prop up their image of support for farmers at almost any cost. A June, 2011 USA Today story carried this news item; “Republicans have quietly maneuvered to prevent a House spending bill from chipping away at federal farm subsidies, instead forging ahead with much larger cuts to domestic and international food aid. The GOP move will probably prevent up to $167 million in cuts in direct payments to farmers, including some of the nation’s wealthiest. The maneuver, along with the Senate’s refusal to end a $5 Billion annual tax subsidy for ethanol-gasoline blends, illustrates just how difficult it will be for Congress to come up with even a fraction of the trillions in budget savings over the next decade the Republicans have promised. Meanwhile, the annual bill to pay for food and farm programs next year would cut food aid for low-income mothers and children by $685 million, about 10% below this year’s budget.”

It is quite fascinating to realize that the supposed conservative, faith-based values that align farmer with support of Republican politics somehow prefers to subsidize some of the nation’s wealthiest farmers while denying food aid for low-income mothers and children. It absolutely begs the question as to what Jesus would do if he controlled the purse strings in America. Would he engage in the liberal enterprise that government proposes to care for the needy and poor? Or would he vote to continue subsidies to an agricultural economy that has become increasingly commodified, corporatized and wealth-concentrated. And how many of our nation’s farm policies actually do encourage family farmers to make a living? The organic farming industry, often driven by entrepreneurial farmers dedicated to serving smaller markets and local economies is growing in America. But ironically that is a liberal enterprise by definition and by nature. Do Republicans also by nature support organic farming or consider it a cross-market aberration driven by phony liberal instincts? Let’s ask Rush Limbaugh that question sometime soon. Or for that matter, Monsanto?

Perhaps these are questions about the morality of farmers that only God can answer. But let us at least confess that on the surface at least, that the traditional patterns of political support for the political right by the nation’s farmers seems to flow as much from love of mammon as from love of fellow man. In some cases our farming practices may indeed even run counter-productive to the welfare of our society and environment. Again, it is difficult to distinguish fact from dearly held fiction on so many issues. Like the construction of the Noble Savage assuaged guilt over America’s genocide of native peoples, the image of the Noble Farmer may be obscuring the ugly truth in some ways.

And yet my farmer friend seems both a compassionate and faithful man. We can be assured there are many like him among the ranks of American farmers. But if America is to succeed and the nation’s resources are to be sustained, it might be farmers who most need liberal instincts to survive and thrive. Whether conservative Republicans like to admit it or not, free will and the free market do go together, and the Christian notion of self-discipline must be balanced by the liberal notion of charitable acts and goodness. That is the yin and yang of the bible, and the economy.

Both free will and the free market do require some degree of self-discipline and self-governance to be sustainable. God knows America needs a liberal dose of both.

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