Confessions of an ex-big city kid
I’m about to write probably the least surprising sentence most of you will ever hear.
People in cities don’t understand agriculture.
I’ll give you a minute to recover.
The problems of rural America are complex. They are economic, social, historical and cover a huge variety of other subjects.
I’ve always been in a unique position to observe the disconnect between city and country. I was born and bred a city kid in a major metropolitan area (Minneapolis), yet I have spent most of my life since I left home in rural areas. Even the biggest town I ever lived in after college, Fargo (which was about 100,000 people at the time), being in North Dakota, was heavily dependent on agriculture.
And when it comes to the problems of rural America, while they are sometimes self-inflicted, I think the majority of them come from city dwellers’ misunderstandings, as well as their disinterest in learning about those problems and their role in them.
I had literally never been on a farm before my first newspaper job. Obviously, I all but figured milk comes from cartons. My Dad worked for an agribusiness, Land O’ Lakes, so our lives were somewhat dependent on farming. But he was in consumer product sales, so it wasn’t like he was milking cows.
The only thing I really knew about farming was that the machinery could be dangerous, because in junior high Joe Karpowicz was visiting a relative’s farm and lost his leg to a piece of machinery. I still get a little hinky around farm machinery.
But there was so much I didn’t understand about farming when I went out into the world. The simple names of machinery baffled me, until a co-worker bought me one of those children’s punch-out farm books, which I put together and installed on the filing cabinet in my cubicle.
But more importantly, I just didn’t understand the culture.
The Red River Valley of the north is sugar beet and corn country and my initial learning curve was steep. But within six months, I could shoot the breeze about the crops with the best of them. (I also found out that sugar beet farming is a license to print money.)
I know less about livestock farming, because this is the first really big livestock area I’ve lived in. Again, I knew just enough to be fearful. I was once nearly trampled by a pig in the 4H barn in Hillsboro, N.D., and to this day, the sight of a canned ham sends me into a screaming faint.
Learning about small-town rural culture was arguably even more important, because I was living in town.
One thing I learned, and this is not a complaint but an observation, is that no matter how long I lived there, I always would be to some extent an outsider. People in Wauneta have been extremely welcoming, and Karon and I love living here, but we harbor no illusions that we’ll ever be real Waunetans. There are simply too many relationships here we’ll never really understand, too much history we’ll never really know. And we’re OK with that, because people here are genuinely nice. That’s not true of all small towns, by the way; that first newspaper job was in a town the size of Wauneta on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, and it was not a pleasant place to live.
Small towns also have cultural ways that big-city folks will never understand. A year before I moved to Halstad, Minnesota, I’d been an exchange student in Tokyo. And I say this seriously and with no exaggeration: The culture shock was worse moving to Halstad than it had been moving to Tokyo. You expect it in a foreign country, but when it happens literally in the state you grew up in, it’s discomforting.
It even extended to the language. The first time I arranged to meet someone for dinner, I showed up at 6 p.m. and he showed up at noon. In my house, dinner was the evening meal. I didn’t make that mistake again.
While it’s fun to note the little differences between city and country, it has some real, and very harmful, effects.
Every state I’ve ever lived in has had an urban-rural divide. It was perhaps worst in North Dakota, where the rural west hates the cities in the east with a passion that borders on the maniacal.
I’ve only been in Nebraska for a year, but it’s already become obvious where the urban-rural divide hurts this state. The best example appears to be school funding, where money flows to Lincoln and Omaha, while rural districts go begging.
What people in those large Nebraska cities don’t seem to get is that the state’s rural areas aren’t just grabbing money for chuckles. If anybody can be accused of naked greed, it seems, it would be the urban areas. When I heard about state funding for schools, which is important for small towns with smaller tax bases, I was appalled. Aside from presenting a lot of practical problems, it just isn’t right. Small-town kids deserve every bit as good an education as their big-city counterparts.
City-bred people also don’t understand the ripple effect of economic problems in farm country. I’m about the farthest thing from a farmer there is, but I know that if the farm economy goes south, my newspaper could very well go with it. When farmers don’t buy things, the people they buy from don’t have the money to advertise, and if they don’t advertise, it suddenly becomes very difficult for my newspaper to survive. Urban dwellers literally have no idea of that ripple effect.
Of course, sometimes rural people don’t help themselves. While farming is one of the most important industries there is, there’s nothing sacred about it. It is, in the end, a business. But it’s overly romanticized. Nobody gets all misty-eyed about secretaries going off to work in the morning. And I’ve never been overly fond of those bumper stickers that say, “If you ate today, thank a farmer.” They don’t grow food out of the goodness of their hearts.
Here’s what I’ve learned from 40 years of living in farm country: Farmers and small-town merchants, as a group, are like anybody else. Most work hard, some are good at their profession and some are not so good. But unlike, say, accountants, they must deal with an unusual number of factors beyond their control, like weather and international markets. If people in urban areas understood that, they may be more likely to cut a break for the people that feed them.
Such ignorance is hard to overcome .
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.