Paul Harvey, God, farmers and nostalgia

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I was five years old when Paul Harvey stood up at the national convention and first delivered the “So God Made a Farmer” speech to a bunch of FFA kids.

The job description he laid out should have been enough to send them all running: Hundred-hour workweeks; make-do lifestyle; the kind of humble, hardscrabble simplicity that sounds a lot more noble in novels and speeches than it feels in real life.

Harvey was no farmer, of course. No more than I was. He was a big-time Chicago radio man who traveled in big circles. Friends with people like Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover and the preacher Billy Graham. I was just one grandchild among many clamoring for a chance to drive the ancient pickup, to light the match and burn the trash, “helping” grandpa out in the fields or in the machine shed until he shooed us away.

Still, Harvey’s voice was as much a part of that place as the outbuildings. We’d hear him over the airwaves on the old clock radio in the kitchen, or wedged between my grandparents on the bench seat of their Ford LTD, the springs poking the backs of our legs as we bounced along the gravel road to town.

My grandpa would be wearing a clean pair of Key Imperials. Grandma’s wardrobe was more varied. But likely as not, she’d have on something brightly colored, probably with flowers — proud gladiolus or floppy peonies or spiky lilies like the blooms that spilled out of her famous flower beds.

Even then, Harvey painted an idealized picture of rural America. Already, my grandparents’ world was changing. The big barn, the hog house and chicken coop stood empty. The hired men and hired girls long gone. In the fall, my grandma still gathered hundreds of apples and rolled crust after crust for her pies. But there were no more starving harvesting crews to feed. Just her family, large as it was, and those neighbors still in the habit of visiting.

Their numbers dwindled as the farms grew larger. The smaller operators were too busy for pie and chitchat, having taken on part-time jobs for the insurance or just to make ends meet. To support their “farming habit” they told each other, making a joke of an ugly truth. Over in town, the buildings emptied, too. The hardware store, the grocer, then — the coffin’s final nail — the school. Ghost towns, empty during the day while everyone went off to work or learn their lessons somewhere else.

We Iowans all have our own versions of this story. Still we thrilled to the still photos of Dodge’s Super Bowl ad last week; felt our hearts hum to the purposeful tune of Harvey’s words. We couldn’t help it. It spoke to deep-held beliefs about who we are.

There’s nothing wrong with respecting, even revering, hard work and the values of simplicity and community that got us where we are today. But today’s small farmers need more than sainthood — they need a chance at preserving their livelihood. A chance at passing on more than a set of romantic notions to future generations.

We aren’t kids anymore. We can’t just wander up to the farmhouse when we’re tired and in need of a grandmother’s coddling or cooking.

We can’t tear back out again to play around with our rural heritage when it suits us, poking our heads in old outbuildings and playing pretend. We can’t listen with only half an ear as we duck into the barn, testing the boards in the haymow as, somewhere back in the distance a grandma calls out to warn us:

Be careful. That old floor isn’t all that stable any more.

Watch that you don’t fall through.

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