Monday, January 31, 2011

Love Thy Stranger!

In most tribal dialects, the word stranger does not exist. It is not because they know everyone; the word stranger is the same as enemy. I find myself a stranger at times…I am probably stranger than anyone you know.
Living in a small community means that you know quite a few people, their family, and where they live. You have probably been to their house or had a conversation with them during dinner at the local greasy spoon. But do you really know them?
How many people take the time to get to really know someone? What have been the pains and enjoyments in their life? What have been their best accomplishments or total failures? What really makes them tick?
I have lived in the Kendrick community all of my life. It is a small town of 369 people. Three miles down the road is Juliaetta (over 700 people) and the two communities are basically one. There are many people that I know. They either watched me grow up, grew up with me, or I watched them grow up. But do I really know them?
During the last year of my dad’s life, we were working on a field road with a neighbor. The neighbor introduced me as a person who was good at basketball to his hired man. That was pretty much it. It was not meant to be hurtful or cutting, but that I was good at it. I was out of college but still played city league. There was no mention of my love for farming.
After dad passed away, the same neighbor and I were talking one day and I mentioned farm toys. I love farm toys and have a nice little collection (but according to my wife it is too much.) I had collected farm toys since I was a kid and added a few over the years from auctions and the internet.
During our conversation I realized I took the neighbor by surprise. He had always thought of me as a basketball player and nothing else. He didn’t realize my passion for farming was much older than my passion for hoops. He was beginning to get to know the real me.
I have always been competitive and my wife Rhonda shares that same drive. We have passed that on to our two boys and during Wii tournaments (for lack of a better word) everyone is on the edge of their seat trying to beat each other…or gang up on mom for a good laugh.
My competitiveness in high school led to two different times Rhonda heard from people in the surrounding area that “Man, we hated you!” The first time I was coaching my little brother and his AAU hoops team. We were at a tournament in a nearby small town and the scorekeeper said that. She was from the town that was our biggest rival during my time in high school.
It probably didn’t help matters much that I only lost to them twice. My freshman year we beat them in the district tournament in six (6) overtimes to see who goes to state. My sophomore year we lost during the regular season. My junior year we beat them five out of six times, including the 4th place game at state.
My competitiveness prompted me to do something that I look back on from time to time. During the district championship game we had the lead with a few seconds left on the clock. Coach pulled me to put someone else in. Our crowd had a bulldog on a noose (their mascot). I walked over, grabbed the bulldog and twirled it over my head all the way back to the bench. That is what a rivalry is about, so I cannot fault those people for “hating” me.
The second time occurred at the local airport. Rhonda and I were headed to Seattle to watch the Seahawks (her team) and the Raiders (my team). As we were checking in, the person behind the counter asked “Robert Blair? Did you play basketball?” I replied yes. “Man, we hated you!” she said. Rhonda, with her quick wit replied to me “Is there anyone in this area that you haven’t made angry?”
It seems like the same attitude happens in my small community. Not just with me, but with others as well. People don’t like someone because they have not taken the time to get to know them. They haven’t taken the time to find out what makes them tick.
There was a school bond measure last year and it was heated. I felt sorry for the school board members sitting on the gym floor while 250+ of their friends and neighbors looked down on them. They were in the firing line.
Listening to other people talk for over an hour, I could hear the anger in their voices. One  could definitely see where the alliances were. And they were attacking farmers and business owners. We were called big land owners, land owners, businesses, big businesses, etc. You get the picture.
I finally felt it was my time to speak. I thanked the school board, the superintendent, and all those present because I respect their time to address the issue. I then addressed the crowd. “Those of us that farm have been called everything but what we are, friends, neighbors, coaches, volunteers, fans, parents, or a list of other things. But never in my life have I thought of myself as a big landowner.”
I understand that in the heat of the moment or battle things are done that people whish were not, like twirling a bulldog over your head. Things are done that causes regret later on. But, these community members have not taken the time to really get to know the situation or their community members.
This is the same battle agriculture is fighting. People have not taken the time to get to know us. From “Joe Public” to the anti ag activist, they do not understand what makes “us” tick. They don’t understand that if we don’t take proper care of our land or animals we cannot make a profit to keep farming.
Most people don’t understand the long hours it takes to make a small family business like a farm work and be profitable. They also don’t understand that their naiveté about agriculture and their actions from that hurts not only farmers, but the communities that rely on them.
For every one dollar that is generated, it turns over in a community eight times. We purchase food, parts, and other inputs from local businesses. Our hard work is turned into money that supports the schools, roads, and cemetery districts. But according to them we are mean, greedy, rich people...just one step below Scrooge.
Just like at the school bond meeting, they don’t realize who the big landowners are. My wife and I own some land, but not everything we farm. My mom owns land, and works at a grocery store for benefits (and to keep her occupied.) Two other landlords at that time are in nursing homes on fixed incomes. The last landlord is the Nez Perce Tribe and they don’t pay taxes.
So whose fault is it for the misconceptions? Is it the person making the claims or is it us in agriculture not doing our job to get the word our? Farmers are secretive by nature and don’t  like to talk about what they own or how much they farm. But those around us have not done a good job of getting to know us either.
My challenge to those who read this is to reach out. Those in agriculture please invite people to your operation. Invite school kids, teachers, and other people in your community to better understand what you do. For those that don’t farm, just ask and I am sure you will be surprised and learn more than you bargained for. Just don’t be strangers. And to everyone, try not to twirl bulldogs over your head.

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