Let me tell you the “rest of the story,” as the long-gone radio legend Paul Harvey would say.
In the Kansas winter of 1971, when I was 15, we’d walk our farm driveway, four-tenths of a mile, with the north wind beating against our backs. By the time Pug Wilson wheeled up our school bus, always late, brother Gary and I felt frozen to the bone.
But because we were two of Pug’s first pick-ups, we got to choose seats, and we took the back row, because that’s where the heater fan was, and that’s also where Pug—Dad’s best friend and a mechanic by trade—had installed a speaker he’d wired to the school-bus dashboard radio, which Pug tuned to an AM rock ‘n’ roll station out of Kansas City.
The back of the bus was our haven, where we heard the Beatles' “Revolution” for the first time. And the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” and Elvis’s “Kentucky Rain.” And Paul Harvey, at sunrises and sunsets.
We loved Paul Harvey. His voice caressed our souls like warm cocoa gladdens a tummy.
The cadence of his voice lingers at the edge of my ears, at random moments: When I see a winter sunrise from a country road. When I hear the crackle of a radio speaker, tuned accidentally to the AM dial.
My brothers and I listened to Harvey’s news broadcast every morning on the bus. We’d listen to his “The Rest of the Story” broadcast on the way home. He was a sly old Oklahoma storyteller who wrote poetry disguised as news.
We’d hear him as we rode past the hog lots and cow pastures and the falling-into-ruins rural farmsteads of our neighbors. And when loud little boys on the bus spouted off, like little boys do, I’d yell at them to shut up when Harvey came on.
At home we did what a farmer's kids do. We worked in bone-chilling cold before and after school, seven days a week.
Dad loved Old Harvey too, but by the time we hit our teens, he never listened. He had no time. The guy who used to tell gorgeous stories, who’d made us love books, who showed how to find arrowheads north of our barn—he’d gone surly on us. We’d watch him run between farm tasks, as though running all four parts of a relay race.
And So God Made a Farmer
I first heard Old Harvey’s 1978 love poem to farmers on February 3, 2013, in a commercial during Super Bowl 47, when the Baltimore Ravens outplayed the San Francisco 49ers. Harvey’s voice caressed me as of old.
I melted into my sofa, starting with the poem’s first full stanza:
“God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn,
work all day in the fields,
milk cows again,
then go to town and stay past midnight, at a meeting of the school board.’
And so God made a farmer."
I felt chills.
My Dad had done all that, including the school board.
Emotions bubbled up suddenly, like hot oatmeal on a neglected stove.
As Harvey kept going, I sank deeper into the couch. The poem names 42 specific things farmers do, and my Dad did 39 of them:
“It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight
and not cut corners;
somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed
and rake and disc...
and plow and plant…
and so God made a farmer.”
It reads like a prayer. Like the 23rd Psalm, except lifted right from my long-ago.
But as good as the poem is—try listening to it without crying—there are reasons to feel a sense of loss, of grief, even anger, if you happen to come, as I do, from a land filled with feed bunks and manure boots, horse flies and Herefords, and grain dust that itches like poison when it settles into the sweat of your neck.
I love Harvey’s poem. But it didn't tell the rest of the story.
In his poem, Harvey lauded family farming with soaring and sugary stanzas, as though farmers are saints doing sacramental things.
He wasn't wrong to bestow that halo on farmers, to take their tireless work ethic and put it on a pedestal. Nor was he off base about their deep connection to community, and willingness to lend a hand for their neighbor. He wasn't wrong to romanticize the closeness to nature, a relationship that required both flinty toughness and tender nurturing.
But there's more to it.
He left out how Dad and most family farmers were—and still are—losing money while working harder.
Market forces, the analysts say. Blame the nation's insatiable hunger for cheap, plentiful food, for endless grocery aisles offering unlimited choices—no matter what the season. Blame the move away from localized food economies to national, and international, ones. And the rapid adoption of mechanical and chemical technology, scaled up to levels few family farmers could afford, or compete with. Blame surpluses created by the growing number of industrial farms, which squashed prices and rubbed out margins for the little guys.
Those market forces turned on farmers in the 1930s and squeezed them harder every year since. The number of American farms plummeted from nearly 7 million in 1935 to fewer than 2.5 million by the mid '70s.
Make a poem out of that.
Market forces made it good to run bigger farms, corporate farms, but Dad couldn’t incorporate or grow. Market forces mean today that millions of family farmers went broke or sold out in the latter half of the 20th century, which is why you see ruined farmsteads everywhere. Half of farms today, the federals say, bring in less than $10,000 a year and together account for less than one percent of U.S. ag production.
Most farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, need off-farm income to make ends meet.
When my brothers and I started school in the 1960s, our income qualified us for free or reduced lunches. Dad felt embarrassed. “Pay the full price,” he told Mom.
Market forces meant Dad cut corners. To refuel field tractors, he’d pour gasoline into leaky old five-gallon containers, which he placed in the bed of our truck. Gasoline would drip out through the truck bed onto the hot muffler underneath. And I’d drive gasoline to the field.
He sprayed pesticide on our crops, with no tractor cab to keep spray off his skin.
And so he died—at age 50, of lung cancer—having never smoked.
But our food is cheap.
Harvey’s poem reminds me of how I found wild strawberries in cow pastures. How happy my brother Richard was, when he woke up on a steamy morning to see coyote pups playing by our creek. How we heard Dad singing baritone while he fixed broken fences. How he alternated cheerful song with ill temper from morning to night.
I smelled rain coming one day and saw no place to run. The torrent turned the dust in my hair into mud running down my face. Dad said I looked like I’d worn a girl’s mascara into a shower—and my brothers laughed, and so did Dad, and for that moment he was his true self.
I love Old Harvey’s poem.
But now I’ve told the rest of the story.
Roy Wenzl is an award-winning journalist and author based out of Wichita, Kansas. The Wenzl family still runs their farm.