A long career in agricultural journalism is remembered with laughter, tears, and gratitude for the opportunity to rub elbows with farmers, politicians, and scoundrels.
Rudy Boschwitz, the flannel-shirt wearing founder of Plywood Minnesota and later a U.S. senator, is unforgettable as both a gentleman and politician. As an Independent Republican, he won a Senate seat in 1978 due to some extent to starring in Plywood Minnesota television commercials.
He was much more than a celebrity, doggedly tackling rural health care, education, and farm policy issues. A determination to reshape farm policy earned him acclaim and lightning-rod criticism.
Boschwitz co-authored the 1985 Republican Senate’s farm bill. It was proposed as farmers entered a financial morass caused by falling commodity prices. The bill, dubbed “Freedom to Farm’’ by supporters and “Freedom to Fail’’ by opponents, was written to encourage maximum crop production without program-mandated planting restraints.
Farmers would get annual transition payments for six years to help them move toward a free market without additional governmental involvement. The legislation would allow U.S. farmers to capture more of the world market contrary to current policy.
The reasoning was made clear.
“All we do is give away the world market,’’ Boschwitz said when the Senate legislation was introduced. “All we do is just hand to the foreign competition a larger share of the world market.’’
We agreed to disagree over policy, but the senator never lost patience with the journalist. He and I ran into each other during a dairy farm tour in southern Minnesota. The dairy farmer hesitated to give the senator a tour of the barn because the herd recently had been turned out to new pasture, and their bowel movements were loose.
As the delegation walked down the aisle, a Holstein coughed and let loose and splattered Boschwitz, who did not bat an eye though his aides jumped like they had seen a rattlesnake.
A form of Freedom to Farm became law later, but Boschwitz was out of the Senate by 1991 and replaced by Paul Wellstone, a Democrat diametrically opposed to Rudy’s farm bill positions but a match for the Republican’s boundless enthusiasm.
In the depths of the 1980s farm crisis, scoundrels attempted to make money from farmers’ struggles. One such person sold land patents, which he claimed would prevent lenders from collecting on loans. For a little less than $50, a worthless patent could be purchased from his organization.
As was the case with other things that sound too good to be true, the company’s owner ran a scam that authorities had only recently been made aware. I reported the facts, which led to a confrontation during a crowded meeting in southwestern Wisconsin.
“You are a liar,’’ one of his aides told me as he put a firm grip on my shoulder and hinted that it would be right to physically attack me. The meeting ran late into the night, which increased the possibility of a dark parking lot attack. It was the only time it felt like the threat was real.
An Iowa family sat around the kitchen table to talk about losing their farm. Their dairy herd was taken away the day before. Losing the cows was bad enough, but the lender deepened the wound by saying that the taking might not have been necessary if he had been a better milk producer.
The dairy man without a herd produced Dairy Herd Improvement Association records to disprove what the loan officer said. It no longer mattered — what mattered in the present was what would happen to his sons who thought they would follow in their father’s footsteps.
What price, the father asked, can be put on the value of a person’s life’s work and a family’s dreams?
Laughter and heartache — memories that linger and perhaps are milestones for a career.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.