Find the wisdom where you can
Farmers: The last competent people

By Garrison Keillor

Caught a re-run of The Prairie Home Companion recently. Garrison Keillor was spinning a tale about his imaginary home of Lake Wobegon. Here's the scene:

Keillor is in the Sidetrack Tap, talking to Leland about the latest hobby in Lake Wobegon: carving Minnesota dirt farmers. Leland starts to reflect on why these carvings are going to be valuable one day. Here's what he says:

"Wally is selling his carvings up at this craft show in St. Cloud for $30 a piece. But, I tell you, mine are going to be really valuable someday because I'm carving real dirt farmers, Minnesota dirt farmers, and these people are disappearing from Minnesota. Someday there won't be anymore like them left. And people will want to see what they looked like … and they'll value those carvings. All of these farmers are going out of business at an amazing, amazing rate.

"The natural aristocracy: Farmers. People who really know what they're doing. And they're all going into law or communications. Media. Communications. Everyone who doesn't know what they're talking about is going into media. I'm not talking about you personally. I'm not talking about you personally, but if the shoe fits, put it on.

"If you don't know what you're talking about, you become a writer–just out of shear confusion. You can make it up as you go along. But a farmer's gotta know. How to handle little disasters without calling Triple A or 911. If the pump goes out, he's gotta know how to get the water started, and he's gotta know how to fix his heat. If there's a storm, he's gotta go out and clear all those trees himself with a chain saw. A farmer's a veterinarian and a plumber and an electrician. He's gotta know about electric motors and diesel and engineering–every kind of thing. He's gotta know mechanics. He's gotta know about hydraulics. He's gotta know how to handle all kinds of tools. Just to survive. Not even talking about earning a living.

"Nah, our level of competence is going down in this country. Everybody's becoming number crunchers. Everybody's becoming analysts. Advertising people. Lawyers. Politicians. Where you can make it up as you go along, and you don't need to know any particular thing. You just need to sound good.

"No. Farmers are the last people you can really trust. Don't even need a handshake. Just a word. Soft-spoken people. Capable people. And you know what's doing in farmers? I'll tell you what's doing in farmers:

"It's the fact that farm kids grow up, and they want to be cool–of course they do–and they want to get cool girlfriends. And they run into smart people from town, people like you when you were in high school. I remember you in high school. You used to make fun of those farm kids. You'd look at them. You'd say, hey, Lester, your Mom make that shirt for you, huh? Hey, Lester, cool overshoes. I guess those 5-buckle ones are coming back in, huh?

"Satirists. Comedians. That's what did in the farmers. Making fun of people who know what they were doing, and knew how to work. So those farm kids grew up and wanted to have cool girlfriends. They grew up and plotted how to get off the farm. They knew the women they wanted to marry, they didn't want to spend their lives on any farm. So they went to college. They majored in communications. They went off to California, where there are more beautiful women than anyplace in the world–all of them cool. And they went into–like you–they went into media.

"And after a couple of generations, they became so incompetent, they didn't know how to replace flashlight batteries. I mean, they didn't know how to do anything. They couldn't pour piss out of a boot if you put the instructions on the sole. That's what's happening in this country:

"We're trading competence for incompetence."


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