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
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 writerjust 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 engineeringevery
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
"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
coolof course they doand 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
worldall of them cool. And they went intolike
youthey 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."