Ralph Oswald plowing with mules
Ralph Oswald, the author’s father, plowing with mules
Langdon, Missouri, c. 1928
Photo: Courtesy of Richard Oswald

I’ve always felt that I was raised by Democrats, not so much because my family was political, but because as a child in my parents’ farm home, the only two presidents I ever heard anything good about were FDR and Truman.

In my parents’ eyes, political parties weren’t to blame, and they deserved no credit when things were good. There were only good leaders or leaders not worth talking about. Dad used to reminisce about burning corn in the furnace to heat his home, because during the Depression corn was cheaper than coal. Cheap as it was, it wasn’t worth feeding to hogs, because, Dad said, farmers had turned out their hogs to roam the countryside. In those days, hogs weren’t worth the worthless feed they consumed. All that began to change with a presidential election in 1932.

On the farm, it isn’t the rain or sunshine or soil that produces the crops. It is the hope of those who plant them. In my parents’ eyes, Franklin Roosevelt picked the country up and put it to work. He made hard work and all its products valuable commodities again, but the most valuable commodity he restored to the farm was hope.

Roosevelt Truman button

Campaign button, 1944
Photo: Hudson Library

In 1945, even though the hero of the Great Depression who unified the nation in war had passed, Truman provided all he could: a steady hand and an unwavering look that said hope would continue to be a product of America. Even though Truman never achieved the popularity of FDR, my parents always admired him. It may simply have been because, like us, he was from Missouri, but, in truth, I think that it was because my parents were always excellent judges of character.

Following my life with Mom and Dad, I resisted parties, political that is. Just when I thought I’d found a hero, he’d leave me hanging. Republicans, Democrats, what difference did it make? Being young with a young family on the farm, my only heroes were a cordial banker and a cooperative weatherman.

For those of us who still live on the land, politics has meant that only six percent of farmers in the US are under the age of 35. Political choices the country has made have reduced our young farmer numbers to 37.5% of what they were just 20 years ago. At the same time, our greatest crop ““ hope — has been pushed beyond the horizon. This may be the final generation of American family farms.

At some point it seems to me that America became more adept at producing politicians than leaders. For my parents as for myself, to be a leader means to say the things that need to be said, and to do the things that need to be done. That doesn’t mean that a good leader is without controversy. To every difficult choice there lies an alternative, but in America we no longer seem to recognize alternatives.

We have a military second to none. We have freedoms that the people of most other nations can only dream of. We have an economy so strong that our purchases and our technology drive the economies of countless developing nations. For a nation like ours, that labels global economic difficulties with catchy phrases like “Asian Contagion,” it seems strange that we have not sought solutions to the Rural Contagion that affects our farms and all the small communities linked to them.

A favorite expression of my parents was, “The poor get poorer and the rich get richer.” So it seems in America, where candidates who try to offer hope for improved access to health care, for fair wages, for quality of life, for retirement, for emergency preparedness, even for safe food, receive less press than those who talk of secrecy, terror, and tax credits that most of us can’t utilize because our earnings are too small. Those leaders who seem to change their messages with each new poll are not the ones we need. It is one thing to represent the people, but another to pander to them.

True leaders have a vision. True leaders support our Constitution and obey our laws. They will not victimize, abuse, or use our resources or our people for their own political gain. True leaders are inclusive. They realize that communities both large and small are important to America.

True leaders are courageous. They will stand up to special interests and defend a rural heritage that served to midwife the birth of our free nation. That fact has never been more apparent than it is now, as rural states supply a higher proportion of personnel to the armed forces than any other segment of our society.

We must all see to it that the United States of America will find a watchful leader who turns our thoughts from fear of the unknown to growing a new crop of hope for the future. It is our duty.

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