Guest Opinions

On an Idaho farm, thinking of a different – and better – time in America

Douglas Siddoway
Douglas Siddoway

My farming friends in St. Anthony still think Trump has this figured out — that he has a secret plan to bring China to its knees and generate more grain exports and better prices. I hope they’re right, but quietly wonder if they will ever wake up and smell the coffee. The only victory the president can claim on the farm front, as I see it, is that Americans are drinking more — and who wouldn’t drink, given where we are? — which has kept barley prices from tumbling even further.

It wasn’t always this way. I came of age politically in the early 1960s, and when I wasn’t trailing sheep or moving sprinkler pipes, I would drive into Teton to weed and prune my grandmother’s flower garden. My grandfather, a former state legislator and local agricultural titan, had many political visitors then — people who wanted his advice and a campaign contribution — and I was a willing audience. Many afternoons were spent listening to the likes of Len Jordan, Henry Dworshak, Governor Smylie and, incredibly, the young Democrat Frank Church, talk about Congress (not themselves) and what the country needed. It was heady stuff for a farm kid who read the newspapers and had a letter from President Kennedy pinned to his wall.

Most of us were solid Republicans back then. We worked hard and helped the neighbors when help was needed. “Take your hands out of your pockets,” my grandfather would say, “and if you don’t have anything to do, pick up a shovel, dig a hole and then fill it in.” If we did not carry ourselves the way we should, it was not because we were Republican or Democrat, it was because we didn’t live up to the common responsibilities that bound us together as families and friends, as small communities struggling to survive in what was once sagebrush desert.

The tears in the social fabric were of our own making, as we saw it, and it was our responsibility to mend them. You were either conscious of a greater good or you were not. You could choose to be active within the community — the larger world that is the perspective for everything you do, as my grandmother would say — or you could choose to stay on the sidelines and look after your own interests. The callow, bitter days of 24/7 cable news and anonymous internet propaganda were yet to come. Virtue was an individual act. We were all in it together.

I think about those days often. Part of it is age, but a bigger part of it comes from the fact that we are letting go of something important. If this comes across as a rebuke of MAGA-inspired nostalgia, it is. No one can roll back history to create a better America, no matter how big the lie or gullible the audience. Any honest history book will tell you that. Our constitutional democracy is not an idyllic photograph, it is a continuum — a sometimes ugly, gut-wrenching, bloody and dispiriting continuum — but a continuum nonetheless. That it still exists 250 years after its founding is not a reflection of our inherent greatness; it is because of those accidental moments when events conspired to force us to find clarity, inspiration and hope — what Lincoln called “our better angels” — things like the Civil War, the Depression, the defeat of the Axis powers, the space program, the Kennedy assassination, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, yes, the election of a black president.

Wheat prices won’t be rebounding anytime soon, but I remain optimistic. While no single event in our complicated history can ever fully define us, all of them taken together can help us fasten on to the only thread that has ever sustained us: our capacity to become better, more thoughtful citizens.

Douglas Siddoway raises wheat, malt barley and mustard seed on his and his wife’s farm in Squirrel, Idaho, near Ashton.