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Democrats' national conclave : THE NORTH DAKOTANS:

It's Fun, but Meanwhile, Back on the Farms . . .

August 15, 2000|DANA PARSONS

Amid the whoopin' and hollerin' and all the donkeys on parade at the Democratic National Convention, the North Dakota delegation has a serious question, quietly posed:

May we please be heard?

The last thing the Dakotans want is to be killjoys during this festive week. Make no mistake, they have their list of L.A. party invitations close at hand. They have issues, but they also want Streisand tickets.

But when much of your state is struggling and when you think no one is listening because you have three electoral votes and your name isn't New York or California or Texas . . . well, all you want is 15 minutes of someone's time.

"There's such a stark contrast in America right now," says April Fairfield, a 30-year-old North Dakota delegate and state legislator from Eldridge. "We keep hearing about the new economy and the prosperity, the wonders of technology and all the wealth it's bringing to America. We're realizing the absolute opposite in North Dakota."

That strain runs through the delegation but perhaps no more so than in three women--Fairfield, Deb Lundgren and Shirley Meyer--who playfully call themselves the "Farm Fraus," a title that signals both the burning issue and the humor they must keep while fighting the good fight.

They laugh so they won't cry.

"If you get as intense about it as the three of us feel, it eats you alive," Meyer says. "You can't do it. If I allowed myself to go tell someone how intensely I feel about this, I'd be in front of a committee and be sobbing in 10 seconds, and then you've lost credibility."

Instead, the four of us sit in a mezzanine lobby of a Century City hotel late on a Sunday night and talk about their way of life that, contrasted with the comforts of West L.A., seems a galaxy away.

Oh, they can talk price-per-bushel ("You paid more for that bottled water than you would for a bushel of wheat," Fairfield says) and how North Dakota wheat puts bread on our table and Dakota durum puts pasta on our plates.

But they're talking about much more too.

They're talking about a way of life that this country used to celebrate. It was a time when "farm life" wasn't a punch line and when you could connect the dots from the farm "ethic" of hard work, perseverance, self-reliance and responsibility to giving shape to a person's life.

In other words, life doesn't offer short cuts or angles when the crop has to be planted or harvested.

I ask if they also had their voices muted by the distance between their world and this land of plenty in West Los Angeles.

"No, because we always have to take our story somewhere else," Lundgren says. "Nobody's going to come to us to hear what's happening out there in North Dakota."


Family farming may be "at the endgame," they say. The specter of corporate farming, which they helped beat back in the North Dakota Legislature, looms.

"I'm amazed at the number of people and the traffic out here," says Meyer, on her first trip to Los Angeles. "The one thing that crosses my mind is that I can't imagine the tremendous amount of food it takes to feed these people."

The three know that shrinking farm populations are nothing new and that many urbanites either don't think about farmers' problems or believe that they're crying wolf.

What's different, they say, is that the current generation of farm children is going off to universities and not coming back. With that generation will go even more schools, hospitals, cafes. More flesh off the bone.

To the Farm Fraus, the country must decide--as a matter of economic policy--that it will help the farmers. And it must decide--as a matter of social policy--that it wants to preserve family farms because of their intrinsic part of our heritage. If it sounds like they're arguing for self-preservation, they insist it goes beyond that. They're arguing for something that came long before them and that they want to see exist long after them. It's a matter of deciding what your identity as a country should be.

And so they wait to see this week if anyone else cares. Will Al Gore point to them and tell them he not only hears but understands?

If he does, wow, what a week the Farm Fraus will have had in L.A.

My guess is they'd gladly trade a Streisand ticket for a nod from Gore.

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