Fall 1993, Volume 10.3


H. Wayne Schow

A Parable of Spiritual Identity: The Great Western Cooperative

H. Wayne Schow (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is Professor of English and Chair of English and Philosophy at Idaho State University. He has translated fiction by the Danish writer Martin A. Hansen (Against the Wind , 1979) and published critical essays on Isak Dinesen, Günter Grass, Ford Madox Ford, and Joan Didion. More recently he co-edited Peculiar People: Mormons and Same Sex Orientation (1991). His work has appeared in Statement, Critique, Scandinavian Studies, English Studies, and Sunstone.

A poor man inherited a small farm in another country. Overjoyed at his good fortune, he journeyed there to take up his land and work it for his living. When he arrived, he found his acreage located in a well-developed agricultural region, surrounded by other small holdings, each carefully cultivated by its owner. "Surely," he told himself, "this bodes well. Clearly, the farmers on every side of me are comfortable. Their lands and buildings are well tended. I am sure that I too will prosper."

Early on the second day, a committee of neighbors came to call on the newcomer. "Welcome in our midst," they said. "You see that we are successful in our agricultural endeavors. It was not, we are told, always thus in our region. We owe our present good fortune to the establishment here of the Great Western Cooperative, a wonderful organization that oversees all of our endeavors and virtually guarantees that our farms and our lives will flourish. Since you will doubtless also wish to be a member, we are here to tell you that on Sunday next you may present yourself at the meeting of the Cooperative to be inducted."

And thus it happened that the man became a part of the Great Western Cooperative. "Surely," he reflected, "this bodes well."

Since he had not previously been a farmer and was only roughly acquainted with the methods of agricultural husbandry, he was grateful for his new friends and their Cooperative. Cheerfully, they advised him about crops and seasons, provided him with seed and fertilizer. They showed him how to use his implements, tutored him on the care of his animals, rented him machinery owned by the Cooperative. It seemed they had the answers to all his problems. "Best of all," they said, "when harvest time comes, the Cooperative will buy your crops and sell them. Our leaders know the markets, whereas you will doubtless take a frightful beating if you attempt to do your own marketing. It's a desperate world out there when you try to go it alone. Of course, the Cooperative takes a commission, but that is only as it should be, considering the benefits. In the meantime, just be sure you attend all the Cooperative meetings, on Sunday afternoons and on Wednesday evenings. That is where one learns what one needs to know about farming-irrigation and weed control and crop rotation, for example. And there we learn to take full advantage of the Cooperative."

"Well and good," said the man. He attended the meetings diligently, absorbed the instruction as best he could. And he worked hard in his fields.

I Len fall came, his crops of corn and oats were good, and he sold them to the Cooperative. Moreover, because he had made good silage for his animals, he came through the long winter without hardship.

The second year began auspiciously. Spring came early, with good moisture, and the man prepared his land for planting. "I think," said he, "that this year I will raise barley, potatoes, and soybeans." But that Wednesday at the Cooperative meeting, the Section Leader informed him that, while barley and potatoes would be just fine, soybeans were not a possibility since the Cooperative did not favor soybeans and therefore did not stock soybean seed. "Well, then I'll get my seed elsewhere," said the man. To which the Section Leader responded, "Members are expected to buy all their seed from the Cooperative. So, you see it really is not possible. Let us know when you want your barley and potato seed delivered. We can deliver your fertilizer at the same time."

"But," said the man, "I really won't need the Co-op fertilizer this spring. You see, during the winter my cows produced a considerable hill of manure, and I plan to use that instead."

"I am sorry," said the Section Leader, "but all Cooperative members have to use the designated fertilizer. That's one of the conditions of membership."

"But what must I do with all of my manure?"

"No doubt," said the Section Leader, "you'll think of something." Then, under his breath he added: "The offensive thing about manure is that it's so earthy."

This response troubled the farmer somewhat, but after all, he reflected, the Cooperative had proven greatly helpful to him thus far, and no doubt it was as his neighbors said: "The Cooperative directors know what is best for us."

Meanwhile, he continued to attend the Cooperative meetings faithfully, both Sundays and Wednesdays. Truly, he did learn steadily about the methods of husbandry favored by the Westerners, though as time passed he began to feel that the returns on his attendance diminished. For one thing, it seemed that the Co-op discussions rehearsed the same points again and again. So much repetition seemed both pointless and boring. On two occasions, as his own farming experience grew, he attempted to suggest innovative approaches to cattle breeding and irrigation of potatoes, only to be told that the correct methods had long been conclusively established; they were reviewed for members regularly, and he would do well to follow them without question. "Farmers who do not remain faithful to the accepted practices of the Cooperative inevitably drift into trouble," they said, "and in the long run cannot prosper."

But if the Cooperative followed a conservative approach to what might be called its theories about agriculture, it was, on the contrary, ambitious and innovative in its programs for aiding farm families. It proceeded from the assumption that farmers' lives are multifaceted, and that if one is to farm well, all of one's human needs must be satisfied. The Westerners were therefore organized to provide programs for everything from carpentry to square dancing, from farm-family relations to physical fitness. Part of the value of these programs, the Section Leader told our husbandman, lies in the fact that participation and association with right-thinking people are desirable. "One way to measure the health of the Cooperative," he said, "is to gauge the percentage of the members who participate in the recommended programs. Activity for everyone is our aim."

As usual, the Cooperative is right, thought the farmer; no doubt, I benefit. I have been a lonely man, and it is pleasant enough to join with my neighbors in games and social occasions. I am glad they care about me. But he noticed also that these activities required more of his time than simply Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening. Sometimes he would have preferred to spend those additional evenings fishing in the creek that ran past his cottage or simply contemplating the setting sun from his rocking chair. But he felt some compulsion to join the others in the group activities, even when tired, for at Sunday afternoon meetings of the Cooperative, each member was called on to account for his activities of the preceding week. One felt uncomfortable if one had not been "active."

The harvest came, and another winter. All the while, the manure pile behind the barn continued to grow.

One spring morning, the Section Leader appeared at the barn door while the man was milking. "Will you come with me, brother, to visit your neighbor?" he asked. "We in the Cooperative are concerned about him." Such visits by representatives of the Cooperative were common, and the man agreed to accompany his leader.

They found the neighbor out in his field planting soybeans. "Good day, brother," said the Section Leader. "We come today out of concern for you. We have not seen you at Cooperative meetings for some time, nor have you participated in the optional programs. We are surprised to find you here this morning planting soybeans-and using a machine that clearly was not rented from the Cooperative. Can you tell us what lies behind this behavior?"

For a minute the neighboring farmer seemed embarrassed and at a loss for words. But then he squared his shoulders, raised his eyes and said: "If a man wants to raise soybeans, he should be able to do it, if he is a man. It is he who should decide for himself."

"But," said the leader, "you know how the Cooperative feels about soybeans; you know our directors will not buy and market your crop, so you have no guarantees that your labor will be repaid. If you misjudge the market, you will not have means to live through next winter. Is that wise?"

"I will take that risk," replied the farmer. "If there is a chance that I will fail, there is also a chance that I will do better than the Co-op. And now if you will excuse me, I must get back to work."

"Well, brother," said the Section Leader, "it's a dangerous path you have embarked upon. I fear that you risk not only economic loss but also loss of the good opinion of your friends. I fear you will rue this."

The man left his neighbor's field and returned to his own farm with unsettled feelings.

Week followed week, and as usual the man attended Cooperative meetings. But he began to feel a more pronounced dissatisfaction with them. It was not merely that they were repetitious; he gradually realized that the larger part of the time was spent not in discussing farming methods but rather in discussing the Cooperative itself, how to make it work, how to keep all the Westerners engaged and active in its programs, for strange to say, more than a few of them seemed prone to backsliding. Was it for this reason that an inordinate amount of time was devoted to praising and reaffirming the value of the Cooperative? Was this necessary to make it seem indispensable to its members? Gradually, he began to think of the Cooperative as being like a great machine, but not a very efficient one, for it required an enormous amount of energy and time, his included, simply to keep it in motion.

As the summer progressed, the man watched the soybean plants growing in his neighbor's field. They were diligently tended, they produced a fine yield, and the neighbor sold the crop directly to the processors at a very favorable price. The man was pleased for his neighbor's good fortune; at the same time he felt oddly uncomfortable, for had not his neighbor defied the Cooperative?

That December when the man went to the Cooperative Center to give a summary of his farming practices for the year and an accounting of his financial returns as required by the Cooperative, he raised the matter with his Section Leader. "It was a good year for my neighbor's soybeans," he said. "I'm not sure how I feel about what he did, but I guess he was right, after all. I've been thinking that I'd like to plant soybeans next spring. Couldn't we talk to the directors and get them to approve soybeans for all the members?"

"Don't even think it," responded the Section Leader with some warmth. "Your neighbor was wrong to go against the policies of the Cooperative."

"But it seemed good to my neighbor to do what he did, and as a result he has provided well for himself and his family."

"He took a foolish risk," replied the Section Leader. "It is wise to be conservative and to follow good counsel. Even though he was lucky with the market, in the long run, he will not prosper, for our directors know what is best for us. Imagine what it would mean if everyone did as he did, if everyone simply chose to follow his own counsel and plant whatever he wished. Consider how the solidarity of the Cooperative would break down, how its marketing advantages would be lost. There is strength in our unity based on correct principles. Don't even think about soybeans. Your assignment for next year is to plant barley and corn. We'll deliver the seed in good time, along with the fertilizer you'll need. In the meantime, you're well advised to have as little as possible to do with your neighbor. Cultivate other friendships instead."

Throughout the winter, the man thought about his neighbor, he thought about soybeans, and he thought about the Cooperative. Meanwhile, his livestock turned good hay and silage into manure. When spring came, the great accumulating mountain of it hid the entire end of the barn. "This situation does not make sense to me," thought the man. "Co-op fertilizer will cost me money, and here I have all this manure. Why shouldn't I use it?"

Though he had some misgivings about doing so, he decided to ask his neighbor's advice. "Well," said the latter, "I understand your reasoning, and if it were me, I would spread the manure. But if you do, you must be prepared to be treated as I am treated. Some of my privileges within the Coop were withdrawn, and I am ostracized by all of my former friends. I no longer feel comfortable in having any connection with the Co-op and have dropped out of it altogether. I suppose I prefer it that way, but being on the outside is lonely."

"Yes, I can see that," said the man. "Yet you are free-I have thought about it all through the winter, and I realize that you are free. I envy that. Frankly, I would like to plant soybeans, too."

"Think it over carefully," said the neighbor. "There is much good in the Cooperative. Many of its members are very pleased with it, for it is a supportive force in their lives and gives them exactly what they want. Remember how the Westerners helped you when you came. You knew so little about farming. Think how they taught you their proven methods. And think how they gave you a place among them, a chance to be part of their community. Think how they made your path smooth."

"That is true," said the man, "and I acknowledge it. In some ways I don't want to lose those things. Perhaps I won't lose them, after all, even though I think I must spread that manure and plant my ground in soybeans."

Well, within a few days the end of the man's barn had again come into view, and a load of soybean seed in an unfamiliar wagon had been delivered to his farm.

It was only a matter of days before all the farmers in the vicinity knew of the man's defiant actions. Nevertheless, he attended his section meetings, determined that he would make a case for soybeans, persuaded that his friends would listen with open minds, would understand and approve. But he found they were uncomfortable even talking about such independent initiatives, and as the weeks passed he dropped the subject entirely. Gradually he sensed that fewer and fewer of them greeted him at section meetings, and then they did so only when they encountered him so directly they could not avoid it. He became aware of a widening gulf between himself and the others in the group.

It became easier for him to justify evenings spent fishing on his creek or simply reading in his rocking chair, and he gave up participation in Co-op games and socials. He felt ambivalent about these changes. There was satisfaction in knowing that he now had time to do some things he really wished to do, and he was glad to have achieved some greater measure of self-determination. Yet at the same time he occasionally did miss the dancing and the games, and he grieved a little that he could not have the good fellowship he had previously enjoyed. Perhaps he even felt a little guilty about his desertion. The joy of his new sense of freedom was undercut somewhat by his realization that the Cooperative connection was moving beyond his choice. What he really wanted was to have the possibility of some of the Cooperative advantages without having to be totally confined within its limits. He found, to his sorrow, that he could not have it both ways. Late that summer he ceased attending meetings altogether.

The feeling of estrangement grew. It was not that his old Cooperative friends were hostile; it was just that they felt uncomfortable with him since he had adopted a qualified view of their world. As a result, the man sometimes found his lot difficult. If his machinery broke, he had no one to turn to for assistance, or at least his pride prevented him from it. When his livestock were ill, and his own knowledge was insufficient to treat the problem, some of his cattle died. Under the circumstances, how could he bring himself to appeal to the Co-op and its resources. It is true that his soybean growing neighbor did attempt to assist him on occasion, especially with advice about the cultivation of soybeans, but the neighbor was by nature a rather private person, and so that relationship had its limits also.

That fall the man harvested only a mediocre crop of soybeans, and the market price had fallen more than a little relative to the previous year.

Meanwhile, Cooperative farmers got good prices for barley, oats, corn, and potatoes. The man could not help questioning himself at that point. "Perhaps, after all, the Co-op leaders do know what is best. Had I followed their advice, I'd have made twice the profit from my crop. As it is, I will only just manage to survive until next year." But after some time had passed and his discouragement wore off a little, he realized that, had he to do it again, he would still plant soybeans. "I am a man," he thought, "and there is a good deal more to farming than just making a profit."

Two more years went by. The man experimented with other crops, as it seemed good to him, and he marketed them himself. With some, it went well enough, with others badly. However, he managed to get by. Gradually, his former acquaintances showed some renewed interest toward him, which took the form of periodic invitations to renew his affiliation with the Cooperative, to give up his idiosyncratic farming, and to follow again the programs of the Cooperative. To which he would customarily reply: "Thank you, your invitation is appealing. But I think I must go on farming after my own inclinations."

A year later the man offered his small farm for sale. "Where are you going, and why are you leaving?" asked his soybean growing neighbor. "Can't you make a living?"

"Oh yes," he replied, "I do well enough to live. Like you, I am learning to be free, and that compensates for any material thing I might want. But I have decided to return to my old country."

"Have the soybean haters driven you out?" asked the neighbor.

"Not exactly," replied the man. "It is true that I'm a little lonely now, but I don't feel much overt hostility here. Ultimately, no one prevents me from working my land as I choose. I've been able to establish my independence, as you have done. Perhaps there are even some among the Westerners who give me a degree of qualified respect.

"But finally it seems I cannot breathe easily in this environment. I was not cut out to live among Westerners. I learned a lot from them about farming, and strange to say, without intending to they taught me much about myself. Now I know that as long as I remain in this land there will always be an incompatibility between them and me. A benign incompatibility, perhaps. But I cannot easily breathe this utopian air.

"So I am returning to my old country. With some luck, I'll buy a small farm there and try to raise soybeans. The climate there is cool and the growing season is short, but I'm of a mind to try raising cantaloupes and possibly some oranges too."