Every farmer inherits a set of choices that have already been made for him. He may think of himself as a rugged independent who charts his own course, but his green tractor, his Chev truck, Winchester firearms, white rum and Coke, and Die Hard movies all fit a pattern laid out for him by his paternal ancestors.
My brother-in-law would no more drink an unoaked Chardonnay than he would sit through an evening of throat singing. I was very moved when he showed up at the theatre door many years ago to see one of my plays. I was even more moved two decades later when he came to see another of my plays and stayed for the second act.
I’ve always thought it must be difficult for marketing people in farm equipment companies to change farmers’ minds about brands once those names and colours have been tattooed onto the teenage cerebellum. These are life-long loyalties.
Why they have a truck in the first place has always been a mystery to me. I assumed a farmer chose a truck for rugged performance in all conditions, payload, handling, traction, economy … that sort of thing. But then I noticed that the trucks never actually did anything. I once visited with a marketing genius who assured me that performance is a very minor consideration for guys like my brother-in-law. The marketing man began his career writing TV commercials for Toyota, showing their trucks bouncing through fields in a cloud of dust and small stones. He was disappointed to find that these commercials had absolutely no effect on sales. As he studied the industry he began to realize two things: Farmers were wedded to their brands and trucks don’t do very much work. Most of them never carry anything. Sure, you see the odd one with an extra fuel tank or a toolbox bolted behind the cab. Some do collect a pile of odds and ends through the winter until they make it to the dump in April. But otherwise, the truck bed is empty.
His research showed that the primary purpose of a farm truck for most farmers was to find other farmers. The gunwales were built at armpit height which made them comfortable to lean on and visit for about two hours until the world had been sorted out and put right. Getting a farmer to change brands would be like getting him to go to the symphony. But he noticed there was a completely different group of truck buyers who had no professional or even recreational need for them.
A deeper look revealed that what men loved about these trucks was the idea that they could come to the rescue of friends and strangers. Even if such a situation never arose, what a truck can do gave them ‘swagger.’ He stumbled across a whole new demographic for trucks and helped Toyota move aggressively into the urban market. It’s interesting to see that as the farm population has dwindled and the opportunity for visiting has dried up, the gunwales have gradually increased in height. You can no longer lean on the truck box of a full size F-150 without a step stool. But the rescuing value of a truck remains undiminished.
Last year, during the Fort McMurray wildfires, 1,000 young men loaded their pickups with bottled water and drove across Alberta to the rescue. As it turned out, not that much bottled water was actually needed, but emergency officials found it was just easier to thank the philanthropists and stack the water in a field. In the grand scheme of things, there are worse vanities for a young man to affect than the pose of a swashbuckling rescuer. While awaiting the big earthquake, young men are still there to move the household effects of damsels in distress, make a dump run for the elderly, move sound equipment for a church fete or deliver beer to a wedding.
I have burned through three trucks in my lifetime. On rare occasions I have used the truck to move a load of feed or a few bales of hay like they do in the commercials. But mostly I’ve been leaning on it with friends out by the mailbox. Last year, I took possession of a Toyota Tundra that is only seven years old, has air conditioning and a CD player. It’s the first of my trucks that any of my kids would be seen in. I was very proud of it and took it down to show my brother-in-law.
“Look,” I said. “A real truck! Now we can go on a crop tour!”
“Not in a Tundra,” he said, and went back inside his shop.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.