BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Rhodes, you wrote a book called "Making of the Atomic Bomb,” how do you get from that book to a book called "Farm."
RICHARD RHODES, AUTHOR, "MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB": Well, you need to get outdoors for a while and work the land. This was a chance to do that and to look into something that had been puzzling me for 10 years, which was what happened to the family farm and what happened about those bad times in the early ‘80s. So I wanted to go out and live it for awhile.
LAMB: Whose idea was it to name it “Farm”?
RHODES: Mine, I tried “Family Farm.” In fact, my first idea was, “The Last Family Farm,” but Tom Bauer, the farmer who is in the book, is a very straight forward man and he said, "Well, you know Dick, that's not true." So, then I thought, well, "Farm." We have Tracy Kidder's “House” and a lot of other one-named books. "Farm" made sense.
LAMB: When did you start this project?
RHODES: August 31, 1986. I went out, having talked to this family and gotten their agreement that I could come and give it a try. I bought myself a seed cap and put on some jeans and boots and went out and started farming. The first day that I was there, Tom was working on a hog that had a prolapsed rectum and this hog had been kind of mixed up in hog manure and he said, "Grab that leg Dick, and lets get this animal fixed up." And I swallowed hard and grabbed that brown hog leg and we got busy.
LAMB: Did you ever live on a farm before you started doing this?
RHODES: Yeah, I was on a farm for six years as a teenager. It was a boys home. My brother and I had been in an abusive situation with a stepmother and the court removed us to this absolutely wonderful private institution outside of Independence, Missouri, which was then -- is no longer, but was then a 360 acre working farm. We raised all of our own food except for white bread which we saw perhaps once a month. I had a lot of good farming experience. It was very different from what farming is today.
LAMB: Let’s start with you, and by asking, where do you reside now and what do you do for a living on a full time basis?
RHODES: I reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I am a writer. I write books for a living, finally, after years of writing articles for various magazines for a living. "Farm" was lived in the center of the state of Missouri -- while I still as a “Kansascitian” -- but since then I moved to Cambridge, and in fact, I wrote most of the book sitting in a faculty house that I rent in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
LAMB: "Making of the Atomic Bomb" on the jacket here says Pulitzer Prize. When did you write it and what was that book about?
RHODES: That book was about the development of the first nuclear weapons, the ones that are called "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" in the new movie that is around these days. It is a 900-page study that covers the history of physics during the 20th Century and the whole development of the Manhattan Project. It covers the postwar consequences of the development of those weapons, really all of the cataclysmic changes, I think in politics, internationally because of the arms race. That was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer in 1988.
LAMB: Do you find many people who have actually read 900-pages?
RHODES: I am amazed at how many people, even now as I go around signing "Farm" at book stores around the United States -- that an enthusiastic engineer, or MD or occasionally physicists, comes running in the door with a dog-eared copy of the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" and asks me to sign it. Yes, I am amazed at how many people have read the book.
LAMB: The book company lists the number of books that you have written already and this is the eighth?
RHODES: This is the eighth, yes.
LAMB: Three of them non-fiction, "Making of the Atomic Bomb," "Looking for America," "The Inland Ground.”
RHODES: Both of those are books that are essentially collections of magazine pieces written over the years about the Middle West and the rest of the country. Everything from covering a quarter-horse race down in New Mexico to interviewing Masters and Johnson in St. Louis -- all over town, those two books. So in a sense, the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" was my first full length work of nonfiction.
LAMB: You have four books of fiction ...
RHODES: Right, four novels.
LAMB: "The Sons of Earth,” "The Last Safari,” "Holy Secrets," and "The Ungodly"...
LAMB: How come -- I mean, usually you find people don't -- was it Tom Wolf who wrote 13 books of non-fiction and then finally a book of fiction? What is it, what do you enjoy the most?
RHODES: I don't see any difference from the point of view of writing from a technical point of view -- between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. The only difference is that non-fiction -- every fact in the book must refer to a document or a source outside of the book. But technically speaking, as a piece of work, the two have very similar requirements. When I wrote the "Making of the Atomic Bomb," I tried to arrange the story so that it was dramatic and interesting which it is inherently. Well, to take one example, I found a foot note in a scholarly study of the history of physics as a profession, that were so inherently dramatic that I saved it for three years of research and when I got to the point in writing the part of the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" that I thought it belonged, I placed it there.
It's the story of Enrico Ferme, the great Italian physicist in 1939, soon after nuclear fission was discovered -- "Going to the window of his laboratory on the 13th floor of one of the buildings in Columbia University and looking down the length of Manhattan Island and seeing a little bomb, no bigger than that, and it would all disappear." This was a footnote in someone else's book -- you find these things and then you place them so that they make the story dramatic -- which it is, but it needs to be presented as such. That would be that something that a novelist might invent. I did not invent it, but I positioned it.
So I think that non-fiction and fiction are very similar tasks for the writer. Here I had this story of a family living day by day on a farm, doing what they had to do to get their crops planted and maintain and harvested, the kids going to school. In other words, a family and its life. Well, again, I had to figure out what shape it should be in the book. I started with the harvest because I thought that most of us would like to know what the results in farming are before we put any seeds in the ground. I left some things out because they were repetitious. He fed the hogs every morning of the year. In the book he feeds them once and that is as much as we need to know about that.
LAMB: Who is this illustration of?
RHODES: This is an illustration of Tom Bauer, the farmer who is the hero of the book.
LAMB: Not his real name?
RHODES: Not his real name, not quite his real image, almost.
LAMB: Why did you not tell us who was -- his exact name, I mean?
RHODES: He wanted a little bit of privacy left when this project was all finished. He wanted to not feel that everyone who read the book would be driving down the road pointing to his house. And it has worked out that way. He has been able to enjoy all of the hoopla that surrounds the publication of the book without having actually to do what I am doing right now, which I would rather not do.
LAMB: How did you pick the name Tom and Sally Bauer?
RHODES: Well, Tom and Sally are close enough to their real names, Bauer is the German word for farmer. This is a German-descended family, so that seemed appropriate.
LAMB: In the opening pages, you dedicate this book here, we are going to get a close shot of it, I don't know if we can get it this fast ... but this is for George and Francis Berkameyer?
RHODES: George Berkameyer was the superintendent of the boys home where I spent my teenage years and is still a good friend. He is 80 years old now. He taught me high school, vocational agriculture. We studied welding and we studied how to raise chickens and we studied how to plant crops and all of those things and so, George has been a friend and Francis his wife for many years.
LAMB: I was half afraid to ask you that they might be the Tom and Sally Bauer, that this was their real names.
RHODES: (Laughing) No.
LAMB: Have you had anybody ask you whether or not if they are?
RHODES: Yes, I have, that is often a question.
LAMB: Why is it that we ask every author that comes here, why is it that he or she puts the dedication there, how come it is almost never explained who they are?
RHODES: I have often thought of putting some explanation but it always seems not to be the right place. How could you explain an old friendship? So it is easier just to put the names. It is really a somewhat private business even though it is made public. I announced this at a meeting at the Independence, Missouri Kiwanis Club when George was in the audience, he did not know it was going to happen. It was a nice moment for both of us.
LAMB: What kind of impact did he have on your life?
RHODES: I think a great deal. He taught me public speaking. This was all in our Future Farmers of America Chapter which I was a member of and later president of. He taught me some of the skills that I think led me eventually into writing books for a living, so an important impact.
LAMB: When did you first think that you wanted to write for a living?
RHODES: Well, you know, I did a lot of journalism work in college. I worked for college newspaper.
RHODES: Yale. I worked Newsweek a little bit and then I went off to teach college for awhile. It took a long time. I think that writing is something that people find hard to start primarily because they are afraid, afraid they don't have the right to speak, afraid no one should care about what they have to say. I certainly went through that. I think that I was 32 before I really wrote something that was worth putting my name on.
LAMB: You enjoy the gathering of the information, discovering all the new things that come through research, or the actual physical writing?
RHODES: Yes. (Laughing)
LAMB: Which one of those is....
RHODES: I like the writing very much. I often ask my writing friends if they like to write and they always say that they don't. The writing itself ... They love the research, perhaps the fun after a book is published, but not the task of writing. I think that it is the glory of the work. You have assembled all of this information, you have thought about it, you have dreamed about it, you're ready, you are bursting with all of this and then you have this meticulous, but somehow not entirely rational process of organizing it so that you communicate it transparently to other human beings, that is great fun.
LAMB: You have been on the tour -- how much?
RHODES: Two weeks. I think that this is my last stop actually, so ...
LAMB: We are getting the last interview?
RHODES: That's right ...
LAMB: What has been the most often asked question of you about "Farm"?
RHODES: Interestingly, I think that the most often asked question has been, "Why this book,” after the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" which I find a curious question. I am a writer. I am not a physicist. I am not a scientist, I am not a nuclear weapons expert. I have published novels about everything from the Donner Party in 1845 to an astronaut after he gets back to earth and what will he do then and articles about everything under the sun. Truly, I made my living writing for magazines for 20 years. So, the notion of changing radically from nuclear physics to farming did not seem unusual to me at all. In fact, it was a delightful change. I am interested in technology. I am interested in the intersection between human beings and technology and how it threatens us all and perhaps will save us all too. I think that farming ... we forget that it is a technology, a very old technology.
LAMB: What is the question that is never asked of you that you go away from these interviews and say, "I wish they would ask that question, because I am really interested in talking about it?" Or is there a satisfaction level that you get out of some discussions about this book, call in shows that you might have done, interviews that you might have had and others, not because the interviewer or the callers are talking about the meat of this book or you personally or, you know...?
RHODES: I think that what I like to talk about with this book most is how different farming and farming people are from what I think are the stereotypes that most of us who live in the city. Farmers are, in fact, especially these days, after all of the winnowing that has gone on in the last decade, very talented, entrepreneurial technically skilled people. So much so, that I felt sometimes as bewildered, trying to keep track of everything that Tom Bauer did in the course of an ordinary day and as bewildered as I sometimes felt, trying to keep track of nuclear physics and I say that very honestly and candidly.
I kept a spiral notebook stuck in my back pocket while I followed this man around through his days and I could not write down fast enough all of the different things that he did from hour to hour. He fixed machines, he worried about the genetics of the animals. He dealt with the types of soil that he had and what nutrients they needed. He was remarkably competent at everything that he did and he kept it all in his head. When I said, "Tom, you ought to get a computer to keep track of all of this stuff," he just kind of smiled.
LAMB: At the end of the year when he only made $20,000 did you feel sorry for him?
RHODES: No, because, although certainly there were consumer goods that they would have been happy to have, they were a lot happier to have this huge piece of the surface of the earth that they could call their own, around them, land that they ... Tom in particular, felt very mystically connected to.
He said to me once, "Dick, I don't think you can ever explain to someone who doesn't live on a farm and hasn't been a farmer, what it feels like to walk on your own land." And this is not simply land that he owns, it is not just pride or possession. It is also that he has tested that soil, or maybe he has laid some drainage tiles five feet below the surface four years before and what was once a series of swampy patches with a few little fields around them, is suddenly one huge, sweeping, beautiful land that he is going to plant with corn next spring. He had a sense that I think is closer to the sense that we all have about our children, than he did about dirt. It was very lovely to see.
LAMB: Were there kids?
RHODES: Yes. I chose this family because I wanted them to be a family with children who were trying to make up their minds whether they were going to continue farming. Tom and Sally started 25 years ago with nothing. Tom's father had been a farmer but had never owned any land, so there was no inheritance. Tom had $500 and his strong back and his good mind. So, here we are now, almost one generation down the road. This is a man of 50 years. He probably has 10 more years of hard work in him before he is ready and wants to retire. He had one son, whom I call Wayne, who was in college when I was visiting this farm. Wayne would love to farm and would be very good at it. He was the kind of kid that would be happy to get on a tractor at 8:00 in the morning and work until midnight. But his eyes were damaged in an incubator when he was a premature baby, such that he could barely see. He was only allowed to drive during the day time for example. Farming today is the most dangerous occupation in America. It has now surpassed mining as the most dangerous occupation, so Wayne will never be able to farm. It was a very poignant process to see his parents slowly letting him figure that out and not telling him, "Forget it." Just letting him mature to the point where he understood what a responsible decision would be. That was one of the sons.
The other son who was in high school when I was there and is now in the Air Force as a big, strapping, football hero of a kid who would have been a good farmer too and may still be, but for him, the idea was maybe to go into the Air Force to be a jet mechanic. I think he may have seen Top Gun once too often but he thought -- 20 years in the Air Force and I can retire. Tom was hoping this son would go into farming, but it was not clear yet whether he would. It was hard for me to see Brett, as I call him, living with the discipline of the military. He had that same kind of entrepreneurial spirit that his father had and I think that he may come back to the farm some day.
LAMB: Is this absolute non-fiction?
RHODES: Oh, yes, there is no fiction in it at all.
LAMB: You didn't ....
RHODES: Everything in the book is absolutely based on notes. The only thing that I did was sometimes leave things out because they were repetitious or take a conversation I had with Tom that told a story that he recalled and put in his mind at some other point in the story as he might well have thought of it.
LAMB: Again, you spent how long -- a whole year with them?
RHODES: I was there, almost nonstop for nine months and then I would go back for a few days, every couple of weeks to catch up. I essentially was there during the seasons when they were busy.
LAMB: Did you live there?
RHODES: No, I was not invited and I understood that I would have been an unwelcome guest after nine months of living with a family. I rented an apartment in a town about five miles down the road and I would get up every morning and drive out, just about 7:00...
LAMB: This is in Missouri?
RHODES: This is in Missouri ... and stay with Tom, and or Sally until supper time and then go back to my little apartment and transcribe notes or whatever. So, I was with them during their work part of their day but their private life, I left to them. They often told me stories about what happened, what they thought and so forth.
LAMB: How many days? Every day of the week?
RHODES: I would go down, I lived in Kansas City at the time, which was about an hour away by car and I had a family there so I had to occasionally see my family. I would stay about three days and then I would go home for a day or two and then I would come back. So out of every seven days, I was probably there four to five.
LAMB: And you filled 42 notebooks?
RHODES: Exactly, right ...
LAMB: Those the regular reporter type spiral notebooks or larger?
RHODES: Something like this, yes.
LAMB: How much of that do you think that you used in this book?
RHODES: Well, those of course, were kind of compressed since I was living the experience, I had also all the memories that I could find. That is what the notebooks were for, to jog my memory. Of all of that, I used two thirds ...
LAMB: Didn't use a tape recorder?
RHODES: No, in fact, I think that would have inhibited everyone. I could stand beside these very unselfconscious people and write down their dialogue and often did. I was at an auction once, a machinery auction, writing away and someone came up and said, "Say did you get the price on the last machine?" So, they were not concerned about someone writing, but if I had had a tape recorder, I think that they would have gotten very quiet.
LAMB: Did you ever get involved in doing work?
RHODES: Oh, yes ...
LAMB: You did?
RHODES: Oh, no exactly. When I planned this project with Tom and Sally and got their reluctant agreement to give it a try, one of those things that clearly concerned Tom, whether or not would I get in the way and might even be a risk, a safety risk, but since I had had farm experience, I was able to, with a little bit of re-training, because all of the machines were three times as large, help him by moving trucks around, eventually driving his tractor, disking and working his fields, especially during the harvest season -- driving these wonderful, five ton grain trucks of his, either to his own grain bins or all the way to the grain elevator on the river, so I think that I was some help. At least I was not a danger to him. I did not get in the way.
LAMB: What did Tom think of the Federal Government?
RHODES: Well, like most farmers, he had some mixed feelings about it. He was happy to have the help of some kind of support for prices, which evened out the roller coaster progress of agriculture. He understood that this was not charity, that there was an exchange. That he was giving up farming about 10-15% of his land in return for this evening out process. On the other hand, the paper work just got worse and worse and worse. The man, who in that county, and then in each county in the United States, was responsible for interfacing between the Federal Government and the farmer, the ASCS director, told ...
LAMB: And that stands for?
RHODES: It is an old acronym and I don't think I can tell you, but it is an organization that is elected by the farmers to administer all the Federal programs by county basis around the country, told these farmers at one of the many, many meetings that they attended, in order to learn all of the complexities of the Federal program, that for one rule alone, he had had 1,000 amendments sent from Washington in one year. With that kind of bureaucratic complexity, farmers had to scramble to keep up with all of the ins and outs of the various programs to such a degree that Tom and Sally, just this year, have decided to get out of the Federal programs entirely on two of their farms -- the ones they own themselves.
LAMB: How much money, every year, or the year that you were there, did they actually get from the Federal Government?
RHODES: They grossed $150,000 the year I was with them. They netted $19,000. Of that $19,000, $11,000 was federal support of one kind or another. But in a funny way it really did not go into their pockets. They spent about $44,000 dollars that year for fertilizer, artificial fertilizer, for herbicides and for machinery and fuel and those Agribusiness expenses are clearly where that $11,000.00 really ended up.
LAMB: You said $11,000 of the $19,000 -- there was a net ...
RHODES: Well, you can think of it that way, yeah.
LAMB: OK, how about of the $150,000?
RHODES: Oh, $11,000.00 was their Federal participation that year. I am just suggesting that that money really did not go into their pocket -- that the slogan of the colleges of the 70s, that a farmer is someone who launders money for a chemical company and has sent supplies here. The Federal programs are designed so that farmers are encouraged economically to push the yields on all of the acres that they plant. The way you push yields, get more bushels per acre is by using more fertilizer, more herbicides, maybe pesticides, by farming more intensely. In the long run, this is not good for American agriculture but that is the way that the farm program is written and it is written that way in part because the lobbies here in Washington are overwhelmingly large Agribusiness companies that benefit from that Federal money.
I think that we should not think of farmers who on the Federal dole. I think to the contrary, we should think of the Agribusiness lobby as the outfit that is on the Federal dole -- does billions. The year that I was with Tom and Sally Bauer, $25 billion was spent on agriculture by the Federal Government. That is a great deal of money. Very little of it went to the farmers, some of it did. It is one of the reasons they pulled out of the depression of the early 80s.
LAMB: Knowing what you know now about farming and you have lived on one for six years, but you really looked at it closely, would you ever do it?
RHODES: You know, I have day dreamed that since I was a kid -- that it would be fun to be a farmer, and I do like the work and I love being outdoors but it is clear to me now, after a year with Tom Bauer that I don't have the kit of tools. I don't have the skills. He spent his entire life farming and he does it very well for that reason. I spent most of my life writing books, so I think that I had better stay with that. But I certainly would like to have more land around me and I think that I will try to find some kind of old farm around somewhere one of these days, maybe I can grow some good vegetables.
LAMB: How did you pick him, or did you pick them?
RHODES: I sat in New York with my editor trying to think what sort of family would be the right family for this book. We decided that it should be a family that survived the bad times, because otherwise they would not be farmers, but were probably hurt by it, which I think almost every farmer in America was. A family that had children, maybe sons, who were thinking about whether they should go into farming and then I went back to Missouri and tried to think how on earth I would ever identify such a family. I imagined myself going from door to door for a year but I called a friend, who is, in fact, the man who illustrated the book and told him my problem and he said, "Well, I have a cousin down the road named Sally Bauer, lets go see them." We went to the Bauer's and had supper and started talking and after a month of sort of a tentative arrangement, we agreed that we would go ahead with this book.
LAMB: Have you ever thought that if you had gone another route to another kind of a family, that the book would have been a lot different?
RHODES: I have and I haven't been sure of that, although I got to know quite a few farm families around the Bauer's. So, I have some sense that they are in many ways typical, even they are very unique people. But since the book has been published, I have had to identify some other families for television appearances and so forth and they all seem to come from the same central casting -- you know, vigorous people, honest, neighborly people with often the same year and make of machine as Tom and Sally. So, I think that I found some pretty typical people, statistically the typical people.
LAMB: Can you define the politics of, certainly Tom and Sally Bauer and than most of the farmers that you met?
RHODES: There were two clear distinctions, Republicans and Democrats and they were generational. Tom's grandfather was a Democrat, so he was a Democrat. His great friend Clarence who is kind of the comic relief in the book, a wonderful, funny man who lived next up the road, was a rock-ribbed Republican and did not like to hear anything bad said about President Reagan and so on, so it really did depend on their past. But regardless of which party they were loyal to, they still had their complaints about Federal bureaucracy, about too much paper work, about the banker -- they always perceived at not really understanding their problems.
LAMB: Are they religious?
RHODES: This was a family, who unselfconsciously bowed their heads at every meal and said a prayer. Not, I think, arrogantly religious, but simply quietly and traditionally religious. Their descent is German Catholic and they follow that tradition. What struck me and surprised me about this particular part of Missouri, at least, is how much the old ethnic loyalty is still obtained. There was a town up the road which was close by, which Tom said was kind of English and there was a town farther away down the road the other way which was German. Well, they were both very American towns but that was their past and he shopped at the German town -- still had that in mind.
LAMB: This book is published by Simon & Schuster?
RHODES: They were my publisher with the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" and I like them very much. Why do you mean -- should Simon and Schuster publish a book about a farm family?
LAMB: Well, no. Actually why did you pick Simon and Schuster, why did they pick you and is there a difference between publishers from what your experience has been?
RHODES: I think so. My editor is Michael Corda whom I think is one of the most talented editors in the business. I am very happy with him and I stay with him and I stay with S&S.
LAMB: What is a talented editor?
RHODES: Well, in Michael's case, he seems to understand what I am talking about, whether it be nuclear physics or farming. He keeps his hands off of my manuscripts which I appreciate because I work hard to do them well. To me, that means something of what it is to be a talented editor. He pays attention.
LAMB: When you have an editor, how often do you talk to that editor, how often do you meet with them, what do they really do for you?
RHODES: It really has depended on the book. With this book, it seems to me that we met at the beginning and somewhere toward the end. The rest of the time I was out in the field farming. With the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" -- something similar. I can imagine a situation, it is around publication time, I think, when the book is finished, when it is being edited and set in type, when there are decisions to be made about the picture on the cover, and the copy on the jacket, and the illustrations inside -- and that's when an editor, for me, is the most useful person ... and at the beginning when we think through a project.
LAMB: Who decides, for instance, in this case, and we will show the audience what we are talking about here -- the contents page and that you decided to have these different sections?
RHODES: I did.
LAMB: You decided.
RHODES: Oh yes, yes ...
LAMB: And what made you decide that these were the sections that you wanted to write about, or these were the subject areas?
RHODES: Well, in the case of a year in the life of a farm family, I think things break down pretty easily into the seasons of the year, but I also wanted to emphasize in this story, the animal life, and the wild life that was so much a daily part of Tom's life. The book spends a lot of time talking about repairing machines, because Tom spent a lot of time repairing machines, but when he got that machine repaired and went out into the field, we would be riding around on his tractor with a machine behind us, a disk or some other machine and a deer would walk across the field. Coyotes would gather waiting to see if his machine stirred up any mice, a hawk would circle overhead. He lived and was very aware of living in a kind of almost wilderness, which was the woods and margins of his fields, and took great joy of being in that world, rather than inside of a building somewhere.
LAMB: Whose idea was it to do these illustrations?
RHODES: For two reasons, I thought that this sort of book would benefit by having illustrations that recalled the visual world around us as we worked, but also, again, because there is so much machinery in farming. I was describing the guts of combines which have all sorts of peculiar mechanisms inside for processing the grain and I wanted to help the reader along with some illustrations that showed those machine parts.
LAMB: Who did the illustrations?
RHODES: This is a man named Bill Grier, who is Sally Bauer's cousin, who lives in Missouri and is a marvelous book illustrator. He illustrated my first book which was about the middle west also.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
RHODES: I think, when we were working on the first book. I think, someone said, "Here's is a good local artist who could do this," and we have been good friends ever since.
LAMB: It is not often that you see illustrations in books.
RHODES: That's true, especially such nice, old fashioned ones as these, but I think that they add to the book.
LAMB: What about your approach to this -- led you to think that illustrations would help you rather than, say...pictures?
RHODES: Illustrations have the quality of being generic -- all farms, all farmers -- and I wanted that quality. This is not, after all a journalistic report in a way. This is a report of a year in the lives of some very interesting people and I thought that the way to accompany that story would be with drawings rather than with photographs.
LAMB: Go back to you ... we were talking earlier about your tour. What kind of things did you do on your tour?
RHODES: Three things: talk to radio people, talk to television people and signed a lot of books at book stores. That is what tours are about and you do it ideally from early morning to late at night as often as you can stand it. I think that last week I had about four hours of sleep a night for four days in a row which was wonderful. I was too busy signing books and talking to people in the media.
LAMB: Do you get tired of talking about this subject, every day, all the time?
RHODES: I think that might be possible after a time but I haven't, no, because each segment is so relatively limited. This program is wonderfully full, we have a lot of time, but television is typically four minutes. It is hard to get tired of talking about it when you can't say more than that.
LAMB: When you sit down to do an interview, do people tell you, "Now we only got four minutes and you got to say this..."?
RHODES: No, because I think that my agenda is sometimes not the same as theirs. My job is to try to make the book interesting in four minutes to potential readers. To do that, I need somehow to tell its story in some capsule form.
LAMB: What is their agenda?
RHODES: I have no idea, all sorts of agendas. Questions about the farm program, questions about farmers, are they on the dole, all sorts of possible stereotypes that they might have.
LAMB: How many call in shows did you do?
RHODES: Not very many this time. I did a lot more with the "Making of the Atomic Bomb" which was a difficult book because of its length and complexity to present in any medium except radio where there was a lot of time to discuss the ramifications the development of the nuclear weapons.
LAMB: Have you gotten to the point in book writing that you can live off the profits of just book writing and nothing else?
RHODES: Yes, yes, I am happy to say. I have been at it since 1968 and within the last two years, I have finally reached that point -- which also means that I begin to have a choice of what I can write about more than I ever had before, although I certainly had a choice with the books that I have done, by and large.
LAMB: What kind of a contract would you sign -- I am not looking for money, that is none of our business, unless you want to tell us -- but what kind of contract do you sign with Simon & Schuster, how many books do you write for them and over what period of time?
RHODES: One book at a time. I had a wonderful agent once upon a time who said don't sign multiple book contracts. It just lets the publisher ... if you lose money on one book, then the next books pays that back, as it were. He suggested that it was much more practical since that you're taking risk with each book, so should your publisher.
LAMB: When did you finish all of the writing and the manuscript submission on this book?
RHODES: The end of last year, just about December 28th, 29th. I had scheduled ... I plan ahead as to how long it will take to do a book. It is possible to estimate such things, it really isn't done on inspiration. I sit down at 9:00 or 8:30 in the morning and work until noon and have lunch and work until 5:00 just like any other citizen.
LAMB: When you are writing?
RHODES: When I am writing, yes, or when I am researching, although then I may well be reading all hours of the day and night, certainly with the "Making of the Atomic Bomb, when I had a bibliography of oh, 400 books and thousands of documents to go through. I read every spare moment that I could find and every regular moment too. I finished this book at the end of last year, knowing that I would just about then get done and then I made another trip out to Missouri and went to visit the Bauer's to catch up. So, the book has a little epilogue which is designed to tell you where people are that recently.
LAMB: When did you write that?
RHODES: I wrote that in January after I sent the rest of the manuscript in. It did not take very long. It is not a very long chapter.
LAMB: OK, what have you been doing since January? Waiting for this to come out?
RHODES: That and going through all the decision making process of the physical book itself, proof reading, copy editing and all that, but I have also written almost all of my next book which I will finish by the end of this year. I wrote it mostly this summer over about a six week period.
LAMB: It's subject?
RHODES: My childhood, my childhood which was somewhat Dickensian and I said, involves a boy home, some abuse and it seemed time to tell that story.
RHODES: Yeah. Tough to write?
LAMB: No -- tough to tell it?
RHODES: It was hard to write because it was hard at this distance to put myself back into the mind of that frightened, helpless 12-year-old. I am not helpless anymore and it was painful to re-experience that condition. But in another way, it was a fascinating exploration. I went out to Idaho, where my brother lives, who lived through this experience with me. We sat for three days, tape recording our memories. The whole mystery of what you remember and what you don't and how you remember. I remembered stories some times just the opposite of the way they occurred because it made it less painful. There was all of that interesting exploration which I think is in the book. It is a book told from the point of view of present time, looking back and remembering what was magical about childhood and remembering what was terrible about that particular time in my life.
LAMB: And that book is finished?
RHODES: Almost. The period of time when I spent at the boys home, which was also a farm, I have yet to write, but I will finish it by the end of this year and it will be out next year.
LAMB: What are you going to call it?
RHODES: Well it is called, "A Hole in the World." It is called that because the central event probably of my childhood was my mother's death when I was a year old and I came into consciousness as a small boy wondering what was missing -- and then finally coming to understand what was missing was one parent. And in a sense, that hole in the world was my mother's ... missing mother in my childhood, so that is the title.
LAMB: Who is publishing this one?
RHODES: Simon and Schuster.
LAMB: Is it hard for you to be writing another book while you are in the process of promoting this book, keeping it all straight, or is this just work?
RHODES: I also lecture on the “Atomic Bomb”, so it is just a matter of switching heads as you go from place to place. I have, certainly, set aside the writing. That is a very difficult process to do with a lot of other activities. But as soon as this tour is done, and it is almost done, I will be back finishing up the other book.
LAMB: Do you want "Farm", the book we are talking about to have any impact on the political system at all?
RHODES: I hope it would. I hope that political leaders will read this to find out accurately, how farmers live these days. What their real problems are. What their relationship is to federal programs, what they need. I think that's all there. Although this is first and foremost a book about some interesting people, it is also, around the edges and between the lines, history of American agriculture, history of some limited detail of all of the different crops that Tom and Sally farmed and an extensive discussion of Federal farm programs and their impact on farmers.
LAMB: Did you have a sense after studying this, which country in the world does the best with farming?
RHODES: Oh, there is no question that the United States does best with farming. Farming/Agriculture is one of our last world class industries and I think that we should husband it accordingly because it is one of the few that we have left that still has the impact on the world economically and otherwise. It is a glory. It really is a glory to see how well ... again, one man, one man with the help of his wife as his accountant and advisor and sometimes his combine driver, farms almost two square miles of the surface of the earth and does it very effectively.
LAMB: Why do you think that we do it the best?
RHODES: Well, we have the best land to begin with and plenty of it. We have agricultural arrangements that are still entrepreneurial. Tom, typically, is self employed in his own business with its own rewards down the road or today and his land, slowly accrues value even if his annual income is not very high...and maybe it is that special American quality that kind of pioneered joy which they still very much have. Tom is a happy man. You can see it in his operations and in his behavior every day. He can be depressed sometimes but he is basically an optimist. People used to come to the United States, eager just to get out on the beautiful farm land that was waiting there for them. Tom's great grandfather was one of those people back in 1860, came from Germany. The talking in the crowded small villages of Europe about the land that was there to be farmed, filled people with terrible excitement in the 19th Century and they came and they found it and they worked it and they still do. A lot fewer of them now, than then. They still have that kind of sense of what a joy it is to work this land.
LAMB: In recent years we have had a lot of farm movies.
RHODES: Yes, my farmer friends fall on the floor laughing at those movies. They are very untypical, they think, and very technically inaccurate.
LAMB: Is there any one in particular that it really bothered them?
RHODES: I think that the presentation of farmers as barn burners, as fascists as some of these movies have presented them, is a real discredit as to the kind of people that they are. They could not be more democratic in lower case or capital D, honest, decent people. And, not nearly so much the despairing, bitter, whining characters who have been in some of Hollywood's version of what farmers are about.
LAMB: What about the general treatment they get in the media?
RHODES: I think that farmers truly have been misunderstood as slow, people who would not make it in the city -- which is silly, they certainly would, they are very competent. In general, if the media has misunderstood farmers, it has misunderstood just how complex, demanding, their work is. I hope again, I hope the book corrects them with that. I was amazed at how much Tom knew and how well he knew it and how well he did it and he is not unusual in his work.
LAMB: How did Tom and Sally Bauer, sitting on their farm in the middle of Missouri, stay up with current events?
RHODES: There is a wonderful story in the book about what Tom and Sally called their Chernobyl beans. They woke up one morning to the 6:00 farm report as they always do and discovered that soy bean futures were going up by .30 cents that day, the maximum allowed by law. They wondered why and they quickly realized that it was because of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which they suspected had lead the soybean speculators to think that the Ukraine might have been wiped out and the Ukraine, the great grain growing region of the Soviet Union. So they listened to the farm report for the next four mornings and each soybean futures went up another .30 cents, well above the market, well above what the market had been the previous harvest year and on the third day, Tom finally said, "We had better sell now if we are going to sell, because it will start going down soon, the Ukraine is still there," he said.
They sold half of their unplanted crop on six month contracts, so they were supposed to deliver six months down the road so many bushels of soybeans at this particular price and six months later the price was a good .20-.30 cents above the market. They made a nice profit because they understood what Chernobyl was about. They understood what impact that had on the Soviet Union. They understood what the soybean futures market was doing and they put that all together with their particular situation and needs and these are people who are really on the ball.
LAMB: Did they read a newspaper every day?
RHODES: I am not sure. I think it is mostly radio. Farm reports.
LAMB: Is there a world that they live in that most of the other people in the United States don't, like radio networks that deal only with farms?
RHODES: Well, certainly that. There are particular radio stations, especially in the middle west that are farm stations, country music, Paul Harvey, farm reports every hour on the hour, all the different kinds of commodities that they deal with, so they do that. I think that most of their information comes from this remarkable network of fellow farmers who talk to each other all the time. They all have Citizen's Band FM systems built into their machinery now, which is not CB -- it is a much more private system that reaches out 20 miles from every machine, so that if Tom was way over at the town where there was a grain elevator, he could talk to Sally about where he was, what he was doing.
They were connected in a way that farmers did not used to be at all. It used to be very hard to get in touch with each other. Now, they have a way of talking to each other. They saw their neighbors, Tom certainly saw Clarence, at least once a day. One would drive over, the other would drive over. They would be helping each other. Whatever they heard, whatever the news was about, they were up on it and they kept each other up on it.
LAMB: From your experience, does the Congress have its finger on the pulse of what farmers need or do they patronize them? If you were to appear before a congressional committee and tell them exactly what you think about the way that they treat farmers, what would you tell them?
RHODES: I think that farm programs, as the Congress has designed them recently, have had much more to do with Agribusiness than with farmers. And in particular, and I think this is going to change, in particular, the concern that we all have in the city -- and that farmers also have -- with making agriculture more renewable, with moving away from intensive chemical based farming to a more traditional and more organic farming that would make sure that the soil does not erode, that the water supply isn't polluted, that 100 years down the road America still has this remarkable legacy of rich crop land available to feed itself and part of the rest of the world.
The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, about a month ago, issued a very important report, which so far, Congress has not particularly reacted to, although I understand there is some lag time, nor has the Bush administration reacted to it yet. It said essentially this: "Farm programs should be re-designed to encourage renewable forms of agriculture, rotating crops so that the same field isn't planted in the same crop year after year ... Conservation measures that will preserve soil from erosion."
All the traditional things that I remember in high school studying agriculture that we were taught were good farming practices, but that was before the chemical revolution came in. It was before the likes of Earl Butz said, "Plant every acre that you can find, cut down the trees, plow out the hedge rows, we have got to feed the world." And farmers following that advice in the 1970s, doubled the amount of land that they planted to crops in the United States and were then beautifully poised when interest rates went down -- the Federal Reserve tightened money supply. Exports collapsed. Jimmy Carter brought in a grain embargo and the bottom dropped out of farming and all of these poor people went out of business because they were over extended. That sort of boom/bust, push the land too hard, clearly has to change -- for the quality of our food and for the quantity down the road of our food.
LAMB: Who are some of your favorite leaders in this century in farming area, secretaries of agriculture or presidents, or who do you think is out there ahead of them, done the best job for farming?
RHODES: Well, these days, I think one of the most interesting people is Jim Hightower, secretary of agriculture in Texas, who is talking around the country regularly for just this idea of a more renewable kind of agriculture, more than perhaps of thinking of people in the past, because agriculture has moved through a couple of revolutions just in my own experience over 35-40 years. And it seems to me that it is at the brink of moving into a much more healthy condition if we can move away from chemical agriculture to more renewable agriculture. That is the sort of thing that Hightower is talking about. I think that he should be listened to and in fact he is listened to.
LAMB: Mentioned Earl Butz, you did not like him, did you think he was very good?
RHODES: I really was not following farming very closely in those days. It seemed to me that Butz was trying to get farmers to become Agribusiness men. I understood his point of view and it certainly made for prosperous farming for a while but it really kind of delayed and inevitable economic adjustment that then came all at once and was disastrous for farmers.
The story of American agriculture since the beginning of the 20th century has been fewer and fewer people, farming more and more land. That is the consequence of the technological revolution of the introduction of, first of all tractors, and then successively more and more sophisticated farm machinery and then in the 1970's and 60s of the introduction of chemicals and of intensive agriculture based on chemicals. It was not new. The farmers were being driven off of their land. You had only to drive through the country side to see all of the abandoned farm houses, to understand that that's what has been going on for a long time.
Tom Bauer's grandfather farmed 80 acres of land and supported a family on it and fed, whoever, however many city people. Tom's father farmed 300 acres of land and supported a family of 12 and supported some more city people. Tom Bauer, with 3 children, a wife, farms almost 1,000 acres and that is exactly what has been happening in the country. He does it by using ... they did it at each step along the way by using larger and larger machinery to do the job.
LAMB: How well has this book sold?
RHODES: I have not seen any numbers yet, but it has been delightful to go into book stores, really my first experience with this and find it stacked 200 deep. So, I have hopes that perhaps people are looking at it, buying it.
LAMB: Did you think that when you started writing it that it would be a seller?
RHODES: I truly was not sure. I was not at all sure that people in the city would be willing to pick up a book about a farm family with all of the bad news that they had heard over the last decade about farming. I hoped that they would because if they got past the first page, I thought that they would find a story that they needed to hear.
LAMB: Are the economics such for you that you can write a book and it may not sell and you still do OK?
LAMB: And when you sign a contract there is a guarantee?
RHODES: Yes, exactly, and it’s enough usually to live through the time that I write the book.
LAMB: What do you look to your publisher to do to make this a successful marketing effort to start with, and what do they do to help you before you go out there on the road like this?
RHODES: Well, first of all, their salesmen sell the book. This book had a first printing of 45,000 copies. It would not have had that if they did not have enough advanced orders to justify it. So, to begin with, the salesman sells the book to the book sellers and then, I guess, one hopes that they will publicize the book. And in this book, offer a tour. I have been to six cities in the last two weeks and that has not come out of my pocket.
LAMB: What are the six cities and are these the six cities they considered to be the best for selling books?
RHODES: No, I think that they are partly cities that are mid-western cities. Boston, where I live, New York, Washington, St. Louis, Columbia, Missouri, the middle of the state, very close to where the Bauer's live, Kansas City and Chicago.
LAMB: Did Tom and Sally Bauer, that is an alias, come to see you in a public meeting when you made a presentation?
RHODES: The Bauer's came to one of my book store signings.
LAMB: Did anybody know that they were in the store?
RHODES: Oh, how could they ... Tom Bauer is 6'4" and weighs 240 pounds and looks and sounds like Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, so I think that the people around probably identified him from the illustration in the book.
LAMB: Has anybody, anywhere published an article saying that he is the character in this book?
RHODES: No, and I hope they don't. I mean the Bauer's have preserved a little space of privacy and would like to keep it if they can.
LAMB: And there is nothing that they have said to you, that they would kind of like to ... and you have been on television, you have been on network television with other farmers and there is nothing that ... they kind of saddle up to you and say that this would be fun to do this with you?
RHODES: I asked Tom and Sally if they would like to be on CBS This Morning and they said, "No thank you." They turned that down, they have turned everything down. Well, Tom has turned it down. Sally sometimes looks a little wistful, perhaps she might have enjoyed it. He feels that he should maintain his privacy and I certainly understand. I don't ask him any more.
LAMB: We only have 90 seconds. The Pulitzer Prize for your last book, the "Making of the Atomic Bomb"...
LAMB: What is it like to win a Pulitzer Prize and how important is it to a writer to become successful or to continue to be successful?
RHODES: It is great fun to win a Pulitzer prize. It certainly does seem to change ones situation with ones publisher, with the rest of the world. I don't know how important success is as a goal, but I think that success is useful in the sense that it means that the people are going to read my books and that is why I write books. I write them for myself but I write them to be read. This helps get the word out.
LAMB: Our guest for the last hour has been Richard Rhodes. Here is his book. It is called, "Farm." He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, originally from the middle west.
Another book almost ready to come out next year that we talked about during this program. Thank you for doing this.
RHODES: Thank you, very much.
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