Peter Larson stopped his tractor in the middle of the soybean fields his family has operated for decades in North Dakota to seriously consider what might happen if he went through with his decision.
It wasn’t exactly the most thought-out plan: a few days earlier, the farmer had come up with an idea to plow through acres of his land to carve out a sign in support of former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris. He etched out their last names on a loose piece of paper he carried with him in his tractor until he decided to go through with it.
“I’m sitting out there for hours, and I got to thinking, ‘you know, I could make a nice sign out here I betcha,’” he says in a recent interview with The Independent. “I had taken a little piece of note paper — I didn’t take a Biden and Harris sign, just found the logo online — and made a little sketch. When I finished doing my business up there, I made these little signs.”
To be clear, the signs are anything but small.
4th generation North Dakota farm and cattle ranch soybean field plow art! @JoeBiden @KamalaHarris @shelleyjlenz @ben_vig @JoelKFGO @HeidiHeitkamp @NDSoybean @NDStockmen #VPDebate pic.twitter.com/9foJQSxLg9— Sandra Larson (@sandra_larson7) October 7, 2020
Larson says the Biden-Harris sign stretches ten acres. He also made one for the state’s Democratic gubernatorial and lieutenant governor candidates, Dr Shelley Lenz and Ben Vig. He used a grid based on old tracks left in the fields from the last time he worked on the area, and simply got to work on his vision.
Asked how long the entire job took, he responds: “Maybe 20 minutes.”
The 58-year-old lives in the house he grew up in, raised by a family of farmers and ranchers whose grandparents homesteaded in North Dakota just miles away. In their deeply red hometown, his father had served as a Democrat in the legislature but lost to a Republican while running for statewide office.
Larson, who considers himself politically engaged, has never ran for office. He says he’s helped out delivering yard signs for Democrats and usually votes for the party in state and national elections.
But in his small conservative town of Sheyenne, where everyone knows everyone, the idea of bringing as much attention to one’s political views as Larson was doing would surely cause alarm among locals.
“I don’t want to offend anybody by it,” he says, about the signs. “I just hope people wake up to see what’s going on here, and how this is a bad situation.”
He adds: “Our worldwide prestige is damaged. Our economic situation is damaged. A good friend of ours died of the coronavirus the other day, a perfectly healthy person. Five days and she was gone. And it’s not just us.”
So, Larson plowed through his soybean fields. He later flew his Cessna 182 over the farmland, snapping a couple pictures of the signs that he then sent to his daughters, who posted them to social media.
The signs were a viral hit, receiving thousands of retweets and shares on Twitter. They became the subject of articles published by the likes of HuffPost, which said Larson was cultivating a following.
He laughs when I ask him about his newfound internet popularity. But behind the show of support for the Democratic candidates is a deeply serious concern the farmer has for the future of his industry — and the fate of the country.
Larson says the president’s trade wars with China have resulted in steep losses in revenue for his farm, calling Trump’s promise that China would end up taking the economic hit instead of America’s farmers and ranchers a “bold-faced lie.”
“It’s cost a lot of money,” he says. “I’ve paid check-off money — tens of thousands of dollars for forty years. A big share of that money goes to trade missions: Setting up trade relationships, inviting trading partners over here to see our product. Trump got into office and he flushed that all down the toilet in two months.”
Larson operates about 4,000 acres, with roughly 170 cows, producing both corn and soybeans on his farm. He planted his first crop in 1984, and his father retired a year later in the midst of the Farm Crisis. He decided to drop out of school and start farming right out of college, before he got married and finished earning his degree from North Dakota State University several years later.
He says his family has felt the impact major trade decisions have had on the US agriculture industry for decades, dating back to when Russia invaded Afghanistan, and Jimmy Carter embargoed wheat sales to the country.
“I don’t think Russia has bought any wheat to speak of from us since,” he says.
Larson says things were going well for his farm about five years ago. He adds: “We dug our way out of that, we were making good money with honest prices. Now we’re all standing around checking the mailboxes, signing up for government money — and the taxpayers are footing the bill.”
He says the president has gone about domestic and international policies in an “asinine way,” though he understands why many farmers do appear to support Trump over Biden.
“I know he’s big in farm country, and most farmers are going to vote for him — I think most of that has to do with the promise of reduced regulation,” he says. “It’s the promise of cutting big government, and freedom and gun rights. To me it’s becoming apparent that the only rights Republicans support are gun rights.”
Larson says he “always liked Biden” and is enjoying getting to know Harris from her appearances on the campaign trail as his running mate.
“Kamala Harris is a good candidate,” he says. “She has some toughness to her. Both her and Biden have backbone that the Democrats have needed. They’re willing to stand up a bit more than some others.”
Larson says he fears another four years of a Trump presidency, and what he calls Republican-led “attacks” on voting rights.
“My God, the last ten years all they’ve been doing is trying to keep people from voting. Now they don’t even want to count people on the census properly,” he says. “I mean, it just gets worse and worse.”
The concerns he has for the future compelled him to take a stand, he says. But he remains hopeful for what’s to come.
“I’m optimistic Joe and Kamala can win,” he says, noting how he already mailed in his ballot. “My hope is that it’s done in a way that is overwhelming and can’t be easily contested.”