Wednesday, August 25, 2004


If rural America has an optimistic face with a realistic outlook, it belongs to Troy Lorenzen. Troy is the manager and a part-owner of Smith County Implement, the John Deere dealer at the west edge of Smith Center along Highway 36.

"I'm here by accident," Troy admits. "My wife grew up in a town of about 25,000 people. I grew up in a town of about 2,000 a few miles from there. We met each other in college. I got a degree in industrial technology with specialties in metallurgy and power mechanization. We moved here thinking this would be a short-term deal. I'd get some experience and - bam - move on to some place else."

"Now we joke," Troy says. "I ask my wife if she wants to move to a big town. She says No!"

Troy's wife, Susan, teaches school in Smith Center.

"I think it does take a village to raise a child," Troy says.

"I have this bond with customers here," he says. "I look at them as friends. I'm here to help them."

"My dad grew up on a farm," Troy says, "but he worked for a construction company. My mom worked for a bank."

"I could have worked at the construction company my dad worked for," he says, "but I wanted to put my own mark on the world. At fourteen, I started working at John Deere in my home-town. Now I'm part owner of two dealerships - this and Phillips County Implement in Phillipsburg."

"We have two children who like it here," he says.

"For most folks," Troy says, "Smith Center is their circle of the world. I live in Smith Center but I'm part of multiple communities. I bring a lot of neighboring communities here."

"I like to accomplish things myself," he says. "I don't look to others. I want to be self-sufficient."

"We belong to the Smith Center Chamber of Commerce," he says, "but we belong to the Chamber of Commerce in other communities too. Because I'm so busy, most of my contribution to the Chamber is financial."

"I try to do things for the schools, too," he says. "I'll take out ads in their publications, to put my business in front of them. I'll take an ad in the Kensington yearbook as well. We try to participate there, too."

"Yeah," Troy admits, "my relationship to this place is probably different than that of those who are born here, because I chose it."

"Where I grew up in southwest Kansas, I saw a larger community sucking the life out of my hometown. I came here with my eyes open. I can stand outside the box. There's an adage that things are greener on the other side of the box. I've been other places and know that's not always the case."

"I see opportunities," he says. "Cattle prices are at record highs. Grain prices are favorable. We've been going through a drought that would rival the 1930s yet we don't have the dust storms of the 1930s. Farmers are much smarter, much better stewards of the land."

"Last year," Troy says, "our sales were off drastically, down over a million dollars. That has made me a better business person. It makes me pay attention to details. It's easy to herd cattle when they're going the direction you're going. I challenge people to move forward when things aren't going well. I want to move forward."

Troy attributes the loss in sales to the drought. "Last year," he says, "everything after the good wheat crop went to hell in a hand-basket."

"Things have rebounded now," he says. "There are opportunities in agriculture. The main variable is rainfall. We don't have the water to irrigate."

The challenges that Smith Center faces?

"The answer is the same as it was fifty years ago," Troy says. "We want more people in the community. The question is: how do we get them here?"

"My customers are getting bigger," Troy says. "They want it faster, better, and more efficiently. And they are buying more now than thirty years ago, in terms of real dollars."

"More, more, more," he says. "Once you are in it, if you are not going forward you are going backward."

Where does his growth come from?

"From Mom & Pop operations going out of business," he admits. "There are fewer, bigger John Deere dealerships now. One dealership may have several locations."

If more people is what you need, how do you get them to come here?

"That's the million dollar question," Troy says. "First, you need to retain what you have. Next, the quality of life here is not well enough depicted to people. We should sell quality of life. Third, we should capitalize on our workforce. Our work ethic is good. These people have a drive to get the job done. There must be work in the big corporations that could be done here, and done cheaper because the cost of living is less. The cost of real estate would be cheaper. The bottom line of corporations would be helped."

"Communities need to take a little risk," he says. "It's tough to control your destiny without taking risk. Build an office building. Invite business in rent-free for three years, with a note for them to buy after that. Instead, we ask 'Who's gonna put a business in Smith Center, Kansas.'"

"Self-reliance," he says. "We can't depend on someone to come in on a white horse and rescue us. It's not gonna happen."

"There'll be continual attrition in the number of farmers," Troy believes, "yet they'll be farming the same total acres. Those customers will be even more demanding than they are today."

Troy thinks the community is "segmented, with different outlooks and attitudes about life."

One segment is "progressive, willing to take their future in their own hands."

Next, "we have some pessimists. The earth is going to open up and swallow us up. We'll never make it."

And, finally, "there's a segment of people sitting on their porches waiting for the buy in the white horse to rescue them."

"In twenty-five years," Troy says, "only the first group will be left."

To be continued....


AUGUST 25, 1998

We do not have any more power over the selection of our neighbors than did the settlers in the 1850s on the Big Nemaha River at Tucumseh in Nebraska territory. You staked your claim, and whoever staked a claim nearby - and kept it - was your neighbor. Which would bring you joy, or not.

Many of the pioneers there were single men. As a result, the women on the prairie had to search each other out if they could were to enjoy female company. A woman might be of stout heart and quick wit out on the plains and thereby have an easier time of it; or she might fear the wolves, the open sky, fierce storms.

Most often, I suppose, the choice to pioneer in new territories was not made by the women, but by the men, so the men had a vested interest in success and might be blind to their own desperation. The women - with no such investment - could see foolishness. Perhaps, in the face of testosterone foolishness, women did need to see other women, did need feminine companionship in some deep and essential way. Still, they had little control over who settled nearby, and little control, too, over whom they settled next to.

There are a lot of sad women, perhaps, buried in pioneer graves.

Dew on the grass, this morning. Moisture on the windshield. An unhappy squirrel in the tree along our driveway. Blue sky. Love.

Downtown Fairwater - a migrant worker sits at a picnic table having morning coffee. The table is one of a couple set under the trees along the railroad tracks. He works at the canning factory and lives in the dormitory just east of Fairwater on Highway 44. Often I see the men walking into town to the Village Mart for coffee or treats, then walking back to their temporary home. They are old men and young men, doing the jobs the canning factory cannot find local employees to do.

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