Eating wind and snow in dead winter for 1,800 miles, Don Kimbrell barehanded the wheel of an open-cab tractor and crossed a continent in 21 days, driving a John Deere G into history. Launching from the hard-scratch plains of the Texas Panhandle, Kimbrell rode in Tractorcade—an epic 5,000-tractor farmer army that rumbled into Washington, D.C. in 1979, and occupied the National Mall, demanding political attention to address the realities of an agriculture industry in collapse.
“I’d drive it all again right now, but my body wouldn’t stand the wear,” says Kimbrell, 78, speaking through the molasses of a sweet Texas drawl. “It ground me down every day to a kind of tired that is hard to describe. I was only 36 when I started that cross-country trip, but when I finished, I was an older man than I am right now.”
Teargassed on the Mexican border, imprisoned in Texas, hammered by biblical hailstorms and crop failures, worn to the bone by a buck-wild tractor trip, devastated by the heartrending death of his teenaged firstborn, and yet grateful from his core for the opportunities afforded by American agriculture, Kimbrell is a character seemingly pulled from the muscled lines of a Hemingway novel or the colorful script of a McMurtry saga.
What compelled a farmer to step beyond the accepted bounds of convention and rage against the political machine? “I was only one man of many who spoke up and acted,” Kimbrell emphasizes. “The real story is not about me, money, or my farm—it’s about doing something when you’re a nobody. Farming was dying all around us in America while the government denied us a level playing field, but like so many other farmers at the time, for the sake of our country I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. At some point in life, everyone answers a question, ‘What are you willing to say or do?’”
Farming on Fire
Born in 1943 to the endless South Plains cotton fields of Levelland, Texas, young Don Kimbrell ran the rows as the next in a family line to wear a four-generation farming belt, which curled backwards to Oklahoma, stretched to Tennessee, and originated at a long-since forgotten locale on the East Coast.
Kimbrell married his equal in mettle, Carolyn, and the couple raised four sons—Kyle, Shawn, Casey, and Heath—on a farm roughly 100 miles north of Levelland and 30 miles south of Amarillo, in Happy, Texas. As the 1970s ticked along, Kimbrell wrestled dryland dirt on 800 sun-bleached acres of cotton, grain sorghum, and wheat, along with a small herd of cattle.
By mid-decade, U.S. producers began feeling the sting of subsiding crop prices and rising production costs—a chronic pain that outlasted the typical vagaries of commodities and moved the market from the doldrums to a genuine rut.
Year over year, like many agriculture producers, Kimbrell was financially flailing, and big yields provided no salvation. “I had some really great wheat yields that made almost no difference in trying to cover the cost of production,” he says. “When you can only get $1.25 for a bushel of wheat, try outyielding that price. Every commodity was affected to some degree everywhere in the country, and that meant every family farm was starting to see the writing on the wall.”
Kimbrell stood at a cruel impasse: immovable, anemic crop prices to the left, and foreclosure to the right. “Desperation started to take hold of my life,” he says. “I couldn’t predict I was about to get teargassed by the government or drive a tractor all the way to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but that was about to happen. Thank the Lord for the boys in Campo, Colorado, who had enough of things even before I did. They were fixing to start the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) and set farming on fire.”
A stone’s throw south of Fort Worth’s 1970s urban sprawl, David Senter farmed in Johnson County, growing 2,000 acres of blackland row crops, 1,000 acres of pasture/hay, along with 100 head of beef cattle and a 100-head dairy operation.
American farmers watched $13 billion of ag income disappear in 1977, according to USDA. “By the late 1970s, all you could do was cover expenses,” recalls Senter. “You focused on survival, and you couldn’t think about buying land, but most of us just stood around complaining. Misery loves company, and we’d all talk and talk.”
September of 1977 marked the end of “talk,” when five farmers changed the trajectory of U.S. agriculture history and seeded the AAM. At a gas station-diner in Campo, Colo., a quintet of growers commiserated on their economic troubles, chasing their sorrow with multiple pots of coffee. “They were bellyaching,” says Senter, a seminal figure in the founding of AAM. “They were letting out a never-ending chain of, ‘How are we gonna pay our bills? How are we gonna see tomorrow?’”
“But all of a sudden,” continues Senter, “a truck driver finished his food and walked over. The trucker looked them in the eye and set them straight. He said, ‘I wish you farmers would stop bellyaching and do something. I’m sick of hearing it and bellyaching is all I ever hear from farmers.’ Whoever the trucker was, he was exactly right.”
Challenged to action in a genesis moment, the five Baca County growers called a local meeting to address the plight of family farms. “It was the spark we’d all been waiting for and it set off an explosion,” describes Senter. “The meetings jumped from town to county to state to across the country. It was a raging prairie fire like nothing ever seen in agriculture.”
Two months later, barreling down the highway in a 1969 GMC pickup truck with WBAP country music radio blaring through the cab, Senter heard a peculiar advertisement squeezed between the plaintive laments of George Jones and Johnny Paycheck: an announcement calling the faithful to a rally at Irving’s Texas Stadium. “A meeting for farmers where the Dallas Cowboys play? No way in hell I was missing it.”
Inside the stadium, Senter listened to a steady stream of boots-on-the-ground farmers issue a call to action. “It was a bottom-up affair with no genuine organization, just a do-it-yourself mentality reminding us that family farms were going adios if we didn’t pay attention and act immediately.”
Senter returned home from the rally, dialed a rotary phone to send out a prayer chain-style message from farmer to farmer, organized a Johnson County grower meeting using a local bank as venue, hooked in several media members, and watched 80 farmers walk through the door. A week later, driving a parade of tractors, Senter’s farmer group circled the Johnson and Cleburne county courthouses, declaring the need for change.
AAM, Senter emphasizes, was a movement, and not an organization. “By 1978, USDA estimated 1.5 million farmers were involved in AAM. At that time, we had no real leaders, and we coalesced around two basic principles to help family farms. One, parity: A fair price on crops to just cover the costs of production and enable a farmer to make a survivable living. Two, country of origin labeling (COOL). There were other issues that AAM highlighted, but those were the biggest problems.”
“This happened all over the country,” Senter says. “It was a feeling in the air and we got everybody going without computers or cell phones. Each farmer called five friends, and they’d call five friends, and that’s how we passed the word on about what to do next and where the next rally was. It was our own nationwide phone tree.”
By December 1977, before worn calendars were pulled and replaced afresh on farm shop walls, every state capitol in the union received an AAM Tractorcade rollout. “50 states and thousands of tractors,” Senter says. “We had 700 tractors show up in Austin, alone.”
The groundswell of grower response was a vital outlet for heavy frustration building on vast numbers of family farms, Senter contends—a release valve for high pressure: “When you have desperate men losing family land or watching their children’s future slip away, they can turn to violence really fast. Instead, AAM gave farmers an outlet and they knew they weren’t alone—otherwise American agriculture was going to see bloodshed.”
Teargas and a Jericho March
Back in Happy, Kimbrell caught AAM fever. He attended local meetings several times a week, participated in tractor protests, petitioned politicians, and looked for opportunity to “put facts” before the public. Each AAM meeting and gathering began with recognition of the hand of Providence and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. “Prayer and the Pledge,” Kimbrell emphasizes. “I never went to anything that was AAM-related in Texas or anywhere in the country where we didn’t start with both before we put a foot forward. It didn’t matter if the meeting had a couple of farmers or hundreds—nothing was discussed and no decisions made until after prayer and the Pledge.”
On March 1, 1978, Kimbrell crammed into a sedan with five farming neighbors and drove 14 hours south to McAllen and the Rio Grande—answering a phone tree alarm to expose the imbalance of COOL.
“We were sick and tired of the double standard,” he says. “Mexico was sending their produce across the border treated with DDT and other chemicals that we weren’t allowed to use. There was nothing on the produce to tell Americans where this was grown.”
On arrival in McAllen, Kimbrell fell in with approximately 250 U.S. farmers headed for the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, intent on documenting the lack of regulations on incoming produce, and alerting reporters for coverage of the protest. Chaos ensued.
“The mayor, Othal Brand, farmed on both sides of the Rio Grande in both countries,” Kimbrell explains. “We had an agreement with him for us to get on the bridge and get our pictures taken by the media. Brand brought in five divisions of police to control us and had troopers ready. They were going to make an example of us. There was even a machine gun on a tripod under a tarp at the middle of the bridge, and I don’t know if Americans or Mexicans set it up, but it was sure there.”
“We were on the bridge for a just a handful of minutes when the police got on their bullhorns and ordered us off. No way,” Kimbrell continues. “At the back, our guys couldn’t even hear everything being shouted, and everything went crazy when they gassed us.”
Senter echoes Kimbrell’s recollection. “That’s how sad the situation in America was for U.S. agriculture in the late 1970s. They teargassed hundreds of American farmers on a bridge for trying to expose what was happening with food imports.”
Riot gear; swinging batons; a barrage of teargas; 250 farmers arrested and several hospitalized. Hauled to the local jail, the farmers refused to post bond and were deposited in the courtyard. Several farmers who escaped the law enforcement perimeter during the bridge arrests rounded up dozens of blankets and delivered the load to the jail, providing their incarcerated brethren with cover at nightfall. “They couldn’t get hold of nearly enough blankets, so they brought a lot of newspapers too—anything to make sure we stayed warm. That place was more like a prison, instead of a jail, and we were herded like cattle,” Kimbrell recalls. “There wasn’t enough room in the cells for so many of us, so we spent the night outside in the rain.”
Othal Brand had kicked an anthill. By the next morning, Senter and 3,000 farmers originating from New Mexico to Georgia were pouring into McAllen, and soon had the jail facility surrounded in a Jericho march, demanding immediate release. “The police said they’d reduce the charges if we pled guilty,” says Kimbrell. “No sir. We did nothing wrong.”
Outside the jail, farmer frustration neared a boiling point, with vocal calls for a bullrush extraction of the 250 detainees within the detention grounds. “It was tense like you couldn’t believe with farmers still racing into McAllen in by the hour and more on the way,” Senter recalls. “Somebody pulled a tractor onto the jail’s front entrance and the police cars were blocked by other tractors and most of the police were holed up inside the jail, keeping away from the anger building outside. It was getting close to a deadly outcome.”
Recognizing the volatility of the touch-and-go chaos in McAllen, Attorney General John Hill arrived on scene from Austin and negotiated a settlement: All charges dropped, no fines imposed, and all farmers free to go.
After three days in the slammer, Kimbrell and his farming companions were released—and immediately set course for the bridge along with Senter and 3,000-plus AAM-related producers, hellbent on securing media photos. “This time, the machine gun at the middle of the bridge was ready and it wasn’t covered by the tarp anymore,” Kimbrell says, “but sometimes, you gotta be willing to pay the cost for what’s right.”
The irony of the flip of fortune from farmer lock-up to farmer photo-op was extreme, Senter describes. “We marched right back to that bridge. We stopped a truck loaded with onions coming from Mexico that actually said, ‘Product of Texas—Brand Co.’ It was Othal Brand’s own vegetable produce rolling into the U.S. from south of the border. And the media got pictures of it all. Case closed.”
Snowflake in Hell
Moving from strength to strength, with “strike offices” set up in counties across farm country, AAM continued to gain steam as a movement, despite possessing no concrete structure. Spurred by AAM, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) introduced the Flexible Parity Act, and although the legislation passed the Senate, it fell during a House floor vote. “We didn’t know what the hell to do next, except maybe it was time for the country boys to go to the big city,” says Senter.
At the next AAM meeting in Texas, Gerald McCathern, 53, a highly respected farmer from Deaf Smith County, spoke up and proposed a preposterously massive Tractorcade. McCathern, affectionately and respectfully dubbed as ‘Little Napoleon’ by his fellow farmers, was an outstanding stump speaker: “If the politicians won’t listen to our lobbying, let’s just drive our tractors all the way to their doorstep,” McCathern said. “I guarantee that will get their attention.”
In attendance at the Saturday night meeting in December 1978, listening to McCathern’s Tractorcade idea, Don Kimbrell heard words that roused his core. Ready for Sunday School the following morning, he and his wife, Carolyn, climbed into a Chevy Suburban and started down the muddy road that led from their farmhouse to the highway. Consumed by McCathern’s audacity, Kimbrell exclaimed to Carolyn, “What are they talking about? That’s the craziest idea I ever heard in my life. Just take off and drive our tractors across an entire country? How crazy would we have to be?”
Without missing a beat, Carolyn turned her head toward Kimbrell, and plainly stated: “You know you’re going, don’t you? You’re going.”
The matriarch had spoken with a nod of approval. “Nobody in the whole world knew me like Carolyn,” Kimbrell says. “When she said that, I knew I would end up in D.C., but I had no idea I’d go bouncing into the city on a G.”
Of all the thousands of tractors about to rumble out of tiny towns across the contiguous U.S. and descend on the American capital, Kimbrell would embark on the single longest journey of all atop an open-cab tractor—a 1950s model with a snowflake-in-hell chance of arriving in one piece.
“I didn’t have no idea what I was getting into, and I really didn’t believe the G would actually make it very far. I suppose most people might have thought otherwise about trying it.”
Indeed. But most people aren’t cut like Don Kimbrell.
The Mighty G
McCathern’s outlandish idea exploded across state lines with the electricity of old-time revival, bringing together farmers at county AAM strike offices to map out routes to D.C. Four interstates were selected as the main thoroughfares for four separate branches of Tractorcade: I-20 Lubbock, Texas; I-40 Amarillo, Texas; I-70 Denver, Colo.; and I-80 Cheyenne, Wyo.
A complicated logistical question centered on synced arrival; every branch needed to reach D.C. at the same time. The puzzle was solved with tiny bits of wood—literally.
Breaking off matchstick pieces to correspond with 100-mile scales at the bottom of road maps, McCathern, Senter, Kimbrell, and others placed the sticks end-over-end across the four routes, estimating 100 miles of travel per day at approximately 20 mph.
Each caravan was led by a designated wagon-master tractor. The vehicle order stayed firm, explains Kimbrell. “The first tractor to leave was the first to reach D.C. on each route. If you were point, then you stayed point. You were the hot-nosed hound the whole way. Wherever you joined behind the point was your permanent place in line. As we rolled across the country and people joined in, they would take the next spot at the back.”
As the departure date neared, Kimbrell was all in for the trip, except for a major financial hitch: His 1150 Massey-Ferguson, although lacking a heater, had a cab, but it also had a red note. “That 1150 was mortgaged to the hilt,” he says, “and I wasn’t comfortable going anywhere past my fields in it.”
Scratching and scraping together $500, Kimbrell slapped cash on the barrelhead for a 1956 John Deere G afflicted by a locked-up engine, still attached to an old cotton stripper. “We rocked it down and oiled it up and had no guess on how far it would go. All I knew for sure was it couldn’t go the whole way. No problem: I’d go as far as I could. Most everybody else had a cab tractor, but there was no way I was gonna miss out trying to help, and the G was the best I could do."
The single front-wheel G was designed to run up to roughly 12 mph—not even close to the projected Tractorcade pace of 20 mph. Kimbrell improvised, further heightening the risk factor for an already suspect vehicle. “The G was never meant to go 20, but I bent the rod that went to the governor to make it run faster. I used a wire to hook to the governor, and I could pull it back and tie it and it’d go almost 20. Shouldn’t have done it; but D.C. was in front of me and that was the only way to keep up with the pack.”
According to plan, once Tractorcade was completed, farmers could pay a fee to have tractors hauled back, thanks to help from several machinery companies and county equipment operations. However, D.C. was the pre-planned end of the line for Kimbrell’s propane-fueled G. “All my money went into the tractor and I couldn’t afford to haul it back. Sad in a way to have to do that, but I knew I’d be leaving it behind.”
Kimbrell could not have been more wrong: The mighty G would follow him to the end of his days.
All the Damn Way
On Jan. 15, 1979, sporting a horseshoe mustache, Kimbrell, 6’1” and 200-plus lb., slipped on his battle gear: insulated snow boots, Levi’s jeans, and a western-style button shirt—layered by dark, Wall’s insulated coveralls with a thick corduroy collar, topped by a felt, gray cowboy hat under a plastic slip cover. No ear muffs; no scarf; no glasses; no goggles; and no gloves. “I knew it was gonna be cold without gloves, but that just ain’t me. I can’t start a nut on a bolt wearing gloves, so no thank you.”
Courtesy of Carolyn’s handiwork, the John Deere G was spiffed to the max. Kitted at front and back with vinyl curtains, adorned by U.S., Texas, and AAM flags, and draped by multiple signs of declaration, Parity, No Charity; Outdated As Today’s Farm Prices; This Tractor Represents Texans for Agricultural Equality; Happy, Texas, the G was a rolling advertisement for Tractorcade’s intentions.
Canvas flaps hung on both sides of the small vehicle, serving for weather blockage and heat retention. “The canvas was a comfort cover that came up about chest-high on me and directed at least a little engine heat toward me. Better than nothing.”
Climbing onto a seat padded with a heaping of extra foam secured in place by sewn vinyl wrap, Kimbrell drove off his Happy farm on the G, bucking and jumping like a green horse, headed for Bushland, just outside Amarillo, to join the advent of Tractorcade. Three hours later, after fighting a north wind spitting snow, he arrived in Bushland, along with approximately 700 other tractors adorned in signs of protest and declaration: “I was so excited and apprehensive, but maybe I shoulda turned around,” Kimbrell laughs. “That was a crazy start because it felt like the coldest day of the whole trip from my seat and I hadn’t even got nowhere. I’m fixing to drive across the continent with no cab?”
“I didn’t even know how long my tractor would last, or how long I’d stay in D.C., or when I was coming home,” Kimbrell continues. “I figured I’d stay until the job was done, because I was so sick of hearing politicians say the same things: ‘The wheels of government turn slow,’ or ‘Y’all be patient,’ or ‘No way this can be done.’”
At the mention of Kimbrell’s efforts and determination, Senter, who drove a John Deere 4430 on the I-20 Tractorcade branch, pours out deep respect. “Don Kimbrell? Yessir; I’d say he is a fine gentleman and a perfect example of how we all felt about trying to get to Washington. People today, even farmers, don’t realize what Kimbrell did. He drove a G with no cab in freezing-ass weather all the way from the Panhandle. Think about that: All the damn way.”
At dawn each morning, Tractorcade sparked to life, thousands of vehicles ready for 8-10 hours (85 miles to 145 miles, depending on weather and geography) of travel. The G required an $18 fill-up, and at the end of each day, the fuel tank registered between fumes and 20% propane capacity.
The tractors were accompanied by a cavalcade of campers, fuel trucks, and scouting pickups, and with the passing of a new town or county, each branch of Tractorcade grew as farmers joined the queue, birthing 20-mile-plus snakes on the interstates. “It was something to behold,” says Senter, who split time between his tractor and a pickup, conducting recon and negotiations with local police, state troopers, and several governors. “On I-20, just for example, by the time we got to Georgia, we were at 20 miles from the first tractor to the last tractor, and we kept growing and growing all the way to D.C.”
McCathern, lead dog on the I-40 route, also served as national wagon-master, driving an International Harvester 1486. (Seven years later, in 1986, the IH 1486 was obtained by the Smithsonian and remains in the museum’s possession. As a commemorative tribute, it was driven by a chain of farmers from Hereford, Texas to the Smithsonian grounds in D.C.)
Each day of Tractorcade, as the I-40 procession moved from Texas to Oklahoma to Arkansas, spanned the Mississippi River at Memphis, crossed the long horizontal stretch of Tennessee, and spilled into Virginia, farmers piled onto the wagon train. “We picked up people and some of them never even planned on joining, but heard about us and hit the road on a crusade,” Kimbrell describes. “The word went out that we were coming and it became a wild time like nothing that ever happened in the country before or since.”
Kimbrell’s memory is tattooed by the arrival of Otis Chapman, a lay preacher and farmer from eastern Arkansas’ Des Arc, within the vicinity of Prairie County. Chapman, a natural leader commanding a keen intellect, immediately sought out the acclaimed John Deere G, and placed a crumpled $20 bill into Kimbrell’s palm. “I’d never met Otis to that point in my life. He walks up and gives me money and says, ‘An older Arkansas farmer who can’t make the trip says he wishes he’d have done this years ago, and wants to donate money to the guy driving the G to help in a small way.’ It’s always choked me up and meant more than words can say,” Kimbrell recalls.
In state after state, along countless shoulders and overpasses, throngs of supporters gathered to cheer, wave signs of support, and exhort the caravans. “People were so good that it’d move you to tears,” Kimbrell says. “They were everywhere along the roadsides with thumbs-up, holding pro-farming signs, snapping cameras, and giving us heartwarming words. It’s important to know, many of these supporters were not farmers, just Americans who appreciated us. We were just a novelty going down the road, but in the more populated areas, where most people had no comprehension of farming, the support was even bigger.”
By late afternoon, Tractorcade usually pulled into an empty lot or field, and bedded down for food and rest. In the evening, without fail, locals arrived with meals—barbeque, potluck, fried chicken, hamburgers, or a dozen other dishes. “Oklahoma or Tennessee or whatever state, these people just showed up when they heard we were on the way,” Kimbrell says. “Town after town, and they’d pool their money and feed us and fuel us up.”
Kimbrell, along with three other farmers, jammed into a trailer each night to sleep. At bedtime, he scratched down the hours and minutes of each day in a running log. “I gotta admit, sometimes I was just too tired to write,” he describes. “The cold just stayed inside me and I felt like I was aging by the day. I started to get so weary that everything was going blank. No matter what, I clearly remember how good people were to us and it was so humbling.”
As the days passed, the physical travel wear from exposure to raw winter elements and incessant vibration on asphalt took an increasingly heavy toll on Kimbrell, preventing him from getting the genuinely deep slumber his body craved. “My bones shook all day in a way I’d never experienced on the farm. I got to a point where I was so achy that good sleep was hard to come by.”
While acknowledging the physical hardship, Kimbrell is adamant: His wife, Carolyn, dealt with the roughest side of separation, maintaining winter farm tasks while shepherding four young boys—three sons and a foster child. “All I had to mind was cold wind and rain, but she watched over all the kids, seeing to all the chores every day I shoulda been doing like breaking ice so the cows could drink. Carolyn had the hard part, not me.”
In 21 days, Kimbrell’s Tractorcade branch grew exponentially, with at least multiple growers in line from every county between New Mexico and Tennessee, he estimates. “Yankees, Southerners, Westerners…name the place,” Kimbrell says. “Every single tractor had flags or signs, and sitting in the seats were the toughest men in America. I guarantee: When you saw everyone lined up together, doing their best, it put a lump in your throat.”
Arrest Us All?
As Tractorcade inched into Virginia, Kimbrell’s G fell on its last legs, shaking violently on the highway due to bald, slick tires. In the planning meetings prior to Tractorcade, participants had been advised to turn tires backward to prevent tread loss. Kimbrell declined. “I figured my G was light enough and I didn’t worry about it. I couldn’t have been more wrong because my tires started to wear in gaps to the point where the G was bouncing instead of rolling. It was kind of like riding on basketballs.”
Anticipating trouble, federal authorities maintained surveillance of Tractorcade branches via a steady stream of government helicopters. “All the way from at least Tennessee, the feds were sending choppers to steady watch us,” Kimbrell says. “I don’t know what department or agency, and I don’t know where they were taking off from, but you couldn’t miss them.”
In the darkness of Saturday evening, Feb. 3, 1979, Tractorcade reached Virginia’s Bull Run Park and made camp, intent on a mass advance into D.C. following the weekend. On Monday, Feb. 5, the full bulk of Tractorcade descended on D.C. and brought the city to a halt. The kettle was at a boil, and amidst protests, police clashes, tractor burnings, and genuine unrest, the threat of violence was palpable, according to Senter.
“Things were tense and the police were scared in some accounts,” he says. “One of our guys lost an eye because they broke out the windows of his tractors with batons. We weren’t out to hurt nobody and once they realized that, things calmed down, but there was serious tension those first few days.”
“The police didn’t know what to do with us,” echoes Kimbrell. “They couldn’t arrest our individual leaders because we didn’t have any, and they couldn’t understand how we could be so independent.”
Uncertain about the level of discontent riding shotgun with thousands of protesting farmers, federal agencies attempted to infiltrate Tractorcade with agents disguised in rural garb. “The Capitol Police, Secret Service, and FBI got keys to all our tractors from the manufacturers in case they needed to take our machines, and they sent undercover officers to mingle with us,” Senter says. “It was so easy to spot the fake farmers in their new overalls and dress shoes. I’m not kidding; that’s how they were dressed to try and trick us.”
Kimbrell bolsters Senter’s assertion of undercover federal agents within Tractorcade. “I remember one particular FBI man that overplayed his farmer hand. He was wearing a ball cap and kept getting in different tractors and looking for different buttons to push or knobs to pull. He walked around all day pretending to be one of us, but he didn’t know that putting on a hat and sitting in a tractor seat don’t make you a farmer.”
Rather than herd cats, D.C. authorities decided to concentrate Tractorcade in one location at the National Mall, surrounding the expanse with dump trucks and buses, and maintaining a single entry-exit point. At first blush, Kimbrell and Senter were dismayed by the corral, but quickly realized a major reversal of fortune. Tractorcade, and its cohort of farmers drawn from the back of beyond in farm country, suddenly were within walking distance of every representative and senator in Congress. Five thousand-plus farmers, along with thousands more AAM associates who had driven support vehicles or flown in by airplane, were ensconced at the heart of American government. “They thought they were penning us up and we’d just leave in a few days. No way,” Senter says. Some of us stayed until April.”
“They made a mistake and stuck us in the best campground ever,” Kimbrell adds. “We weren’t going anywhere and what were they gonna do, anyway? Arrest us all?”
Death and Devastation
Getting 5,000 tractors to Washington, D.C. was only a portion of the AAM battle. During February and March, Tractorcade farmers knocked on congressional doors with policy points in hand. “Every day, we were given a folder and it contained a senator and congressman,” notes Kimbrell. “We’d go right to those offices and ask to be heard. Some gave us an ear and some didn’t. Walk, talk, and move on to find another official—we didn’t go that far to waste time or play.”
In February, March, and into April, AAM farmers attempted to hold politicians accountable, petitioned USDA, and ensured their presence was impossible for the national media to ignore.
“When we first arrived, there was bad blood and everyone was fortunate things didn’t get out of hand,” recalls Senter. “But the public began to recognize we were there for all the right reasons. A monster 2’ snowstorm slammed D.C., and guess who towed fire trucks, cleared paths for ambulances, and transported doctors and women in labor? That’s right, a bunch of farmers in tractors parked on the National Mall.”
“Also, every Sunday afternoon, we invited D.C. families to the Mall and gave the kids tractor rides. Pretty soon, a radio station started running ‘Take a Farmer to Lunch on Sunday’ ads, and city people would pull up and take us to their homes for dinner and bring us back. Incredible, but it all really happened.”
And what about the condition of the Mall after the prolonged presence of massive tractor tires? A farmer replant: “We provided the seed and reseeded the Mall,” says Senter. “Come spring, we chiseled, disked, and plowed the Mall all the way from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.”
Every participant’s timeline was different, but the overwhelming majority of Tractorcade farmers went home from D.C. to begin field prep and planting. Kimbrell, however, returned back to Swisher County in grief, to answer the unexpected graveside call of a farming brother.
Despite the initial highs of 1979, the remainder of the year was about to stretch Kimbrell over an emotional anvil and deliver blow after blow of death and devastation to the Texas farmer.
River Over a Rock
While Kimbrell poured his steel into Tractorcade, his frequent farming partner and best friend, Darrell Smith, stayed behind in Happy to strip the last patches of cotton clinging to stalks at the absolute tail-end of harvest. In early February, Smith fell through a grate on a side-mounted cotton stripper, sliced open an artery, and bled to death in the rows. Smith’s freakish and untimely demise, against the grain of infinitesimally lean odds, was a bitter pill for Kimbrell, and threw a darkness over the year to come.
Roughly four months after Smith’s death, Kimbrell’s three boys rose on a June morning, grabbed handfuls of breakfast, scrambled out of the house, and began piling into a pickup truck, intent on trailing their father into the fields for wheat harvest. Without warning, Kyle, 16, eldest of the brothers, collapsed in the gravel and died in the driveway, his heart overwhelmed by a hidden valve defect.
The following month, in July, Kimbrell’s grandmother and beloved figurehead of the clan, Nellie Kimbrell, also died. While Kimbrell reeled from three successive lifeblood losses, the pall of 1979 changed course and overwhelmed his finances. In September, he lost his entire cotton crop to hail, with no insurance to cushion the fall. Desperate to make up for the cotton loss, and aware Carolyn was pregnant with another son (Heath, born in 1980), Kimbrell planted wheat and bought cattle, hoping to salvage at least a modicum of gain.
He worked the herd to the cusp of turnout, scheduled for Nov. 1 and the kick-in of winter storm insurance. Yet, one day prior—Oct. 31—a blizzard barreled into Happy on Halloween and claimed half the herd.
River over a rock, 1979 drowned Kimbrell in grief, but he refused to wallow in self-pity. “Life doesn’t always go like we want it to,” reflects Kimbrell, “but I’m not here to question or complain. I’m so grateful because the Lord gave me a decent life filled with opportunity, and that was the whole point of driving my tractor to Washington. I went to make sure those that came after me had a chance to make it in agriculture. I never asked for a guarantee of riches or success—just opportunity.”
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Four decades later, what is the legacy of Tractorcade? “If Congress would have listened, we’d have never had such a terrible farm crisis in the mid-1980s that took out half of our family farms in the U.S. and collapsed rural America,” says Senter, current president of AAM.
Nonetheless, Tractorcade cemented AAM as a movement and became a benchmark moment for populist farm change. Directly following the cross-country trip, Senter’s leadership was recognized by Gov. Bill Clements, who appointed Senter to represent Texas agriculture in D.C. and work alongside the Texas congressional delegation. Senter worked under Clement’s appointment until January 1980, when AAM opened a D.C. office and elected officers, choosing Senter as executive director, a position he helmed until 1992, from a fifth-floor office overlooking the Supreme Court and Capitol. (Working alongside Willie Nelson, Senter also played a major role in founding Farm Aid in 1985, and he has helped steer 36 consecutive concerts.)
“AAM saved so many farmers because they learned how to get involved and speak up,” contends Senter. “In 1983, after the Russian grain embargo, AAM worked toward the PIK (Payment-in-Kind) program, and many other programs. AAM put forward and pushed the first legislation for tax incentives to make ethanol. Many of the planks that young guys stand on now were laid by AAM farmers, and still today, we’re fighting for COOL in beef.”
Almost 42 years beyond Tractorcade, Kimbrell poses and answers a simple question: “Did we do any good? Maybe the young guys don’t know it, but the safeguards in place now are partly a result of farmers sounding the alarm bell in the 1970s. Tractorcade led right to the United Farmer & Rancher Congress in St. Louis, and that led to legislative changes. All these things tie together and can be traced from back then to today.”
“I still think about all these things when I remember the G,” he says. “Guess where that tractor is today?”
A tattered, weather-worn sign that rode on the fabled G hangs on the wall of Don Kimbrell’s office: This Tractor Represents Texans for Agricultural Equality. Scrawled around the stenciled declaration in faded ink are the signatures of hundreds of Happy citizens—including many supporters from points beyond. “Funny thing is, after every last person in Happy signed, people signed all along the way to Washington. It was their way of joining Tractorcade and riding on the G.”
In 1979, Kimbrell was resigned to leaving behind the G on the National Mall, assuming he would never again lay eyes on his magnificent steel beast. Instead, even back to the first months of 1979, the G had already reached celebrity status.
“There was another crazy guy like me that drove an open-cab 930 Case, but that was from Oklahoma,” Kimbrell explains. “People were saying I’d driven the furthest in an open-cab and the G started getting a lot of attention.”
Another Texas farmer in Tractorcade, Joe Cowan of Swisher County, arranged for an equipment dealer to haul the G home from D.C., alongside his own tractor. Thanks to Cowan, the G made a return trip to Happy, and back onto Kimbrell’s farm—where it comfortably rests, parked directly in front of his house.
“I see the John Deere G every day and it always takes me back in time,” says Kimbrell. “It shows me the faces of people long gone, who did so much more than me, like Gerald McCathern. I see faces of farmers with vision, ability, and backbone. I see faces of those guys from Campo that stirred all this up. Most all the faces are gone now, but what they did will never be gone.”
The Price of Complacency
Tractorcade, Senter says, was a level of protest likely never to be matched. “I believe Tractorcade was the last great American protest this country will ever allow. If you doubt me, try and get those tractors into D.C. once more. You can have all the marches you want, but you’ll never see thousands of tractors on the Mall again. Hard to believe it’s all forgotten by so many in America, including people in farm country.”
Don Kimbrell will never forget. Although born in the 1940s, Kimbrell is arguably a farmer made for any century, decade, conflict, or crisis in American history. Complacency, he warns, is the No. 1 enemy of agriculture’s current generation.
“The people who make our laws need to hear from us non-stop. A government of, for, and by the people can never work unless the people are willing to commit to action—and that means farmers. I want to encourage and motivate younger guys because sometimes they want to do something, but get frustrated and feel like they can’t. I know they can and I know they’ve got what it takes. There has never been opportunity like there is right now with the wonders of modern communication to build relationships with other farmers, and that is a power that can either be used or misused.”
“If you think it’s OK to stay within the boundaries of your own farm, not make any waves, and enjoy success while your neighbors across the fence, state, or country deal with a problem, then you are awfully mistaken,” concludes Kimbrell. “That same problem will eventually come to your land and when it arrives, you’ll be the one begging for help. There is a price to be paid for silence and complacency.”
Kimbrell’s pointed challenge bears repetition: “At some point in life, everyone answers a question, ‘What are you willing to say or do?’”