I’d like to welcome Lindsay H. Metcalf to the Mixed-Up Files blog to celebrate the launch of her MG, Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices.
Lindsay H. Metcalf is a journalist and author of nonfiction picture books: Beatrix Potter, Scientist, illustrated by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020); Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (Calkins Creek, 2020); and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, a poetry anthology co-edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, 2020). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas, not far from the farm where she grew up, with her husband, two sons, and a variety of pets. You can reach her at lindsayhmetcalf.com.
This is such an amazing, unique, and emotional story, Lindsay. I’ll never look at food the same way again. How did you come up with the idea for Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices and did anything surprise you along path to publication?
Thank you! I suppose this is the story I was meant to write. I grew up on a farm in Kansas. During wheat harvest, my mom would drive a grain truck with me and my little brother fighting over who had to straddle the gear shift in the middle. We would chop weeds out of the soybean fields and lay irrigation pipe along the corn fields. I know I complained, but looking back, I see a family working together, leaning on one another.
The photo that sparked FARMERS UNITE! came via text from my dad:
Here I was, someone intimately connected to agriculture through my family, and I’d never heard the story of the farmers who had driven their tractors cross-country to Washington, DC, to demand action from Congress. They were losing their farms because market prices had bottomed out, and they needed to get the attention of the public, who relied on the farmers to eat.
A lot surprised me along the path to publication—namely how many forms this story took. During the course of my many revisions, everything changed, including the main character, length, target audience, tone, title, and illustration style. At its core, this story was always about a group of hardworking people coming together to seek a change that would improve their lives and the lives of those they served. It’s about a grassroots group of people working together, leaning on one another, just as my family does out in the field.
Wow! I love hearing about your connection to this story. I’m so glad your dad texted you that photo. It’s amazing how much changed during revisions, but now that I read it, I can’t imagine it any other way.
What type of research did you have to do—and do you have any research tips to share with our readers?
You know I love research! I read everything I could find on the tractorcades. There was one self-published book on the topic, which helped me understand the timeline. I also conducted interviews myself, read oral histories transcribed by a small-town library, and scoured newspaper archives. Then, when Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek bought the story, I had to start the research process again. She had seen some dynamic archival photos of the tractor protests and thought they should illustrate the book. Oh, and she wanted me to find them. I found that idea intimidating, but by the end of the process, I was having fun.
During my research, I had to reconcile two opposing perspectives. On one hand, the newspaper stories and national photo archives focused on a handful of days in which the farmers’ protests on the National Mall turned sour. The American Agriculture Movement had driven thousands of tractors into DC during rush hour, snarling traffic. Police literally penned them in by ringing the Mall with buses, police cruisers—any city-owned vehicles they could find. Some of the protesters got upset and lit an old tractor on fire. What I learned from reading oral histories and actually talking to people was that the vast majority of protesters had come to speak with lawmakers and earn their respect. So my advice is to keep researching until you have a good idea of the full picture. Each source is created from a certain perspective, and it’s the researcher’s job to root out the gaps in information.
Thanks for your amazing tips, Lindsay! I feel like I just took a research workshop. And I love the tractor protest photos you found.
Do you have any favorite quotes in the book? One that jumped out at me is: These first “tractorcades” energized farmers for the next step—to remind lawmakers in Washington, DC, that food doesn’t grow in grocery stores.
Oh, thank you! Many of my favorite quotes came from the farmers themselves, so when Carolyn suggested I add more, I couldn’t help myself. Some advice that’s always stuck with me since journalism school: Quote someone only when you can’t say it better yourself. Behold…
“You bet we started crying in our milk.” – Marjory Scheufler, a Kansas farmer
“We’re going to stay here (in Washington) until the snow stops and the songbirds go to singing.” – Gerald McCathern, a Texas farmer
“It’s just as silly for a tractor to be in the streets of Washington as a skyscraper in my cornfield.” – Leonard Cox of Kansas
What are some of the differences between middle grade and picture book nonfiction?
This book is kind of a genre buster. Traditional middle grade nonfiction is sometimes novel-length and goes into a lot more detail. You’re going to laugh, but you know I wrote FARMERS UNITE! as a picture book for young readers because you critiqued it! After acquisition, Carolyn and I worked through a couple big revisions, and she encouraged me to make the story more “vivid.” I didn’t hold back and included details about tear gas and the fallout of financial troubles facing farmers. Those themes, plus the longer text, at 2,000 or 2,500 words, pushed the audience into middle-grade territory. We also included 12 pages of back matter.
You’re right—I did laugh. I was surprised when I first found out your picture book morphed into middle grade, but it was such a fantastic decision. Your book and discussion and activity guide are perfect for grades 3 – 7! In addition to those amazing questions and activities, do you have a writing or research exercise to share with our readers?
I do! I just created a handout for a National Council of Teachers of English presentation this month. With the questions provided in my “Detecting Bias in Sources” handout, students can test the credibility of each source and discover ways to deepen their research. These are techniques I use as a journalist as well as an author. Readers can also go to my website to browse some of the sources I used in the book — oral histories and images of the tractorcades from the Smithsonian.
What’s something unique people don’t know about you?
I was a cheerleader in high school. I surprised my mother-in-law with this fact when it came up in conversation today. I surprised myself with the realization that I had never told her this in the 17 years that I have known her. So there you go.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
This story went through 27 drafts, plus or minus a couple, before we arrived at the polished final version. I say we, because so many people had a hand in the process, including you, Mindy, as one of my critique partners. Say it with me: Writing is revising.
Writing is revising! You do such an amazing job with both of those—and you’re a research queen. Thank you again for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files to celebrate your launch with us, Lindsay.
Thanks for having me, and thanks for helping me bring the farmers’ story to young readers!
You’re welcome. I’m sure they’ll love the farmers’ story as much as I do!
Enter this Rafflecopter for a chance to win a copy of Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (US Only).
In the late 1970s, grain prices had tanked, farm auction notices filled newspapers, and people had forgotten that food didn’t grow in grocery stores. So, on February 5, 1979, thousands of tractors from all parts of the US flooded Washington, DC, in protest.
Author Lindsay H. Metcalf, a journalist who grew up on a family farm, shares this rarely told story of grassroots perseverance and economic justice. In 1979, US farmers traveled to Washington, DC to protest unfair prices for their products. Farmers wanted fair prices for their products and demanded action from Congress. After police corralled the tractors on the National Mall, the farmers and their tractors stayed through a snowstorm and dug out the city. Americans were now convinced they needed farmers, but the law took longer. Boldly told and highlighted with stunning archival images, this is the story of the struggle and triumph of the American farmer that still resonates today.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Enter this Rafflecopter for a chance to win a 5 page middle grade or picture book critique from Lindsay H. Metcalf! (Lindsay’s critiques are amazing!)
Winners will be announced on Thursday, November 19. Good luck!