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Hi-ho, The derry-o

There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Hi-ho, The derry-o
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Jon Tester, Farmer

The New York Times has a short profile of Senator-Elect Jon Tester today.

GREAT FALLS, Mont., Nov. 9 — When he joins the United States Senate in January, big Jon Tester — who is just under 300 pounds in his boots — will most likely be the only person in the world’s most exclusive club who knows how to butcher a cow or grease a combine.

All his life, Mr. Tester, 50, has lived no more than two hours from his farm, an infinity of flat on the windswept expanse of north-central Montana, hard by the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

For all the talk about the new Democrats swept into office on Tuesday, the senator-elect from Montana truly is your grandfather’s Democrat — a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916.

It is a place with 105-degree summer days and winter chills of 30 below zero, where his grandparents are buried, where his two children learned to grow crops in a dry land entirely dependent on rainfall, and where, he says, he earned barely $20,000 a year farming over the last decade.

“It’s always been tight, trying to make a living on that farm,” said Mr. Tester, still looking dazed and bloodshot-eyed after defeating Senator Conrad Burns, a three-term incumbent, by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Chouteau County, where Mr. Tester lives on a homestead of 1,800 acres, lost 8.5 percent of its population in the last five years — typical of much of rural America that has been in decline since the Dust Bowl.

To make extra money, Mr. Tester taught music to schoolchildren, and still plays a decent trumpet despite having only seven fingers (he lost the rest to a meat grinder as a child). He got into politics just eight years ago in a sustained rage over what utility deregulation had done to small farmers and businesses in Montana.

“You think of the Senate as a millionaire’s club — well, Jon is going to be the blue-collar guy who brings an old-fashioned, Jeffersonian ideal about being tied to the land,” said Steve Doherty, a friend of Mr. Tester’s for 20 years. “He’s a small farmer from the homestead. That’s absolutely who he is. That place defines him.” […]

Congress has done little to improve the lives of people living in the dying towns across rural America, Mr. Doherty said.

“When Jon talks about the cafe that’s trying to hold on, the hardware store that just closed, the third generation that can’t make a living on the farm, he is living that life,” Mr. Doherty said. […]

Mr. Tester and his wife of 28 years, Sharla, grow organic lentils, barley, peas and gluten-free grain in a county with 1.5 people per square mile. It is all earth and sky on the Tester family ground. A hundred years ago, a region with so few people was considered frontier. […]

Asked why he became a Democrat in a region that has been overwhelmingly Republican for the last generation, Mr. Tester said: “It started with my parents, who always said the Democrats work for the middle class. And in agriculture, Franklin Roosevelt did a lot of good things.”

Friends say not to worry about Mr. Tester going native in Washington. He said he planned to return home to the farm several times a month. He promised his barber, Bill Graves, that he would continue to come back to get his hair cut in the same wheat-field bristle.

Jon Tester, Farmer
There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate…

Update: The Political Graveyard has a list of farmer-politicians. I’m currently combing through it to find out when the last time a real farmer was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Update Two: See list above.

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