Heady Billboards

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Illustrations by Brian Orr

When’s the last time you saw a farmer who wasn’t wearing a baseball-style cap of some sort? I mean other than in church or at his own funeral?

That’s right, the correct answer is “Practically never.” By my calculations, every one of the 2.13 million farmers in the country has between six and 60 of those free “gimme” caps at home. Let’s see, that adds up to … oh, about 12 bazillion lids piled up in rural America’s back closets and mudroom shelves.

Every truck and tractor manufacturer, every seed and feed brand, every small-town grain elevator and farmer’s cooperative hands out free caps to farmers the way mothers hand out cookies after school. I figure that farmers, truckers and the guys who mow the lawn at the town park have probably been wearing gimme caps for a couple thousand years now. In fact, legend has it that the first gimme caps were given away by a Roman chariot manufacturer. “Hey, Gaius, cool cap. How many miles to the bale you get with that beauty?”

It’s true that gimme caps provide eye-catching, cost-effective advertising for the companies that distribute them and much-needed protection from the sun for the wearers. But a farmer’s favorite cap can also tell you something about his personality. You probably know someone who fits each of these types.

Status symbol caps. The John Deere and Case-IH brands are to farmers what the Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes-Benz names are to urban cowboys and automobile aficionados. A farmer wearing a green John Deere cap is saying, “Yep, I paid $125,000 for my tractor, and they tossed in the cap for free. Bet you wish you had one.”

Seed company caps. A farmer won’t wear just any old seed company cap. If he’s wearing a gimme cap bearing the name of “Brand X Corn Hybrids,” you can bet the farm that’s what’s growing on his place. He plants that particular hybrid for one of three reasons: because he honestly believes he gets a better stand and a bigger yield with that company’s genetics; it’s cheaper than Brand A; or it was his wife’s idea because his brother-in-law is a dealer.

Pesticide brand caps. Farmers who wear caps advertising new herbicide or insecticide products tend to be innovators. Eager to try the latest technology to control weeds or bugs on their farm, these progressive growers are the first to let the chemical company plant test plots at their place. They will receive their free cap only after they agree to pose for a photo to be used in the company’s testimonial advertisement.

Farm cooperative caps. Farmers who wear gimme caps promoting their local cooperative or grain elevator tend to be joiners. This is a farmer’s version of the Shriner’s fez that says, “I’m a member and darned proud of it.” These guys go to meetings, agree to serve on boards and tend to be involved and responsible members of the community.

Feed company caps. The companies that market pre-mixed livestock feed will gladly hand out caps to any cattle, hog or poultry producer who buys their products. The commercial cow, pig and chicken growers who wear them are generally not as concerned with purebred genetics as producers who wear …

Livestock breed caps. This group includes producers of purebred cattle, sheep, swine and horse breeds who will swear up and down that the Hereford/Angus/Quarter Horse/Shropshire/Poland China breed is the only one worth having on the farm or ranch. They only received their hat for free if they serve on the board of their breed association. Otherwise, they ordered it through their breed association newsletter.

Shocking though it may be, not all farmers wear gimme caps. Some farmers actually wear store-bought caps they either picked out themselves, or their families bought as Father’s Day gifts. Check these categories of cap wearers.

“Wild Child” farmers. It’s a little-known fact that some farmers have a wild streak somewhere under their Carhartt coveralls. If they ever had time to go to the city, the first thing they’d do is get a tattoo and buy a Harley. Until the kids are grown and the farm’s paid off, however, they’ll have to settle for a cap reading “Born to Ride Free.”

College dad farmer. If a farmer wears a cap bearing the name or mascot of a college or university, it’s likely he’s spending $65,000 a year on tuition there so his kid can get a degree in the history of on-line poker.

Vacationing farmers. If a farmer is wearing a cap imprinted with the name of a Caribbean island or a popular ski resort, it means his kids brought it back from their vacation. Chances are the farmer himself has never been anywhere more exotic than the nearest Cabela’s store or Bass Pro Shop.

Hunting and fishing farmers. Unbe-lievable as it sounds, it’s rumored that some farmers actually find time to go hunting or fishing. You may recognize this type by the cap promoting their favorite sporting goods store, shotgun brand or type of fishing tackle. Wearing one of these caps will set you back about $12.95.

Of course, baseball caps aren’t the only form of headgear worn by rural types. Out West, ranchers and some farmers prefer Western straw hats in the summer, and a 6X felt Stetson the rest of the year. Ranchers who wear a cowboy hat are proud to promote their Western heritage, even if they own just five acres and a horse and recently retired from an accounting firm in Cleveland. 

One winter, I hired a camera crew to videotape an interview with a Wyoming cattle rancher for a Connecticut-based company marketing an insecticide for grasshoppers. We were shooting the video beside his cow pen in -20 degree temperatures, so instead of wearing his Stetson, the rancher wore a woolen cap with ear flaps. When the company’s advertising manager saw the finished video, all he could say was, “But why is he wearing that dorky cap instead of a cowboy hat?”

Well, hmm, maybe it was because he wanted to keep his ears warm. Sometimes a cap is just a cap.

Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet who lives in Parkville, Missouri, and admits to at least one closet full of caps.

Published on Mar 1, 2008

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