Opinion: My Tractor Supply hat was a symbol. Now it’s in the garbage

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is the associate director of undergraduate studies in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Subscribe to his newsletter, “Modern Medieval.” The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

The hat was solid gray when I got it, but now it’s faded and splotchy, especially on the brim where a sweat line differentiates the light from the dark. It smells of bug spray, fish and gasoline. Still, the Tractor Supply Company (TSC) logo gleams red and white, with the red lettering, “For life out here,” emblazoning corporate logo.

David M. Perry - David PerryDavid M. Perry - David Perry

David M. Perry – David Perry

I don’t wear it much in the winter, as it’s not suitable for indoor use, but the moment the thaw comes and I start putting my old aluminum boats back in the water, when I start clearing brush, when my physical labor marks the turning of the season, this is the hat I wear. Partially it’s because I really want a comfortable hat when doing outdoor work, but also it’s a symbol of something to me. Spring is here. Time to clear. Burn. Plant. Repair. Launch. Fish.

The hat has history. Before it, I used to wear an old, green Red Sox hat when I went outside to work or to play. But one day, I pulled in a massive carp from the bottom of the St. Croix River and got so covered with fish slime that I made the terrible mistake of trying to wash my hat, and it disintegrated. The TSC hat took its place. I was wearing it when I caught the biggest walleye of my life in May.

Perry shows off a his catch while wearing the hat from Tractor Supply - Courtesy David M PerryPerry shows off a his catch while wearing the hat from Tractor Supply - Courtesy David M Perry

Perry shows off a his catch while wearing the hat from Tractor Supply – Courtesy David M Perry

After I read something on the internet on Thursday, I took off my hat and threw it into the trash.

That’s because the company — in what it says is an effort to distance itself from “nonbusiness activities” — caved to a right-wing boycott campaign and announced it would abandon  its programs intended to foster diversity, equity and inclusion (in favor of, presumably, homogeneity, inequality and exclusion?). In a news release Thursday, TSC said it will stop sponsoring events like “pride festivals and voting campaigns” (not voting for anyone, just voting) and “withdraw our carbon emission goals and focus on our land and water conservation efforts.”  The company said further that it would be eliminating DEI roles and “retire (its) current DEI goals while still ensuring a respectful environment.”

Predictably, conservatives are celebrating and liberals are now the ones calling for a boycott.

It’s possible that TSC has calculated that it can’t please everyone, that most of its customers are White conservatives or sympathize with that viewpoint — and so to hell with the rest of us. But I’ve been a loyal customer. When my pressurized well tank sprang a pinhole leak, I went straight to the store in Spooner, Wisconsin. I tow my boat using a 1 7/8 inch ball I bought there as well, and purchased an extra-tall jack and a trailer tire when I blew out a wheel coming back from a lake. I bought marine varnish there for the transom. All around me on this holiday weekend (I’m spending the week in the woods), I see products I purchased from a store that has told me — loudly — that it doesn’t see me as a valuable customer. Message received.

Except that the company is wrong in two ways. First of all, by assuming that bigots who threatened boycotts represent rural America. White conservatives may own the farms, but it’s people of color — many of them Latino/a of course, although in Minnesota you’ll find increasing numbers of Somali and Hmong farmers — who do the work (and are organizing more and more to acquire their own land). John Boyd Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association, told the Washington Post that Tractor Supply is “sending the wrong message to America.”

Failed Tennessee politician Robby Starbuck isn’t a farmer; he ran (unsuccessfully) to represent a primarily urban congressional district. I should know. I grew up right in that district.

Second, fighting climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. While much of the country is battling epic levels of heat, that’s not been the case in our neck of the woods. While years of drought have made the waters hotter and shallower, which isn’t good for our northern fish, this year so far we’ve replaced drought with cool weather, endless rain and terrible flooding. Today the fish in the St. Croix might be happy, but the river is too dangerous for me to find out. And while fishing is essential to my happiness, it is at least just a hobby. An era of drought or constant rain presents a disaster for farmers. In the real world instead of right-wing social media, it’s going to be a disaster for the corporations that serve them.

My hat is already in the garbage. Once a company has made this kind of decision, it’s hard to imagine ever going back. I threw a bag of cat litter and some frozen fish guts on top then put it out on the curb. It’s gone. But let this be a lesson to the next company faced by one of these campaigns (and right-wing influencers are already gearing up for the next one): You don’t have to comply. Tractor Supply Company could have just affirmed that it supports everyone who tries to live “life out here,” while making sure that “out here” is still around as we try to pull back from this era of fire and flood.

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