Sunday, May 20, 2012

Erik Ness

The Face of Farm Bureau
Erik Ness
Vintage Erikois
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            He and I had stood there together watching her being taped for footage in his documentary. Long blond hair flowing and blue eyes dancing, there she was in her black hat and her white shirt … booted and spurred.
She was telling a story about how her ancestor had “ranched all the way from Texas”. She was ten at the time and he had already filmed her posting a long, reaching trot coming across the flat to fill a hole in the perimeter as we were penning that bunch of cows.
            She had continued spilling a line of facts that made us both smile and shake our heads. He was serious, though, when she finished and he turned and said, “That is exactly why we need to save the real West … that little kid describes it best.”
            How the West was Lost
            Erik Ness was remembered in print and in public gathering this week as many folks offered condolences and memories. His battle with that dreaded C disease that we all fear was concluded. He went away from us. We must believe he is at peace.
            His obituary in the local press made me think it may have been Erik himself who had a hand in the script. When describing his departure from the University of New Mexico to be “lured by the smell of alfalfa” to New Mexico State “(when) his brains grew in” was so Erik that you had to fight back a tear at the same time you were trying to laugh.
            Then, there were all the credits of the broad body of work that few of us actually knew, but many certainly suspected. He was a superbly gifted communicator that excelled in every medium he attempted.
            His brainchild and the award winning documentary film, How the West was Lost, featuring the plight of folks in southern New Mexico fighting the agenda driven attempt to elevate access restrictions on up to 600,000 acres of mixed federal, state, and private lands was one of the many projects that elevated his stature. The key to the success of that film and the way he promoted and defended his industry are things of legend. He was creative, but he was also loyal and extremely insightful regarding the points that mattered.  
            I knew of Erik Ness before I met him. He went to work for New Mexico Farm Bureau about the same time I went to California. Even in the Golden State where agriculture is what it is news of or from Erik would surface from time to time. His voice is what we really came to know. He had one of those voices that can only be described as a national treasure.
            In was amazing to hear him break into his WWF announcer mode or announce some Ag related topic in the form of a drag race commercial. He would wind up a dragster in voice form and blast off with commentary as the topic arrayed with the imaginary car raced down the track.
            “How do you do that, Erik?”
            Then you would be at a press conference or something where he would be acting as MC. He’d be out there shucking and jiving with “his people” and, when the time came, he’d come strolling out in that Navy blue blazer he liked to wear looking like the third rung of the Blues Brothers. It would hang down nearly to his knees, but, hey, he had the duds on to make Farm Bureau proud.
            He was fearless. He’d stand up there in the midst of issues that were hot and controversial and he’d start the process with that voice. Smooth and articulate he’d set the stage and always defuse high tension to a plane that most everybody could manage. He was good at it.
            From the day of the taping of that little blond headed girl, I think Erik and I both would say we were friends. I hope that was the case.
            We would communicate especially on the Wilderness battle. I’d ask his opinion of stuff and he’d reply in Erikese. “Good S***” or some other coded phrasing would be his terse response.
            By that time, he was Erikois. He would always look quizzically back when I called him that. I suppose I never shared with him what Erikois really was. It was a really good Finnish beer that I enjoyed in another life. I suspect he would have approved of the comparison.
            He was Farm Bureau
            If there is a model of what Farm Bureau should be to American Agriculture, Erik Ness must be a component of it. His instinct for the core of an issue was superb. His stance on the side of the folks he once described as “the colorful cast of characters” was always without qualification and absolute.
            His approach to heading off an ambush of his industry was as inventive as his language. He would come up with some logic that he had gained while running a midnight stakes race, or hauling slot machines, or running an ultraliberal campaign back in his innocent youth … at least that was the claim.
            “You gotta’ be kiddin’, Erik? Are you really serious?”
            And, he would be … deadly serious.
The truth of the matter was that it was Erik Ness who knew it was necessary. He was a throw back to what epitomized the genesis of Farm Bureau. He was what every member of that organization should hope and expect from effective leadership. Every official of Farm Bureau should study his actions and how he impacted his regional membership. He ignited a fire that burned. He was trusted.
No official, local, regional or national, in that company could have done a better job.
And, now…
On another day, he and another Native Son of the American West and I discussed the idea of “The Rough Hands Report”. In a format that featured guests from the extractive industries of the West, we were going to tell our side of the story. We were going to play a little Ray Price and The Delk Family Band in the background and talk a bit of insurrection. It appears now we will be delayed …
Viewing the world that seems to be crumbling around us, Erik prompts a new realization. In other circumstances, he could have been many things. A famous character actor, a successful fiction writer living in Paris, or a rock star is not out of the realm of possibilities. What you are struck with, though, is that we too often have been led to believe that the greatest have to be elevated onto a national stage. Erik’s life suggests the opposite is not only important … perhaps it is more important.
The most profound battles start in our backyards. We need to solve them there before they become inevitably unmanageable at the next level of bureaucracy. We need the best right at home and he demonstrated that.  
 We now have his memory. His natural humor, his huge talents, and that voice all contribute to a legacy he created. We will miss this guy Erik Leroy Ness …vaya con Dios, Amigo.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “I wish I had known Erik’s middle name was Leroy … we sure could have had fun with that!”

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