170 acres and an Indian tractor

Life on the farm is tough, even with a red Mahindra 6000 to smooth out the rough spots. A tale of blogvertorials and globalization.

Published July 11, 2007 5:50PM (EDT)

Customer support call centers based in Bangalore, India, don't have the greatest reputation in the United States. But what if the call center is providing 24/7 support service for American owners of Indian tractors?

These are the kinds of questions How the World Works mulls over while reading postings in the Mahindra Tractor forum on Tractors By Net, a popular tractor portal, where, unsurprisingly, the topic of the newly introduced support service was one of the busiest in the last couple of months. But the conversation was basically cordial, with the consensus being, more support is better, even if the prospects of a Bangalorean operator being likely to help you rebuild your tractor transmission over the phone were considered unlikely.

Mahindra, India's third largest automaker, is yet another case study in contemporary globalization. The company got its start in the 1940s assembling Willys Jeeps in India, then gradually began sourcing parts locally. It now operates two assembly and distribution centers in the U.S. but also sells, under its own name, tractors made by Mitsubishi in Japan and Tong Yang in Korea, while owning an 80 percent stake in a Chinese tractor company that provides parts for multiple Mahindra models.

I found myself pondering American attitudes to this "Indian" answer to John Deere after a reader alerted me to the Life of a Farm blog hosted on the Web site for Mahindra U.S.A. The blog is written by Joel Combs, a divorced father of three who, when he isn't working as a machine operator at Kingsford Charcoal plant, is busily employing his red Mahindra 6000 tractor for a variety of tasks around the family farm in Pine Knot, Ky.

Clearly, my readers understand that I cannot resist the sight of an Indian tractor company purveying down-on-the-farm Americana to push its product, and I charged over to the site fully prepared to be appalled at its faux Garrison Keillor folksiness. Blogvertorials, as everyone knows, are irredeemable satanic perversions of the Internet.

And it wouldn't be hard to make fun of farmer Combs, who isn't shy to note that "red" is his family's favorite color, or to sprinkle his postings with prominent mentions of his tractor, or how he would prefer not to purchase John Deere-logoed T-shirts for his kids.

But after scanning a year's worth of postings looking for nuggets with which to mock Life on a Farm, I am forced to admit that, unexpectedly, I kind of like him. Either this is a masterpiece of creative writing, or Joel Combs is a real guy with a pretty real life. He's the kind of ex-husband who agrees to accompany his ex-wife to their high school 10-year reunion, an exercise in emotional contradiction that one does not concoct for fun. He makes repeated pointed mentions of his union membership and complains several times about incidents in which Clorox, the corporate owner of Kingsford, closes plants in the region -- "Seems they have a track record of closing the union plants and moving the production to non union locations." (Perhaps it was too much to expect him to make the logical connection to the labor cost differential involved in manufacturing Indian tractors versus American tractors.)

But what really got me was this:

My son Garett has been having asthma attacks more frequently with the cooler more humid allergen filled air. Today he had a doctors appointment to refill his medicines and his mother could not take him, so I played hooky from work and we spent the whole day together. After his appointment we drove on up to Science Hill to the Mahindra Dealer I bought my 6000 from. I picked up the parts I needed to fix my disc mower. $72 just for the pin that broke, ouch. Garett looked over all the tractors there - and like me, he liked the 7010 Cab the best. He was especially impressed with the sunroof. I believe the two youngest kids will want to hold on to this land and way of life. When we finally made it home Garett watched curiously as we put the new U joint in the disc mower shaft. He just couldn't hold out to bolt the pin up though. When I came back in the house from that, he was sound asleep on the couch.

That passage offers the most perfect mixture of flat-out commercial on-message marketing and real-life co-parenting woes I think I've ever seen. Any divorced parent raising kids understands the logistical complexity of balancing doctors' appointments with work, whether on the farm in Kentucky or in Berkeley, Calif. Joel Combs is a pro-union farmer with a cordial relationship with his ex-wife who really loves his kids and his red Mahindra tractor. Call me a sucker, but I kind of believe him.

(Thanks to Sepia Mutiny, which was all over the Joel Combs phenomenon back in January, for the pointer to Tractor by Net.)

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works India