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'I'm not a farmer, . . .'

The sign says ''farm for sale.'' The sign is crude, just a piece of wood with rude black lettering on white paint stuck in the ground in front of a large old white house. A working farm, cows and a few horses graze in lazy formations to the rear of the outbuildings. In front of the red barn stands farm equipment, ready to start up when needed. Cars are in the driveway, wood is stacked next to the house, a snowmobile is parked for the summer by the back door.

This farm is like so many others here in my state. Why is it for sale?

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You can't tell from the outside. The paint is peeling a little on the house - and the barn, too, could use some paint. The tractor is not new and the sheds behind the house hardly sparkle. All the buildings, however, appear sturdy and functional, and the machinery shows little rust. Recently I had to catch an early plane. I passed by the farm at 5:15 a.m. and the house and barn were ablaze with light. Signs of life were everywhere.

This farm is only a few miles from my home and I pass it often. It sits on the side of a hill. The ''farm for sale'' sign is planted next to a tall, spreading elm, flush with leaves, and has been there for months.

I am sad every time I pass that sign. I shouldn't be. I am not a farmer and few of my friends are farmers. I don't know this farmer.

Like so many other Americans, my people used to farm overseas until they couldn't survive where they were, sold their farms, and sailed to the Promised Land. I am not sorry that I am not a farmer, that my father and his father chose not to be farmers. Americans, after all, have been leaving their farms for over a century.

I am aware that it is possible that something good has happened and the farm is being sold to afford the family a better life. Maybe they have come into money and are buying a bigger farm, or they are retiring to a less arduous existence.

But I can't imagine that. I see only long-endured hardship or shorter-term trouble as the incentive to sell that which a lifetime, or perhaps many lifetimes, has built up. I see debts as the cause, or a shortage of farming offspring, or perhaps fatigue or despair. I see the bank as the cause, or loneliness, or infirmity, or the prospect of an empty old age. I imagine the farmer moving into town into a tiny, overpriced house, his son selling insurance , his daughter typing lifelessly for officious bosses.

Perhaps I suffer from a romantic notion of the character of the American farmer. I admit to holding a model of the farmer as yeoman nobility. Certainly Americans are taught that. Our history is suffused with tales of strong-willed and courageous farmers building a robust agrarian country. I admit also to a vague sense of guilt that my own hands are smooth and my clothes stay clean all day at work.

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Perhaps, in fact, this farmer is a cruel and boorish man, his sons rowdies who carouse at local taverns, his daughters dull and shrill. That may be, but I'm inclined to see them instead in Norman Rockwell images - ruddy, healthy visages; plain-talking and dignified. I see them cooperating in their physical efforts. I see their rugged lives in stark contrast with those of the students (whom I serve) at the nearby college whose $12,000 gains them entree to this hardy environment and whose late night revels at the Rosebud Saloon inhibit them in their performance of their morning academic tasks.

I see this farm family in the idealized images of the family of Per Hansa in Ole Rolvaag's ''Giants in the Earth,'' or of the Shimerdas in Willa Cather's ''My Antonia.'' I see people who understand the land and natural forces, who provide for themselves and for others far removed. To me, the farmer still represents a firm link to a sturdy and more optimistic past. He seems to make us all better people and reminds us of our own strengths and capabilities. In my own contemplation, I see the selling of this farm as a tragedy.

That ''farm for sale'' sign provokes and saddens me. I worry that this farmer's apparent failure or despair or loss is an ominous sign, for me, for us: I consider it a sign of the times, a sign of the future, a sign of cultural deterioration, a sign of personal insufficiency. That sign inquires of me if America is ''less'' than it was once, its people engaged in superfluous tasks, scurrying after the dollar in ever more selfish and narrow struggles. That sign asks me if I am less than I should be. It forces me to reckon my own softness.

I have considered stopping and inquiring of the farmer his explicit story. But I don't stop. In fact, I have attempted recently to avoid the sign. I have taken to speeding up the car as I approach the sign, looking away quickly to the mountains to the east, and tuning in to the banal distraction of the news on the car radio.

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