RENEE MONTAGNE, host: He is in the headlines every day now, but before he was governor of Texas, before he held any of a series of elected positions going back more than 25 years, Rick Perry was a tenant farmer - growing cotton, raising cattle, hoping for rain. During this pre-primary season, NPR News is looking at some of the formative early jobs the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination held. The series is called Job One. NPR's Don Gonyea traveled to Paint Creek, Texas and reports on the years when Governor Rick Perry was just out of the Air Force and just another dryland farmer in Haskell County.
DON GONYEA: Rick Perry first won public office in 1984, when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. In that and in every campaign since, he has run as a man shaped by his time working a dryland farm. This is from his first bid for statewide office.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Texans across the state know that Rick Perry is the man who's right for agriculture commissioner, because Rick Perry is a born leader, and the only farmer-rancher on the ballot.
GONYEA: That's from 1990. Now Perry is seeking the presidency, and at a recent event on a farm in Iowa, he wanted his audience to know that he's one of them.
Governor RICK PERRY: Our part of the world is just droughty. It doesn't rain there on a regular basis. And it's the desert Southwest. Dryland cotton farming, which is - I grew up on an old tenant farm.
GONYEA: Perry's time as a tenant farmer began when he got out the Air Force in 1977. It was a chance to figure out what to do next with his life. Paint Creek is in Haskell County, where Wes Utley is the ag extension agent.
WES UTLEY: You get lots of thinking time, just driving around in your tractor, get in your pickup, going to feed, things like that. There's lots of time for reflection.
GONYEA: This is a remote part of the state, to say the least - there's farming, hunting, and few people. It's also about 30 miles and one county over from Throckmorton. That's where the hunting lodge the Perrys used to lease - the one with the racially derogatory name - is located. Now, in that Perry campaign ad we heard moments ago, he is the spitting image of the Marlboro Man. Perry wears a cowboy hat and chaps as he saddles up and rides off in the sunset. Real life on the farm was far less romantic. Veteran Texas journalist R.G. Ratcliffe is the author of a forthcoming biography of Perry.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: Even though he did travel the world as an Air Force pilot, he was based in Abilene, Texas, 60 miles from his hometown. So coming back home for Rick Perry really just kind of meant walking off the base and driving an hour back up to Paint Creek.
GONYEA: But psychologically it was a far greater distance. Instead of flying giant military cargo planes, Perry planted cotton and wheat, and raised cattle. There were long spells of dry weather to contend with. And there was another significant complicating factor.
RATCLIFFE: He came home to work with his dad, and the problem, as he's said it on more than one occasion, was that his father didn't really look at him as a partner - his father looked at him as the teenage boy who had gone off to college that had come home to do some more chores.
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GONYEA: On a recent fall Friday night at the local high school football game, 61-year-old Paint Creek farmer Phil Coleman stands on the sidelines. He's known Perry his whole life - they went to school together and were teammates on the football team in the late '60s. Were you here when the governor came back after the Air Force to farm? And I guess he was just Rick then.
PHIL COLEMAN: Yeah, and he's just Rick now too, to me.
GONYEA: What was it like for him coming back farming?
COLEMAN: Well, I didn't think there anything special about it. You know, it's just he come back and a buddy coming back. So, you know, he liked the ranching part of it. You'd see him on a horse, and this and that, but you know, driving a tractor, I guess, gets a little boring.
GONYEA: By all accounts, Perry was restless. He farmed for about 13 years after leaving the Air Force on the thousands of acres he and his father leased, but also on a small 40-acre farm the family owned. For a number of those years, when he was in the state legislature, a big portion of the income from his own property came from federal farm subsidies, which actually paid him not to produce a crop.
WALLAR OVERTON: Well, welcome to Haskell, Texas.
GONYEA: Well, thank you, guys, thanks. This is 72-year-old Wallar Overton, another Paint Creek farmer. When I called him, he and his wife, Steffi, were headed out to a remote part of their land to search for some lost cattle that they hadn't seen in almost a month. We drive past miles of red clay farmland, cotton fields and dry parched grass. And there are gathering rain clouds off in the distance.
OVERTON: I live with the sky and die by the sky. We've had about three inches of rain in the last year. It's been really, really a hardship.
GONYEA: Overton has known Rick Perry, who's 11 years his junior, since Perry was a member of a Boy Scout troop led by Overton's father. What's your sense of what kind of farmer Rick Perry was when he came back from the Air Force?
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OVERTON: I think he just parked it here for a while, I really do. I don't think he had any intention of ever staying. But when he comes back from Europe, or active duty, to Paint Creek, Texas, it's like slamming the brakes on, you know?
GONYEA: But when Perry found politics, he found something he was very good at and something perfectly suited to his gregarious personality. Overton and his wife continue their drive over narrow dirt farm roads looking for their lost cattle. A light rain starts to fall. Then, all of a sudden, in the road ahead of us...
OVERTON: Oh, hello, Steffi.
STEFFI OVERTON: Oh, it's Miss Texas.
GONYEA: It's a brown female cow they call Miss Texas, because of the spot of white fur on her forehead that vaguely resembles the shape of the state.
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OVERTON: I'll feed you good.
GONYEA: Overton slices open a bag of feed in the back of the pickup and it spills out onto the ground.
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GONYEA: Moments later, a massive black bull weighing a ton and easily double the size of Miss Texas saunters up. He stares warily at me, the only one in the group he doesn't know. Then he heads for the pile of food. Wow.
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GONYEA: It's just another day on the farm in Paint Creek, Texas - the kind of day Rick Perry left behind more than two decades ago, but which still helps provide the backdrop for his life in politics and his current run for the White House. Don Gonyea, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: There will be less time now for voters to get to know the Republican candidates. This week the Nevada Republican Party announced its presidential caucuses will take place on January 14. That's a month earlier than expected and it comes after Florida officials decided to hold their primary early, at the end of January. All of which means states like Iowa and New Hampshire could be holding contests as early as December.