Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Context and Critical Thinking

I too, am moved by the Dodge Commercial "God Made a Farmer" (see above). The images of hard working people, with visions of farms in mainstream media. An ode to agriculture. But then, that's what good advertising does. It makes you feel something, trying to connect you to a product. It makes a statement that tries to make you feel part of something. In this case, good, hard working, americana farming.

And, I did a little research. In partnership with the FFA, Dodge is donating money, up to 1,000,00 to the FFA (Future Farmers of America) based on reviews of the ad. It's part of this FFA Campaign, working towards ending hunger. So that, I think is interesting and fairly positive.

But, it's just not all there is to this. First, let's look at the full text of the speech from "God Made a Farmer":

And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a caretaker." So God made a farmer.
God said, "I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board." So God made a farmer.
"I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife's done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon -- and mean it." So God made a farmer.
God said, "I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, 'Maybe next year.' I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain'n from 'tractor back,' put in another seventy-two hours." So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor's place. So God made a farmer.
God said, "I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who'd plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week's work with a five-mile drive to church.
"Somebody who'd bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life 'doing what dad does.'" So God made a farmer.

Well, it was made famous by Mr. Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey, who I'm no stranger to- but maybe you are. He was a fairly right-wing radio host, who had sponsorship deals that would rival any major league sports teams. He had a great voice, and the man knew how to tell a story. But I'm not sure he stood for the best interests of American farming. In fact, I'm not sure this ad does, either. And should it? The goal is to sell big, brand new trucks. But it's being hailed as a giant thank you to this ambiguous heroic idea of American Farmers.
I love any time there is a national dialog around farming. But I think maybe we need to be really critical about any time a company uses an out-dated idea of farming as a method to sell more fossil fuel based vehicles to people who probably don't need that kind of heavy duty equipment. Truth is, there isn't a farmer in all of us. There isn't even a person who supports the kind of farming this poem describes in all of us. 
"who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps" This quote is about horse farming and ranching. A practice that let's be honest, is not main stream farming today. It's considered a fringe endeavor, maybe too nostalgic and non-practical. One does not not harness a tractor. Those big tractors in the ad? Those are mainstream farming. The average acreage of an american farm today is 441 acres, up from 147 acres in the 1900's. According to the 2002 census, the average age of the american farmer is 55 years old. Sources for both of these facts can be found here. The latest numbers I've seen from the USDA is that the average age of the american farmer is now 65. With farms that big, and farm owners being in that age range, the American farm runs on enormous, expensive, elaborate tractors and machinery. And they're not splinting meadow larks, I assure you. The bread and butter of these huge agribusiness are cash crops- corn, soy, wheat... and done with huge amounts of pesticides and with GMO seeds as fast as possible. Damn the meadow larks in the way.  
While the quote about 'waiting for lunch' isn't included in the ad, the ad is dominated by images of older white men. This perpetuates this notion that the american farmer is still run and worked by older white men. Folks, this is not the case- though it certainly is owned by them. And my wife works just as hard in the hot sun as I do, for as many hours. And the majority of the tasks listed in that ad? The milk straining, pig weaning, etc? Unless you're talking about those small family farms, the CSA businesses, the start-ups (and even sometimes then)- you're likely talking about the hard working, self sacrificing migrant and immigrant farm workers. Folks who I've worked with for years, who are brown and often latina/o, work for less, and have no rights here. Those are often the people who taught me to sex an egg, mill flour, tend a sick lamb. They don't often drive new trucks, I can tell you that. But those are the American farmers I've met. And the younger farmers I've met, be they immigrants or not, they can't afford those new trucks. Many of them can't afford land. Many of the most knowledgeable farmers I've interacted with can't buy land- aren't here legally- though they often have more patriotic pride for this country then I do. That nags at me, when I watch this ad. The state of immigrant farm workers, the state of all young farmers- born here or otherwise. 
I guess what really gnaws at me, is that this ad is getting so much attention, but the farm bill didn't. That our culture  mythologizes a way of farming that we don't financially back. There are many farmers I know (and met through NOFA too) that do live life by the code of that poem. Though many of them are not tied to a religion either. And I resent the idea that all farmers much go to a church, a Christian church. I respect those who choose to include religion in their lives and those who do not but tend the earth as their spiritual practice.
Let's be honest and real for a moment. CSA and other small farm models spend much time marketing and begging folks to meet them half way. To commit to drive to pick up locations for their goods they they did work 80 hours a week for when grocery stores are open 24/7. To pay the prices that it costs to farm sustainably and keep the lights on in the farm house, too. 
So you know what? Do watch the ad, do help the FFA get money. We need new farmers, we need less hunger in this country. But don't be fooled. Don't forget that Paul Harvey was a complicated man, with a whole history of works. And for "God"'s sake, support the farmers and farms who know the pain that losing 'one colt', one chick, one lamb-- makes. Because they don't have thousands worked by Others. They've got that one, those twenty, those couple hundred- that's it. And it's their year finances they're going to break when it died anyway. It's their hands that are busted. Look into the the plight and struggle of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Yes, I'm treading dangerous political ground here, and I know it.  But you've got to stand for something. I support anyone who lives and breathes agriculture. 
But what I don't support is telling a false story for the sake of selling more trucks. Buy local, know your farmer. Consider spending your money to support new farmers- and take a bike to work if you're able, over parking a brand new truck in your city lot. 


  1. Thank you for putting into words some of the shadow feelings I had while watching this ad. I always appreciate reading a nuanced reaction to a complicated issue like this one. I think it's a better way to approach these issues than the typical all right or all wrong attitude that is so common (because it's intellectually easier). I loved the ad, and it made me uneasy. Both are true. My family comes from big ag, and my wife and I support the small local producers as often as possible. Both are true.
    So, thank you for your post.

  2. Ejay: I am so proud of you. You articulate beautifully what I have been thinking and feeling about that ad ever since I saw it. Thank you. I applaud you & your efforts at sustainable farming. Well done.