Work Made a Farmer   17 comments

— ∞ —

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.

— ∞ —

In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.

Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.

In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.

— ∞ —

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.

— ∞ —

Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.

The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.

Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.

— ∞ —

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, 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.

— ∞ —

The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.

This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.

And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.

The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.

It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.

— ∞ —

“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.

Paul Harvey, 1978

— ∞ —

We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.

You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.

Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.

17 responses to “Work Made a Farmer

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  1. And above all – don’t watch the Sooper-Dooper Bowl and its ilk, which are nothing more than a framework for more of the destructive propaganda put forth by the Madison Ave. ‘Mad Men’ in support of the oligarchic mess we now have in the world.

    In other words, what if nobody played their game by tuning in?

    • Indeed, Martin! I actually didn’t watch the Super Bowl myself—I ended up seeing this ad after a friend mentioned it to me and I saw it posted on Facebook. But then, that’s probably another good lesson—stay off Facebook.

      I watched the Super Bowl last year, though, in a bar in Flagstaff while I passed the time waiting for my train. Found it kind of horrifying. The whole thing reeked of desperation, of a country trying so hard to convince itself it still is what it used to be. Maybe that’s just my particular world view coloring it, but I couldn’t help but feel like the whole thing was shot through with insecurity and denial.

  2. Pingback: Work Made a Farmer « Ghostwood Farm

  3. So well done. I shared this from my blog. I may have your last paragraph printed to hang in my garage so I remember why I do this when the deer get in, or it stops raining, or I’m feeling lazy, or I have more lettuce than I can sell. Thank you.

  4. Romanticism is a problem in so many aspects of life. Unrealistic expectations. Looking at the lamb pictures in the last post reminded me that my neighbor (who’s been farming all his life and is in his 70s) said yesterday that he wasn’t having such a good day. A burro was born dead and a set of twin lambs don’t look like they’re going to make it. And, he found a not-to-fresh goat kill. Probably a cougar.

    Well, I’ve been out here in the boonies a year now. When problems come up, I generally shrug and say “Well, that’s life in the country.” Don’t know where that attitude came from, but generally I roll with the punches. Or, run in circles waving my hands in the air, swearing with my hair on fire and then get down to the task at hand.

    Lost two indoor houseplants, miniature yellow roses. They just curled up and died. Who knows why. It bothers me, and I wonder how I’ll handle, maybe, loosing whole crops when I get around to some serious vegetable gardening, this year. Hopefully, enough successes to offset the failures. Something to think about before the fact.

    I have a little cat I’m very fond of. Already, I accept the fact that she may not be around for long. Between the coyotes and the eagles. On the other hand, the very big possum killing dog (Beau) that came with the place and the cat have made friends. It’s been a pretty nervous couple of months not knowing if he was going to take to her. A big load off my mind.

    LOL. I really don’t think I worked all that hard last year, but my hands (and feet!) will never be the same again. Just a part of the toughening up process. The hands kind of surprised me. I pretty much have to wear gloves all the time and keep pretty well covered up. I have Vitiligo, which is a, probably genetic, skin thing. I’ve been loosing great swaths of pigment since I was 12. Not all that noticeable in this climate, but I’ve really got to watch the sun. I know. Too much information.

    • Hi Lew,

      It sounds like your approach to problems isn’t too far from mine—often a shrug, sometimes running around with my hair on fire. On a related note, I sympathize with your neighbor. Seems like every time I turn around, I’m hearing of some new attack at one of the farms I work for or am friends with. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, lambs. Or somebody just dies due to sickness, like a new calf the other day. You can’t really get too worked up about it—these things just happen. Part of being on the farm and being in a rural area.

      Budget loss into your garden, because you’ll get it. The worst thing you can do is obsess over it or berate yourself over it. I think of it as the land’s tax—it gets its share, too, and that’s manifested through the bugs, the slugs, the climate, the rodents, the deer, and through all those mysterious failings you just can’t figure out. Just the tax. Budget it and don’t let it drive you crazy when the land comes by to collect.

      Congrats on the cat, and the friendship between her and the dog. I’ve seen cats lost out here, too—it could very well happen to her. But I’ve seen others who are smart enough and wary enough that they last a good long time, despite the predators and other dangers. With luck, she’s one of those.

      Interesting on your hands! I admit, I wear gloves quite a bit, and sometimes I feel a little silly doing it. My hands remain fairly smooth, not callused, despite the work. Oh well—I like having my hands in good shape. The thing I notice most is my increased strength and stamina. Jobs that used to kick my ass when I first started working at one of the farms I help at no longer phase me so much. I’ve been taking a quiet notice of this the last few weeks. It’s nice, and a good reminder of how much I’ve done, how much I’ve learned, and how much I’ve changed over the last year.

  5. Lew & Joel –

    Nothin’ wrong with wearing gloves – if your hands aren’t ‘healthy’, you can’t do the work as well. Case in point: I took a fall back in November (tripped over something I didn’t see or expect) and in the process dislocated the little finger on my left hand and bashed the hand pretty well in the process. Doesn’t sound like a big deal (and it isn’t, really) but now I can’t straighten or completely close the last two fingers on that hand. Obviously, gloves wouldn’t have helped in this instance – but it illustrates what hand-damage can do. Totally ruined my golf grip. Good thing I don’t play golf! (Heh)

    • Hi Martin,

      My biggest annoyance with wearing the gloves, actually, is that I constantly have to take them on and off depending on what I’m doing. Trying to tie up something with baling twine? Gloves off. Hands gonna get wet? Gloves off, or else than they’re soaked and annoying. Trying to grip something or working with splintery wood or whatever? Gloves on. Frankly, I probably just need better gloves. Something thin enough that I could tie twine without having to take them off would be perfect.

      But yeah, I like protecting my hands. Especially since if I get a cut or split on the inside of my hand, it’s such an incredible annoyance as I’m trying to work. Much better to just have on the gloves and go at it.

      Sorry to hear of the injury. That sounds like a similar sort of incredible annoyance.

  6. Did you actually watch the commercial? I guess not, since you don’t watch the superbowl. Although, I don’t watch the superbowl either except to see the commercials and the half time show.
    But when you look at all the commercials (not only for the superbowl, but all of them) they’re outrageously trying to sell their product. They have women who are half naked – that would have been censored a few years ago! – people who are cursing, they’re focusing on children to sell their products by making them feel they doni’t have something that all their friends have, etc.
    This commercial honored farmers. The entire commercial showed farmers at work, home and with their families. I didn’t even realize it was a commercial until the very last frame when they showed the truck. I thought it was one of the better commercials out there that uplifted the ideals of hard work and family life instead of glam, glitter, and glitz.
    If you turn on the box, you’re gonna see commercials. I’d much much rather see this one than most that are out there today. And I’d SURE rather my kids saw it than the ones for cereal, toys, video games, etc.
    Sure I guess you can turn it to a negative view (you can do that with most anything) but this one did at least have some values in it.

    • Hi Susan,

      Well yes, I obviously watched the commercial since this entire blog post is a reaction to it. Plus I stated in an above comment that I watched the ad online, which is also where I mentioned that I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I’m guessing you read that comment.

      I’ve seen a few of the other ads from this year’s game and can imagine the rest, since I’ve seen many of the past Super Bowls and the various crass, sexist, racist, sentimental, manipulative, and only occasionally truly clever ads that grace the annual event. My reaction to this ad wasn’t about grading it on a curve—my criticism stands outside the context of whatever other ads aired during the Super Bowl. As I wrote in the post, I think Harvey’s words are beautiful and much of the ad’s imagery is, as well. I appreciate Harvey’s words. I don’t care for the ad. Not just because it’s about selling trucks, but for all the other reasons stated above.

      So yes, the ad may have been better than many of the other commercials on television, but that hardly means anything, now does it? Someone else can make that argument in that context—I find it a pointless use of my time to rank the decency of television commercials. I was more interested in the commercial within the context of broader social issues related to farming and the food system in this country, so that’s what I wrote about.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Hey Joel,

    We’re out of sync. hehe! It’s summer here and the chooks don’t go to bed until about 8.35pm now (at least it’s earlier than around 9.10pm at the solstice). The little ingrates don’t care about my Internet time. hehe!

    Haven’t been able to drop in for a while, outside of the ADR where I’ve been appreciating your comments. Yes, buying a truck doesn’t make you a farmer, it just makes you poor. They have a saying here, “driving down the highway to debt in an over sized vehicle”. Interestingly enough about two weeks ago I saw a person in their fifties getting into a very large and expensive SUV after just having also seen them shoplift food at the local supermarket. I kept wondering whether it was a mental health or financial thing? Dunno?

    Vehicles are really quite telling about social conditions. Over here the vehicles that are selling are either small cars or SUVs and that is it. Fuel here is about $1.50/litre which equates to about US$6/gallon given exchange rates which are in our favour. Recently there was a much under reported Diesel shortage here. A mate has a diesel Landcruiser and he was telling me about it and then I started noticing all of the signs at fuel stations.

    You know, even here we heard about the Super Bowl losing the power.

    Speaking about myths, I reckon the myth of the cowboy is being woven into that poem too. You know, the lone ranger, riding alone into the sunset. Every image of that farmer in that poem was him alone against the world. In reality manual farming techniques generally require a whole lot more people working co-operatively. Ad people never let the truth get in the way of a good story though.

    I’ve got a bit of free time today, because I stepped outside the front door and can smell smoke. The eastern end of the mountain range is smouldering and it is pretty steep and inaccessible. I’m in about the middle of the range on a southern spur. It’s been burning for a few days now. Not good especially as we are heading into another round of heat.

    This summer has been worse than any that I can recall in terms of heat and lack of rain. It is a bit of a record breaker for the continent. I’m down to about only 30,000 litres of water which is about 7,900 gallons so hopefully it rains sooner or later as I have to keep at least half of this for fire fighting purposes. This winter, all being well, I’ll put some serious work into additional above ground water storage.

    Keep well. Chris

    • Hey Chris! It’s good to hear from you. Of course, I’ve been reading your comments over at ADR, but still nice to see you pop in here.

      “It just makes you poor.” Yes! I like that. I still have my car, and it’s a bite out of my limited income every month. Not nearly so much a bite as many peoples’ vehicles are, but one just the same. I plan to buy a bike this year—sometime in the next couple months, probably—and to begin replacing at least some of my driving with biking. Not that I drive massive amounts, but I want to begin scaling back that portion of my life. I also intend to switch from driving into Portland to taking the bus in, for those occasional times I do go into the city. So much more sane a way to go.

      You’re spot on about the cowboy myth. We love that us against the world and individualistic bullshit here in America—particularly ironic when you consider how our way of life is subsidized by the imperial tribute provided us by the rest of the world. We’re the ultimate “welfare queens” here in America, using a third of the world’s resources with a 20th of the population. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much we fetishize the ideal of hyper individuality and self-reliance.

      Sorry to hear about the extreme heat—and now fire! What happens if it doesn’t rain before you run low on water? Do you have to buy it? Man, as if we don’t have enough of a challenge ahead of us having to learn how to live in a world without the industrial underpinnings we’ve grown used to—we have to deal with climate extremes, as well. We’ve made a hell of a mess for ourselves.

      Are these extremes putting any of your perennial plantings into dangerous territory? Do you worry you might lose some of them as the climate shifts continue?

  8. Oh yeah. The bit in the poem about the wife who is sitting around entertaining other ladies whilst farmer hubby waits on his lunch is just sheer poppycock! The image made me laugh. The reality is that all members of a farming household perform work. It certainly isn’t as hard, back breaking and unrelenting as the poem made it out to be, but there aren’t a whole lot of passengers either. Both myself and my lady share most of the work around the farm.

    If you look at the animals in the forest, it is only the very young that aren’t out foraging for food. All others have to fend and feed for themselves. The kangaroos here are now hungry enough because of the drought, that they no longer concern themselves with my dogs as if it were beneath their dignity! Mind you, I’ve got some serious respect for a 6 foot kangaroo. You don’t mess with their business. The dogs are pretending not to notice them and the kangaroos stick to eating the herbage so it is a win-win situation. They are fascinating creatures because in these conditions they can survive on a diet of 85% spinifex grass (very low nutrient grass) so this place is an oasis for them. Also the females can shut down their reproductive processes during these conditions. They are one of the great animal survivors and have adapted to the continent environmental conditions for millions of years. I’m leaving water out for them and the birds and the insects. They’re all thirsty.

    • Poppycock, indeed! I did take note of that bit about the poem but didn’t talk about it in the post. I’ll tell you, all three of the vegetable farms I’ve worked on were owned and run by women and the majority of my co-workers on those farms have been women, too. It’s an interesting element of the organic, small-scale agricultural scene—at least here in the Northwest. Of course, the other element of that bit of the poem is the usual glossing over of the importance of the work in the household, too, whoever is doing it. A resilient life rooted in work on the land also involves plenty of work in the kitchen and home, and it’s just as critical. You can’t ignore the household economy.

      Fascinating bit about the kangaroos! Did you learn any of that from the Flannery book? I’m working my way through The Eternal Frontier, his ecological history of North America, and it’s fascinating. Interestingly, I’m also finding the ways in which it might be considered out of date already, having been written in 2001. His account of the early peoples of North America differs significantly from accounts that JMG relates using more recent research in his book Atlantis, which I just finished reading. Fascinating stuff!

  9. Joel, thank you for so elegantly putting into words my feelings about this ad. I, too, saw it on facebook, as I avoid all things superbowl like the plague. What was even more shocking to me than the ad itself were the positive comments it received from friends and even farming-related fb pages. I was amazed at how easily manipulated people were by the sentimentality and faery tale nature of the photos and message. Reading your post here has soothed my rankled sensibilities and reminded me that I have work to do in the garden and in the kitchen, and that being angry over a ridiculous advertisement won’t help me to get any of it done.

    On another note, I was delighted to stumble across your blog recently. My husband and I live in the country, an hour west of New Orleans. I have been a gardener for most of my life, but am just returning to it in a very real and practical way…no more planting “low maintenance” shrubbery and flower gardens for people who will never do more than glance at it as they walk from their car to their front door. I now plant to feed my body and soul, and help my husband with the chickens and the pigs and, eventually, the cow. I don’t remember ever feeling more alive, or more sore and tired! Every word of yours that I read resonates in my heart. “Of The Hands”, indeed. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Kelle! If I’ve given you even the smallest amount of motivation to get out there into the garden, then the writing’s worth it. I love that you’re growing food now, rather than just ornamentals. We need a heck of a lot of food grown, all over the country, in small plots. And chickens and pigs, too! Wonderful. What kind of cow are you looking at getting?

      Growing food has also left me feeling more alive, sore, and tired than anything else I’ve regularly done with my life. I love all those feelings. It’s the best work I’ve ever done, no question.

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