So God created advertising

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my dad did. He was the youngest of 13 kids, several of them who grew up to own farms of their own. As a kid, my family had almost an acre in the country, but the only animals we kept on it were stray cats and the occasional opossum (the latter, not on purpose). Still, the school I attended was definitely in a rural, farming community, and I frequently spent time at my Grandma’s farm. She’d downsized since her kids were young and working the farm, but even when I was a kid and she was in her early 80s, she still kept chickens for eggs, cows for milk and meat, and sheep for wool. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of being at her house, gathering eggs, helping my uncle shear sheep, or just playing in the hay loft.

Her farm was small, with a big white barn and a little white house. This is what most people picture when they think of “family farm,” and what the recent “So God Made a Farmer” ad exploits. This makes us feel cozy. We admire the work ethic and values of farmers, as my friend and high school classmate Matt Reese notes, and the ad painted farmers in a very positive light–a stark contrast to the other Superbowl commercials selling their products on sex appeal with half-naked models. I grew up listening to Paul Harvey and “the rest of the story,” and honestly love this speech. It reminds me of home. However, Harvey passed away almost 3 years ago, and his speech was from 1978–I was 2 years old, and farming was much different then than it is now.

Today, while small, family farms of the type romanticized in the Dodge commercial certainly still exist, more and more are becoming industrialized–more land, more animals, and all of the issues that come with those. Contrary to the white men portrayed in the commercial, approximately half of the hired workers on farms today are Hispanic, and are paid roughly $10 per hour for their work. Many of these are undocumented, making it difficult for them to raise their voices when safety or health violations have occurred, or even to receive treatment should they be injured on the farm. Farms employing less than 10 people (the majority of all farms today) are exempt from OSHA inspections, so corners may be cut regarding safety. I won’t go into all the details; others have covered modern-day farming and even made a revised video featuring Latinos. “Funny or Die” also got in on the act, swinging the pendulum about as far from the original Dodge commercial as one could go.

No matter large or small, farming is an important and incredibly difficult job. For many, it is a calling rather than just a job, and some incredible people are out there working to feed all of us. However, changes in farming over the past several decades are killing off the family farms that we (and Dodge) still idealize. As David Hinckley noted, “As it ran, it felt a little like erecting a beautiful statue to a species we are hunting into extinction.” Indeed.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Reese
    February 7, 2013

    Very sensibly written blog (and thanks for the link), but I have to disagree. Like automobiles, computers, televisions, or anything else, family farms have evolved. Everyone loves a ’69 Chevy. They are beautiful and appealing, but almost no one drives them. Why? They are not as safe, not as efficient and simply not as practical for modern drivers. The family farms are still out there doing all of the things they used to do, they are just doing it better, more efficiently and safer. They may look different, but the same values apply.
    Challenges within modern agriculture certainly exist, but I want to point out that challenging conditions have always been a part of agriculture, even on the fondly remembered family farms of old. Those fond memories of farms we all have do not often include the realities that many farmers made almost NO money over the course of years. The working conditions were substantially more hazardous and health issues were a much greater concern for farmers and consumers, but nobody cared because the alternative was no food. If you sit down and talk with an old farmer about the good old days, and the amount of work they had to do to produce food, even our worst farm conditions today do not look so bad. There is definitely room to improve, but I would argue that we already have improved quite a bit.

  2. #2 Tara C. Smith
    February 7, 2013

    Evolved, yes. More efficiently, better, safer–well, that depends. Efficiently sure–better/safer? Somewhat. ROPS, for instance, have certainly reduced tractor rollover deaths. Covers and other safety mechanisms have reduced deaths and injuries from power take-off shafts. But some “advances” have created other dangers–such as manure pit gases, dusts and bioaerosols in feeding operations. And when families are bound by companies to do things a certain way (raise pigs on a particular feed and in a particular structure, plant seeds that one can’t even save, etc.) is that still a “family” farm, or is a corporate farm which happens to be run by a family? It’s like the difference between the owner of your local WalMart and saying that because they own the store, it’s the same as the Mom & Pop business of old. Yes, one can look back at the “good old days” and see that they weren’t always so good and that certainly hasn’t changed much, but does that mean it’s really better today?

  3. #3 Anne Wallis
    February 7, 2013

    I read your post with mixed reactions, leaning a bit with Matt’s comments, but I also like the link and I certainly “get” the critique. There were actually minority and women farmers in the ad, although it’s true they were mostly white men (from my experience, truck owners in the country, at least among horsey people are equally likely to be men or women, but pretty much white). I grew up w/Paul Harvey too, and hearing his voice welled up a sense of nostalgia inside me, just as it was meant to. It probably helps that I did NOT watch it during the SB, but on the internet. I am as apt as anyone to romanticize the family farm. My experience is that they ARE, in balance, safer (especially for children) than when I was growing up (although we had a gentleman’s farm, it was still dangerous — old barn, big animals, machinery, etc.). It’s not perfect yet and we need legislation with teeth – or at least provide incentives for people to use safe equipment, reduce pesticides, etc. It is partly up to us as researchers to provide the hard data. Study designs are a challenge, but not impossible, and the funding mechanisms may or may not exist. I’m rambling .. thanks for bringing up an interesting and important critique of an ad that may have been too easy to fall in love with. (But no, I was not about to run out and buy a Dodge truck. I still prefer Fords…)

  4. #4 Mike Olson
    February 8, 2013

    Gotta agree with the post and comment about nostalgia, Paul Harvey, etc…

    I’m 50, my grandparents were tenant farmers. My mom grew up on the farm. She really loved the commercial. I felt torn. I thought it was very sentimental and nostaligic, but at the same time felt a bit manipulated.

    I understand the various commentaries that appear to represent a more liberal bias but have started to get a bit tired of feeling as if anything that smacks of tradition, self-reliance, or old time toughness must be called into question.

    As to immigrant hispanic workers, well, frankly, they are clearly exploited. Having said that, given what they are willing to go through for a chance, or for their children to have a chance to live the American dream…I think we could all learn a lesson. It is amazing that the people who claim to hold “american values” most dearly are the same folks who seem to want to keep others from the “american dream.” At the same time those expressing the most interest in being forward thinking and protective of those who might be exploited are the least willing to remember the positive lessons of the past.

    All in all, to sum up: The past ain’t what it used to be. Thank God!

  5. #5 Eden Mabee
    NY State
    February 8, 2013

    Farmer’s granddaughter here as well… mostly a truck farm (my grandparents stopped raising animals when my mother was a girl), but I had a similar experience.

    There’s nostalgia involved, but I also know about the hours spent in the fields (we were a very small family farm of only 85 acres, only 64 of which were in production at any time, and we never had more than two hired hands, mostly local kids for a few hours a day). And even so, the Paul Harvey images never fit our family’s life….

    Things change, things stay the same… the exploitation has always been there. Most people just didn’t want to admit their groceries cost far more than they paid in human life.

  6. #6 Kenneth Mareld
    United States
    February 16, 2013

    Grandson of my mother’s farmer parents. Spent one summer on the farm in Northern Sweden 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The fields were rented out to other farmers for hay for local other farm cows. The only other agriculture left was a 10 by 20 meter plot for potatoes. I was 13. I had two jobs that summer. Row out onto the lake and collect the fish that were caught between a net spread between 2 poles in the lake that were 15 meters apart. Put out another net between those 2 poles. Row back with the caught fish and the first net. Those fish were traded for other food and one of my uncles would repair the net in order to swap the other net for the next day. My other job was to take my similar year cousins along with my little cousins as young as five and gather blueberries in the woods. My afternoons were free. I was a city boy from Los Angeles of 13. My best friend spent his summer at an Israeli Kibbutz. Raw milk was kept in a ten foot well to keep cold. Boy did we tell stories to each other when we got home. There were three buildings on the farm. The main house, two stories with lots of little bedrooms, the barn which had a Sauna on one end. And a separate Baking House with a huge oven.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    February 20, 2013

    I grew up working on our small family ranch. My father farmed 12 acres with a team for a while, then recognized that we were basically raising feed for the team. Turned the 12 acres back to pasture. We had sheep and cattle. When I was about six years old, a neighbor rancher gave me a couple of dogie goat kids to raise, and I started building a herd. I had angoras for mohair, and some Spanish goats for food. I sold out when I was 14, I had 75 goats and got $5 apiece for them. I had enough money from mohair, selling kids, and my final sell off to get me through the university. The ranch absorbed my expenses, and there is good money in goats if one is fully subsidized. We did just about everything ourselves. We did hire shearing crews for the sheep and goats. My three kids were able to spend several summers at the ranch, and were glad of it. Growing up on a ranch is about as good as it gets, I think.