Picture a farmer. No, not one from the “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad. Someone you actually know or at least have seen in person.
If you’re from an urban area you are likely not imagining a face like those accompanied by Paul Harvey’s comforting rasp in the commercial. You are picturing a scruffy 20-something in overalls and potentially dread-locked. She runs an organic vegetable farm—or interns on one—and you see her at the farmers market on Tuesdays. You may even call her “your farmer” if you get a CSA box.
You are not imagining your farmer driving a tractor. You’re imagining one standing in rubber boots over a raised bed full of heirloom veggies. He does not drive a Dodge truck—at least you hope he doesn’t. Ideally he doesn’t drive at all, trundling his produce from his urban homestead to market in a bicycle trailer. Failing that, he drives a VW bus that runs on recycled vegetable oil, or at the very least a station wagon with food-themed bumper stickers plastered on the back hatch.
If you don’t relate to Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial, it’s because you aren’t its target audience. What pulls your heartstrings is this video by Greenhorns, an association of young organic farmers. “In the flower garden I just speak hen,” says a clucking, gangly hippy. That’s your farmer. Crucially, your farmer does not grow corn, soybeans, wheat, rice or sorghum. She grows heirloom tomatoes, kohlrabi, pok choi and kale.
If you’re from a more rural part of the country, Dodge means that commercial for you. Because your farmer is not the cute young hippie of above. He’s probably a man. (Male faces outnumbered females 5:1 in the Dodge video.) He drives a truck, and a tractor, and a harvester, and a four-wheeler on the weekend. And he grows grain. Corn most likely, rotated with soybeans. Rice if you’re from Arkansas, potatoes if you’re from Idaho. But mostly corn. Tomatoes come from a garden. Corn comes from a farm.
There’s a simple economic reason for this dichotomy in our visions of agrarianism: fresh vegetables provide enough value per acre to make it—however tenuously—in the peri-urban areas where the locavore movement sources its produce. Despite record corn prices, grain can’t pay the city rent.
But the division goes beyond economics. This is an aesthetic divide. Increasingly, the vast grainscapes lovingly photographed for the Dodge commercial, heirs to Psalm 65’s “valleys covered over with corn,” and the Koran’s “grain piled up in the ear,” are unappealing to urban foodies. The grain belt has taken a hammering at the hands of Michael Pollan and the makers of documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. Once near-eastern monotheism’s great metaphor for divine provision, grain is now a symbol for all that is wrong in the agro-industrial complex.
It’s true that rising prices have meant more acreage going to corn than ever, with some farmers in recent years even short-cutting the (already barely-adequate) two-year rotation with soybeans to plant corn after corn. This mono-cropping (if not monomania-cropping) is what draws the ire of food activists like Michael Pollan.
But this oft-repeated portrait obscures a great deal of dynamism in Midwestern farming. Grain farming in the United States is a complex business which has seen strides forward in the areas of soil conservation and integrated pest management, even while it has stepped willingly into extremely intensive corn production, escalating pesticide toxicity and extensive use of genetically modified organisms.
Soil conservation provides some of the most heartening evidence that our farming practices can change for the better. Though there is still much work to be done, and current practices fall far short of the ideals of agroecologists and soil scientists, grain farmers have taken significant steps to slow erosion and preserve fertility.
More specifically, reduced tillage and contour plowing made Paul Harvey’s admonition to “plow deep and straight,” passé well before 1978 when the “God Made a Farmer” speech was originally delivered. Good farmers, particularly in Mr. Harvey’s native Oklahoma, where the dust bowl is still a living memory, till as shallowly as possible—if at all—and run their tractors along GPS-guided curves across the contours of the land, sowing their fields in waves and whorls as unique as thumbprints.
And innovation continues. The University of Iowa’s Aldo Leopold Center recently published the results of a trial indicating reduced pest pressure and consistent profits from a four-year crop rotation with livestock integrated into the farm system.
The Leopold Center study offers an alternate vision of Iowa farming, one where the deep alluvial top-soil is planted in a patchwork quilt, with no more than a quarter of it in corn at a time. The rest is alfalfa hay, with small grains like oat and rye in winter rotation.
In this vision the farm itself, or neighboring farms, keeps cattle to provide market for fodder and supply of manure. The longer rotations restore the soil’s fertility with fewer external inputs, as well as limiting pest populations by removing their host plants for three out of four years. The resulting farm is more diverse, less input-intensive, and dare I say, more beautiful than its two-year rotation counterpart.
This is Hopkins’ “landscape plotted and pieced” —the Midwestern monotony broken into multi-colored stained glass panes of alternating crops. You don’t have to be an agronomist to see the improvement. Well-managed diversity is appealing on an aesthetic level.
As this example demonstrates, America’s grain belt is not static; nor is it unlovely. It is a landscape prone to change, home to human beings capable of doing it both harm and benefit. And what these human beings do is, in a way that has been celebrated in art and literature almost since the invention of agriculture, beautiful.
America’s rural landscape deserves better than “God Made a Farmer.” Dodge-style nostalgia is as profoundly unhelpful—both aesthetically and practically—to agrarian reality as is urbanites’ ignorance.
But so far, despite the rise of the new agrarian movement spearheaded by Wendell Berry, I have still not seen a work of literature that lives up to the rich, protean reality of contemporary rural American life—Mr. Berry’s own oeuvre not excepted. I would love to be proved wrong, but it seems as if this generation’s Steinbecks, Cathers and Thoreaus have yet to come.
Nevertheless, the rise of agrarianism in American letters is a real opportunity to reimagine the land and our relationship to it. We will spoil this opportunity if artists fail to depict both sides of American agriculture. To reimagine the possible, we must first grasp the actual—dichotomous and contradictory though it may seem.
We need visions of renewal, care and abundance that actually relate to the vast swaths of farmland that are planted in grain, and a full agrarian aesthetic that embraces the rural landscape in toto: from the vegetable beds to the corn fields. Because what is left out of art is left out of the affections. And we are unlikely to improve what we do not love.
So picture a farmer. Or, better yet, picture a crowd of farmers as diverse as the 7,000 cultivated crop species they care for. Those are your farmers. Don’t deny them in art the complexity that is theirs to steward in life.