Because God Said: Farmers, Myth & Truth

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Just hearing Paul Harvey’s voice during the Super Bowl commercial featuring his words from a speech to the Future Farmers of America in 1978 was enough to conjure up my seven-year old self, peanut butter & jelly sandwich and Pringles potato chips at the kitchen table as quirky stories and “the rest of the story” were told from the black vinyl two-dialed AM radio tucked on the back of the gold specked formica countertop.

Coupled with the gray-toned images of flat farmscapes, tractors, families that looked much like mine, and endless rows plowed into the earth, the commercial was a powerful moment of near silence in the hours-long cacophany that is the Super Bowl.

And as real as it was to me, sights and sounds conjuring palpable memories and tastes from three-quarters of a life lived in South Dakota and central Illinois … it was also a myth.

The mythical norm, to be more precise.  The American dream of what farming is and should be and always has been.  By and for hardworking white heteronormative families working on the plains.

It also used a theology that says this mythical norm is the will of God, part of the very creation story itself.  It links these people and this work to the work of building and tending the divinely ordered world itself.

Then, there is reality.

“A 2012 fact sheet released by the National Center for Farmworker Health, based on a Department of Labor survey, estimated that 72 percent of all farmworkers are foreign born. They also estimated that 22 percent of crop workers were female.”

The report goes on with more detail:

68% of all farmworkers were born in Mexico;  Twenty-nine percent (29%) of foreign-born farmworkers have spent 20 or more years in the United States [and] 26 percent have been in the U.S. for 10 to 19 years.”

So Isaac Cubillos posted this video, using the same Paul Harvey voiceover with images that actually reflect the national reality of farmers and farmwork in the U.S.:

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Myth vs. reality.  The power of the image.

And the rhetorical power of Harvey’s words must not be lost.

“And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’  So God made a farmer.”

Echoing the first chapter of Genesis, the ancient priestly author’s story of creation, Harvey uses the eighth day metaphor, and repeats the refrain “so God made a farmer” several times.

It’s powerful, attractive, and seductive.  It is also a myth.

The influence of a shrinking number of farms controlling more and more of the marketplace points to another reality of farming left out of the mythical Dodge ad: Concentrated wealth and corporate control:

“2007 Census of Agriculture results show that concentration of production in agriculture has increased in the last five years.  In 2002, 144,000 [out of over 2.2 million] farms produced 75 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production. In 2007, the number of farms that produced that same share of production declined to 125,000”

And so what we see in the Dodge ad are things that a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (to use bell hooks’ phrase) wants us to believe in so that it can survive.  It wants us to believe that the mythical norm painted by the Dodge ad is true (all evidence to the contrary) or at the very least should be true (because God said so).

And how could anyone argue with that?

 

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Caryn Riswold

    Important addition from a friend & colleague: “Even though the DOL counts wage-earning farm laborers, female participation is agriculture is, and always has been much higher. Half of all Midwestern farm land is female-owned and many of these females have very different ideas about how to use that land. See the blog of Iowa activist Denise O’Brien – http://firmlyrootedblog.com/.”

  • Susan Burns

    Hi Caryn,
    I clicked on your post because I am a farmer. However, today I am really upset with Lutherans – especially the Missouri Synod. The Lutheran pastor that participated in the Newtown all-faith prayer gathering was reprimanded because other faiths were represented. This makes me so mad! Although I am not religious, my children were christened in the Lutheran church because my mother-in-law is a member (Missouri synod). I wish there was a way to get them “un-christened”. If I would have known how un-christ-like this denomination is I would never have allowed it to happen!

    • Caryn Riswold

      Hi Susan … the same thing happened to an LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) pastor who participated in an interfaith service after September 11, 2001. I am grateful to be part of a Lutheran tradition (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) that recognizes the value of robust interfaith relationships in our human life together. I am sorry that you are feeling this pain right now, and hope for you to find some peace and comfort – even if in another community. As for christening or baptism, I like to believe that it’s God’s work, not the work of a denomination or even of a pastor, and so even as Luther himself said in the 16th century, a corrupt priesthood cannot control or define or own what only God can do.

  • http://misstiffreads.blogspot.com Tiffany Erickson

    As one of your former students, I was really intrigued by your article. As the daughter of a farmer, I personally loved the “God made the farmer” add, then again, mine is the “mythical” small, tough family farm, and frankly so are the majority of the farms that bordered by childhood home. True, that’s a myth, but it’s also a myth that farming (at least the way it’s done where I come from) is a romantic, sustainable ideal of growing organic vegetables and cute, furry animals. I looked at add and saw my childhood, which is what Dodge was hoping for. All that said, I’ll still never buy a Dodge, but rather happily stick with my Subaru.
    Also, I’m a life-long LCMS Lutheran and although the church as a whole can be snobby and elitist concerning other religions, there are those, like myself, that realize this is an ideal that will have to pass. While I don’t think that the LCMS will ever be open and affirming like other churches, I do think that some individual congregations are moving to a more embracing attitude.

  • http://www.blackcoffeereflections.com Tim

    “Oh come on you’re ruining the commercial!” As was said to me via text message.
    Thanks for the supporting data. I saw a similar “myth” argument on the Urbanophile site but the research here is helpful. Will add your link to my post – thanks Caryn.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Thanks … yes … we do not like our mythical norms challenged do we …

  • larryas

    Typical nonnuanced, angry and bitter blather from a ‘progressive’ who has to look at everything as a white man conspiracy. I grew up in farm America. I know the realities of farm life. I also understand and appreciate the power of the poetic prose for using perspective and reflection to look at the wonders, as well as the toils, of life. I am saddened that inspite of your education and position of authority, you seem only animated by dread. I fully acknowledge the reality of dread, but I also know that there is balance with beauty. Because my faith is not in man’s hands, but in the Lord who walked amoung us, I can see Him in the toils we must endure, albeit often with out the answers for why now, why me. — Whishing His Peace to you and yours. (And by the way, I grew up Lurtheran, left it long ago, but claim a second spiritual rebirth upon discovering the richness of the reformed body of doctrine and worship.)

  • pagansister

    Though this is “off subject”, I have to comment. I was born in Illinois, as was my father–both of us in the same hospital. No, not farmers. Only spent 5 years there–then off to other states, as a child. We ended up in AL. when I was 11—land of red clay soil. On our yearly visits to see the grandparents, Mom always commented on the beautiful, rich, black soil —beautifully fertile, growing corn, etc. of Illinois. My husband and I visited IL a few years after we married, and at the time we were still living in AL. He was raised in RI. He had never seen the rich, black soil, and he too commented on it. He also found the total flatness amazing!

  • rumitoid

    Sentimentally is, at its root, a violence. It places hope and beauty in things already lost or never true to begin with–and that puts us in conflict with the reality of the way things and people are. Most people do not like myth-busters. For them, it is not truth at any cost but truth they why they like it…and that can only bring misery and harm.

  • LukeinNE

    Ms. Riswold,

    I’m afraid you’re somewhat mistaken about the nature of farming in the United States. I don’t question the statistics that you cited, I do question the presentation of them.

    1. The labor statistics. I don’t have time to fact check them, I assume they’re true, here’s what they mean: in California in particular, the fruit and vegetable farming industry is very strong. Unfortunately, there is really no way to machine harvest this produce, so the solution is to hire millions of unskilled workers to do it. This labor intensive process greatly distorts the general farm work force, as farming has become more efficient and requires fewer workers.

    2. The farm statistics. Again, misleading. The majority of farms (numerically) in this country are hobby farms, with revenues (before expenses) of less than $250,000 a year.

    I grew up in central Nebraska. My dad is a farmer, we own roughly 2000 acres of farm land, which he farms with his two brothers and nephew (I opted for a business career instead). These four men operate this farm and nobody else. For tax reasons, it is organized as a corporation, with the aforementioned men as shareholders. I don’t have access to their books, but factoring in the amount of land involved, and the prices of commodities, I’m guessing that their annual revenues are in the $3-4 million range. They work their tails off to make the farm successful and support their families.

    This is American farming. According to the USDA, 82% of US agricultural output comes from farms owned by families, while 18% comes from the big evil corporate farms with abusive labor practices that you’re referring to. These are people who do what they do because they love it. Sure, with annual revenues of $3 million, our farm almost certainly falls into the “few” that make up most of US ag production. It is not their fault that they worked hard to make their farm successful. This is the story of the American heartland, and this is what almost all “major” farmers in the midwest look like.

    If you want to direct your attention to the situation with immigrants in border states, that’s fine by me and a worthy pursuit, but you are way out of line to tar all of American agriculture with this absurdly broad brush. Having grown up in the midwest, you should be embarrassed by your ignorance and ashamed that you used your platform here to falsely dismiss hundreds of thousands of farmers across this country who put in 12 hour days to feed their families, this country, and the world, as “a myth.”

    • Caryn Riswold

      No one’s work has been dismissed as myth here. I am making a larger point about the images accompanying the original ad and how they contribute to our ideas of what farming is and should be. Farming is in fact much more complicated and nuanced than that. And you ought not assume that migrant labor and farming is limited to “border states.” Because we know that it is not.

  • Dale

    Is the ad really about farming? As Caryn noted, the ad invokes myths but aren’t those myths really about America and who we are as a people? We esteem the idea of the hard-working person who shrugs off adversity, and perseveres with humility and determination. Isn’t that the idea which is being presented in the ad?

    I think the ad was designed to make Americans feel good about ourselves. Even if few of us fit the images displayed on the screen, we want to believe that we aren’t so different from those persons.

    Yes, the ad can be criticized for not displaying more diversity in the images it presents. I wonder if the images chosen were based, in part, on a demographic analysis of potential purchasers of Dodge trucks.


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