My grandfather was a Ford man. He wore Red Wing boots, drank watery coffee from Casey’s every day, and never bought a tractor that wasn’t a John Deere. During the winter, when running the nursery he started in 1946 was more about paperwork than mowing sod fields or transplanting trees, he drove a Saab.
I don’t know what kind of herbicide he used to ensure that the acres of bluegrass he grew were free of any and all weeds, but I imagine he was loyal to that brand too.
The wash of duck canvas, truck grills and splattered mud flaps that was the Dodge Ram “Farmer” commercial, which aired in the fourth quarter of last night’s Super Bowl, made me miss my Grandpa Wink, who died in 2007. The trucks in the ad, which featured radio icon Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” monologue, may have been the wrong make, and Wink wore newsboy caps, not cowboy hats—but the palette matched otherwise, and my sense of nostalgia was willing to forgive the discrepancies.
The record-breaking television audience for the game seems to feel similarly; many on Twitter called the ad one of the best moments of the entire broadcast. Slate referred to it as the “most striking Super Bowl ad,” and the Gawker Media website Jalopnik wrote that it was “memorable, unique and inspiring.”
Both websites—and many others—went on to point out that the ad was essentially a ripoff of a YouTube video posted by Farms.com in 2011. But the more interesting commentary surrounding the ad has little to do with originality (especially considering the fact that Farms.com “partnered” with Dodge on the ad). Rather, some are calling bluff on the pastoral imagery and Harvey’s lionizing monologue, which begins “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.” Reuters’ Anthonty De Rosa shot back by asking, “Who made Monsanto?”
Over at The Awl, Abe Sauer rewrote the speech, which Harvey originally delivered at a Future Farmers of America (FFA) conference in 1978. (Dodge Ram is hoping to raise $1 million for the FFA and “assist in local hunger and educational programs” through a related social media campaign.) Sauer’s satire skewers farmers as politically conservative and subsidy-dependent, managers divorced from the land who spend more time polluting and taking advantage of cheap labor than doing anything like Harvey’s heroic figure. In Harvey’s Genesis, God is looking for someone who, “during planting time and harvest season will finish his 40-hour week by Tuesday noon and then, paining from tractor back, put in another 72 hours.” So he makes a farmer. Sauer’s God, however, makes something else to “seed, weed, feed and breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk”—an undocumented farm worker.
Reality, of course, exists somewhere between opposing clichés. It’s astonishing that a mere 10 percent of farms collect 75 percent of all federal subsidy payments, according the Environmental Working Group. And yet, without crop insurance and other federal assurances that, along with subsidies, are provided via the Farm Bill, getting into an industry that’s dependent on the whims of a less and less predictable climate would be an even riskier investment than it already is. The average income for a farmer is around $60,000, but there are plenty who pull in well-over six figures. Conversely, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that agricultural workers earned a median pay of $18,970 in 2010, and the many undocumented workers that make up half of the labor force earn $5,600 less, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Deifying farmers might not make perfect sense, but neither does demonizing them outright. Looking past both the pastoral and the polluting, and engaging with the reality of the farming industry and its labor, policy and other issues is the more honest course.
But that take on things wouldn’t neatly fit into a two-minute commercial spot.
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com