Well, the votes are in on the best ads from the Super Bowl, and everyone it seems, loves a schmaltzy ad sponsored by Dodge Ram which celebrates American farmers as true heroes, exemplars of all that is right and good with our country. To put this in terms a farmer would understand: Bullshit.
If this is the way we are defining heroes, we need to find a new word. A hero is supposed to be someone who does a heroic deed. A soldier who dashes out under fire to save a wounded comrade is a hero. A teacher who turns down a higher paying job to teach special ed is a hero. A young immigrant who works two jobs and goes to school nights to buy a house for her young family is a hero. People who get up every day and go to work are not heroes, especially when that work entails climbing into the air-conditioned cabs of their enormous tractors and driving down the road to the mailbox, where they collect their lavish checks from the U.S. government.
Look, I grew up on a farm. I’ve worked on a farm. I have a degree in agricultural engineering. I own a farm and live there. My neighbors are farmers, and I’ve spend more than one day helping them load pipe, corral wayward cattle, and string fence. I own a tractor. A real one. I get farming.
I don’t think many people do. They must not, or they wouldn’t make silly, pretentious, misleading ads like the one getting all the critic-love this morning.
Why are we suckers for ads like this? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a Norman Rockwell-like America that probably never existed. Perhaps it’s survivor guilt. A century or two ago, 90% of us were farmers. Now it’s 1%. Our ancestors and we got as far away as we could as fast as we could. Perhaps it’s the fact that they now live in fancy mansions no farmer could afford that lead Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to host annual fundraisers for them. For whatever reason, as a country we have concocted and perpetuated a mythology around the noble small family farm. Even thoughtful and right-minded progressives get lumps in their throats and plaster the bumpers of their hybrid cars with stickers celebrating farmers. We’re not alone. France and Japan have similar blind spots. Still, it’s time to stop this nonsense.
It’s a myth that small farmers matter, at least in the sense that they provide the food on our table. The truth is that small farms make up 90% of farms, but only supply 27% of our food. Farming is like everything else these days, big rules. Yes, family-run diners are cute, but most people get their breakfast from McDonald’s. Small farms make for good commercials, but they are fast become irrelevant in terms of contribution to food supply. It’s the big, professional, commercial farms that feed us.
It’s a myth that we owe them our thanks for doing what they do. We don’t run commercials thanking accountants, or proctologists, or plumbers, or any of a host of people who do things that make our lives better. That’s because they get paid, for Chrissake. Farmers don’t get up every day to grow food because it’s a mission, they do it because it’s their job. As a rule, we don’t thank people profusely for doing their jobs. Okay, it’s polite to thank people, and I have no problem with us thanking farmers, but we don’t owe it to them.
It’s a myth that farmers are strong, self-sufficient, plucky little operations making their lonely way in a tough, cruel world. Farmers get roughly $100 billion a year from the federal government, roughly a quarter of a million dollars per year per farm. Some of that is in direct payments, some of it is in crop insurance, some of it is by guaranteeing markets and prices for whatever they produce. Farmers are some of the biggest deadbeats in America. They are entitlement artistes, managing to milk a perpetual handout from a John Steinbeck novel.
It’s a myth that they form some sort of bedrock for our society. Look at the last election map—the rural areas are all red. Virtually all the recidivist, reactionary, and incompetent idiots in government were elected in farm-heavy areas. Farmers are purely and simply an anchor on our society, holding us back economically, socially and intellectually. I have a lot of respect for the Founding Fathers, but the idea of giving disproportionate representation to rural areas made a lot more sense when a lot of people lived there. Now it has created a system of electoral blackmail, where small, farmer-heavy states can use their undeserved weight to stymie progress.
It’s a myth that these myths don’t hurt anything, that it’s just harmless romanticizing at worst. Because we sanctify farmers, we reflexively support farm bills to “help them out.” That aid hurts the environment by encouraging over-production. It creates famines in Africa because local farmers are put out of business by our heavily subsidized imports. It encourages obesity in the U.S. because it turns out the foods farmers most want to produce (because they’re easy) are also the ones that cause our health problems.
Look, farms do serve a purpose. In a sort of bizarre Keynesian way, as with all industries that use manual labor for part of their value added, they provide employment for people who lack the intelligence and skills to do other things. It’s not quite the same as one group of men digging holes and another filling them in, but it’s pretty close.
So enough of this. If we’re going to praise someone for goodness sake, how about a commercial for the guy that fixed my DSL last week. Now that was heroic.