The Fantasy of the Clip Art Farm

The Fantasy of the Clip Art Farm

Notes from the New Rural Landscape

Farm is a four-letter word. Right up there with flag, love, and home. Any kid can draw farm with a few crayons-a red barn, a silo beside it. As easy as love, a heart, and home, a house. But these days, in many rural communities, farm is an f-word, too. With livestock factories reshaping agricultural areas, farm has fallen hard-plummeted-from the sacred to the obscene.

The livestock operations that surround my Midwest town, Hudson, Michigan, still call themselves farms. Most are dairies, and they’re all huge, all built within the last few years. In the language of law, they’re Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with a thousand plus Animal Units-that is, seven hundred or more confined cows-and open-air waste pits that hold millions of gallons of liquefied feces and urine. Like the hog CAFOs in North Carolina, Missouri, and Washington and chicken operations all over the place, they’re the largest constructions on the new rural landscape: animal factories that from the air resemble airplane hangars.

From the ground, the buildings are long, low, steel constructions, some of them a quarter mile long. When I showed a picture of one of these places to my Mennonite cousin in Pennsylvania, she said it reminded her of a Mennonite church, plain and simple. She got the up-front message-this is a clean place, orderly, unadorned. CAFO dairy design is spare-white siding on the long walls of “freestall” barns where the cows are confined. If the milkhouse faces the road, maybe there are a few decorative bricks or tiles as a façade. At the largest facility (three thousand cows), just opened for business south of town, an entry drive leads past a circular pool that looks like it might someday have a clean-water fountain upspurting.

Out back, however, out of sight except from a plane, are the pits, lagoons, and cesspools of millions of gallons of untreated animal waste. What you never see at CAFOs-not from the road, and not even from the air-are the things most people picture when they think of “farm.” At CAFOs, you will not see

cows outside grazing
red hip barns
upright silos for storing feed
straw as bedding

Yet these elements persist in ads, brochures, the imagination-the full iconography of the myth of the American farm. The red-barn-and-silo-background with green-pastureland-foreground sells cheese and milk on television to this day. These features appear without fail in the clip art images that Microsoft provides as “farm,” including this image, chosen by the Michigan Department of Agriculture for the cover of June 2000 Web publication Generally Accepted A...