The Real “Farmer” Story: So God Made High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Photo by Melanie Lukesh, 2012, Flickr creative commons

Of the commercials that debuted at this year’s Super Bowl, one of the most talked about has been “Farmer,” a Dodge truck ad that pays tribute to the salt-of-the-earth middle Americans who work the land. (Check it out here if you haven’t seen it yet.)

As a Midwesterner who comes from a family just one generation removed from the farm (both of my parents grew up on family farms that have since been lost), some of the heartland pandering in the video worked on me. At the same time, the main feeling I had while watching was that the ad celebrated a type of farming that corporate agribusiness has all but obliterated in the past fifty years.

The satirists at Funny or Die apparently had the same idea. The other day, they released a sly parody video called “God Made a Factory Farmer”:

As others have noted, the content of the new Dodge ad does not reflect the current state of American farming at all. For one, the imagery is a whitewash; basically all the farmers shown in the commercial are white, while the majority of actual farm workers in the United States today are Latino.

The narration, too, is the product of a bygone age. The speech featured in the ad was given by radio personality Paul Harvey to a convention of the Future Farmers of America in 1978. Even then, Harvey did not claim authorship; the original “So God Made a Farmer” text dates back to at least the 1940s.

In an article at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta pointed to Harvey’s long-standing conservative politics, as described in his New York Times obituary:

In his heyday, which lasted from the 1950s through the 1990s, Mr. Harvey’s twice-daily soapbox-on-the-air was one of the most popular programs on radio. Audiences of as many as 22 million people tuned in on 1,300 stations to a voice that had been an American institution for as long as most of them could remember.

Like Walter Winchell and Gabriel Heatter before him, he personalized the radio news with his right-wing opinions, but laced them with his own trademarks: a hypnotic timbre, extended pauses for effect, heart-warming tales of average Americans and folksy observations that evoked the heartland, family values and the old-fashioned plain talk one heard around the dinner table on Sunday….

He railed against welfare cheats and defended the death penalty. He worried about the national debt, big government, bureaucrats who lacked common sense, permissive parents, leftist radicals and America succumbing to moral decay.

Of course, in the end, it was not godless California hippies who undermined the family farm and gave us a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. And if you’re looking to condemn welfare scams and big-government boondoggles, you need search no further than the subsidy regime that undergirds the profits of modern corporate agribusiness. Sadly, like members of my own extended family, many people who grew up on the farm, fed on the gospel of hard work and rugged individualism, experienced misery in trying to carry on the family tradition. As sustainable farming advocate Tim Wightman writes in his critique of the Dodge ad:

I fell for the hype of serving a corporate food system with duty, honor and 100 hour weeks and very nearly ruined my health in doing so. I am now reminded of all the John Henrys I have known over the years, desperately trying to stay ahead of the system. I am reminded of the migrant workers who’s names we will never know still working the 100 hour standard. I am reminded of all the farm sons and daughters who are not on the land. God may have made a farmer, but Big Ag broke his back[.]

Could the type of land stewardship celebrated in “So God Made a Farmer” be revived, protected, and made sustainable? Perhaps. But to do so would challenge some of the most cherished values of the market. As the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry explained in a Dissent interview with Sarah Leonard:

To have good farming or good land use of any kind, you have got to have limits. Capitalism doesn’t acknowledge limits. That is why we have supposedly limitless economic growth in a finite world. Good agriculture is formal. You can have limits without form, but you can’t have form without limits. If you look around the country and find small farmers who have prospered in hard times, you’ll probably find that they’ve prospered because they’ve accepted their limits….

There’s a fundamental incompatibility between industrial capitalism and both the ecological and the social principles of good agriculture. The aim of industrialization has always been to replace people with machines or other technology, to make the cost of production as low as possible, to sell the product as high as possible, and to move the wealth into fewer and fewer hands….

In the middle of the last century, Aldo Leopold was writing and publishing on the “land community” and ecological land husbandry. Sir Albert Howard and J. Russell Smith had written of natural principles as the necessary basis of agriculture. This was work that was scientifically reputable. At the end of the Second World War, ignoring that work, the politicians, the agricultural bureaucracies, the colleges of agriculture, and the agri-business corporations went all-out to industrialize agriculture and to get first the people and then the animals off the land and into the factories. This was a mistake, involving colossal offenses against both land and people. The costs have not been fully reckoned, let alone fully paid.

I’d say that’s a story that deserves the widest possible audience. Unfortunately, something tells me it won’t be featured in a Super Bowl ad anytime soon.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.