God Made a Farmer

Curator's Note

But no one addressed the environmental harm caused by today’s industrial food complex. Nowhere in the photo-montage did American audiences see the toxic pollution caused by today’s farming practices.

Recently, food as a social and political phenomenon has exploded within our mediascape. From foodie-porn films to documentaries exposing the underbelly of food production, we are inundated with the cultural and environmental impacts of food and how we can and should change our consumption patterns. Go Vegan. Eat Organic. Buy Local. As Michael Pollen says, “vote with every bite you take.”

In other words, change your pattern of consumption.

As much as food activists will tell you it is cheaper to buy local, go vegan and eat organic, limiting the issue of food to a frame of consumption limits our potential to change the world. Expert framer George Lakoff (2010) claims that saving the environment must become idealistic of necessity. In other words, it’s not just about shopping at the farmer’s markets on Sundays and having Meatless Mondays, it’s about the natural world being destroyed and our “moral imperative to preserve and reconstitute as much of it as possible as soon as possible.” It is, according to Lakoff, about the destruction of our earth.

But what if we reframed it to be about the destruction of the people who inhabit the earth?

Lakoff compares the environmental movement to civil-rights and feminism– all movements about people. And based on the overwhelming response to Dodge’s Superbowl ad, the farmer made a lot of people thinking about change. Nowhere in the montage did we see the harmful realities of the industrial food complex, rather we saw the farmers who we imagine to grow our food, and the farmers made American notice. The original version by Farms.com, shown here, and the response to the Superbowl ad by Cuéntame offered much more realistic versions of who those farmers actually are, as compared to Dodge’s whitewashed version, but either way, whoever the faces may be, it’s the faces that cause change. It’s the faces of the people, of the farmers, who just might be the key to protecting our earth by changing our food system.


I'm glad to see a post about these montages (and I'm looking forward to Garrett's post, tomorrow, too!). I wonder, though, if we need to drastically rethink the kind of power these montages ascribe to "farmers"––white male farmers, white female farmers, latina and latino farmers, migrant workers who perform the labor of farming, but reap little of the monetary benefit (and, of course, there are many other identity positions to add to this list). Power operates differently for each set of bodies in this equation and one thing that seems suspect about the Dodge and Farms.com montages (as you rightly point out, Rachel) is that they tend to erase (in different ways) the diversity of the bodies that perform the act of farming. But even more than this, they tend to aestheticize the act of farming at the expense of exposing the sticky power relations attached to the diverse bodies presented here. We need a sense of differential power relations precisely because power matters if we wish to change food systems. This aestheticizing also dangerously glosses over the ways that small-time farmers (family farms, non-industrial farms) are often at the mercy of big-ag companies like Monsanto. I'm thinking of the recent supreme court case between Monsanto and Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman. The rules of "nature" (the supreme court has decided) are not what they used to be, and farmers like Bowman are losing their land and savings for practicing the very kind of "natural" activity that both of these montages more or less suggest. For Bowman, it was the act of saving seeds––a practice that dates back to early forms of organized agriculture. What are farmers to do when the laws of nature no longer seem natural? This, of course, opens the door for a larger discussion of whether "nature" is an ideological or material structure (see dialogues between Donald Worster and William Cronon, 1990, Journal of American History). Here, maybe we can agree that nature is both. In the end, I think it might be helpful to talk about aesthetics a bit more and ask how aestheticizing the "natural" silences contemporary crises of power, place, and production.

Sara - thanks for the comment. You raise some important and concerns and I couldn't agree more with you about the potential pitfalls of aestheticizing farming and farmers. The power differentials between the bodies of farmers, the scale of farms, and the corporations who many farmers are indebted to is vast and therefore a huge landscape within which anyone can get lost. However, when I suggest that we use the faces of the farmers as a means for fighting against the industrial food system and I suggest Lakoff's work on frames, I am suggesting that we use the faces of real farmers - regardless of race/gender/farm size - and the emotion those faces makes us feel to fight against companies. Simple as that. While I agree its not a perfect solution, I do think it is one that works. And I think the Dodge Ad shows us that. In fact, I think the Monsanto case you reference is exactly the type of event that has the potential to cause change - if only more people knew it had happened and could have seen the face of Bowman. I am prepping to teach my Intro to Rhetoric class, so forgive the lecture in Neo-Artistotelian Criticism - but this issue for me is a debate of pathos v. logos. You are absolutely right and your argument is logical and I wish logic is how people made decisions, but its not. Pathos is. We vote with our hearts - or with the faces of farmers. And while it may be crass and just plain pragmatic, I think changing our food system starts when people see images of people, even if those people have no power of their own.

Thanks for this Rachel. I think it's nice to have our posts work in tandem. The conversation going on in these comments, along with Sara's post from earlier in the week, got me thinking about some of the great food system visualizations that have been produced in recent years. Some of my favorite work comes from a researcher named Philip H. Howard at Michigan State: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/index.html In particular, his network maps and network animations of food system consolidation are striking tools to communication how things have shifted in recent years. Check out the consolidation in the seed industry, dominated by a few chemical corporations (with Monsanto in the most dominant position)! https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/seedindustry.html

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