What image comes to mind when you think of farmers? Many think of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting called American Gothic pictured below. The artist admitted he was intrigued by the house in the background and only imagined the kind of people who must have lived in it. He depicts a farmer and his spinster daughter. The artist had his own sister and dentist stand in for the painting. Hearing the real story behind the painting leaves me a little less nostalgic about the lives of New England farmers of the early 20th century when I see this painting.
If the farmer and his daughter in American Gothic are an inaccurate representation of farmers today, then what image can take its place? Unfortunately, the media runs to the spectacular and the farmer/rancher who has made the most noise recently is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada Rancher who with his armed rancher neighbors and area militia won a standoff with Federal Land Management Rangers who had come to confiscate 500 head of his cattle. Bundy had failed, or moreover refused, to pay grazing fees for the cattle to graze thousands of acres of federal grasslands so the court ordered the cows to be taken in partial payment. The standoff worked and the Feds decided rather to pursue the matter judicially. While the media was surrounding him and Bundy was making statements that the federal government was interfering too much in people’s lives, politicians who tout less government as part of their platform courted Bundy and saw him as a poster boy for their campaigns. Then Bundy made a blunder, or rather he kept talking until his words got him in hot water and sent politicians running to distance themselves from him. He made a statement that negroes were better off as slaves than they are with federal subsidies. His words went viral. He was immediately viewed as a racist, and the more he tries to explain that his words were taken out of context the deeper he digs the hole of racism he originally jumped into. Unfortunately, Bundy is the picture that comes to the minds of many when they think of the few remaining farmers who have held on to their lifestyle and remained rural. They are people with a vocation that dates back to the Garden of Eden and also people whose views about the world are as archaic as their vocation. Narrow-minded, provincial, bigoted, lone-rangers, anti-government, anarchic, and vigilante are words that fit this description. Is that the American farmer? One reason we do not have a clear picture of the American farmer is that those who grow our food live farther and farther away from us. Even in the summer months when in-season vegetables can be grown locally, the average distance food we buy in the grocery store travels before it reaches our tables is 1,300 miles. Today, the picture of the beef farmer in America looks like the images below.
These are the four beef packing companies that control over 80% of all the beef slaughtered and processed in the U.S. These companies look like no farmer I ever met, and the reason is that they are not. They are, however, the companies that hold the beef farmer’s livelihood in the balance. They are the companies that buy over 80% of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually that farmers scattered across America grow. These meat packers in turn sell the meat to distributors who stock your grocer’s freezers.
What I am saying is that the true image of the farmer is quickly fading from our minds because we do not personally know farmers anymore. Therefore, we allow inaccurate and extremist renderings of farmers to paint a distorted picture on the the blank canvasses in our minds. I would like to change that. One way to start is to come out to the Farmers Market at Latham UMC beginning next Tuesday, May 6, and every Tuesday through September. If Latham is not near you, find a Farmers Market that is, and visit it weekly. You will meet farmers who grow food on their land near you, not 1,300 miles away. You will talk with the very people who grow some of the best vegetables, fruit, honey, and meat you have eaten. You will learn their names and they will know yours. You will stroll through Latham’s parking lot and talk with farm family members who work together to grow food you and I love to eat and who depend on us, not national and international meat packers and food distributors, to buy their produce. And the face of a farmer that comes to your mind will look a lot like your neighbor and your friend because that is who she is, who he is. I hope to see you at the Farmers Market at Latham UMC on Tuesdays.