Sunday, August 30, 2015

It Takes a Myth to Sell a Myth


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Today we introduce a new column, “The View from the Levee,” by veteran agriculture journalist Alan Guebert. Alan has been writing about agriculture and rural America for more than three decades. He grew up on a farm in southern Illinois and currently lives in the central part of the state. His email address is [email protected].

Agriculture was atwitter Monday, Feb. 4, over a two-minute pick-up truck advertisement during the previous day’s Super Bowl. The ad featured evocative photographs of farm and ranch folk to a voice-over of one-time news commentator Paul Harvey’s oft-quoted 1978 hanky-soaking speech, “So, God made a farmer.”

The two combined to put American farmers and ranchers in an almost celestial place in Super Bowl ad-dom: golden light, heaven-on-earth scenes, common folk struggling through this woe-filled vale of tears.

Everyone is talking about the ad, which included Harvey's 1978 FFA speech over photos like this one.Standing out in the 2013 Super Bowl ad game wasn’t too difficult given the silly, even insipid, competition. I mean, prancing male underwear models and office drones whose reggae-tinged happiness came from riding in a German-made car?

Yo, mon.

Dodge, which stitched the photos of America’s purple-mountain majesty with Harvey’s purple prose to sell pick-up trucks larger than the state of Rhode Island, hit all the right chords in the right key.

For example, a black-and-white silhouette of a bushy-mustached, slouch-hatted rancher filled the screen as Harvey intoned “God said, ‘I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’”

If that didn’t get lump-making going in your throat, the final photo in the sequence should have. It showed a rancher on bended—probably aching—knees in church, head down and hat in hand.

Oh, my.

Yes, it was a heaping helping of raw American myth, but myth sells.

Of course, you may not need a $55,000, diesel-clattering, four-door, moon-roofed, stump-pulling dually pick-up but how will you ever, as Harvey suggests, “shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout” or “shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire” without one?

Go for it, man.

By pure coincidence, one of the nation’s largest farm magazines, Progressive Farmer, published an online story that same day that rounded out the Super Bowl picture of where American agriculture actually is in 2013.

GOOD DAY: Paul Harvey at the mic.In the lengthy piece, titled “Best Young Farmers/ Ranchers,” Progressive’s Dan Miller profiled Southwest Family Farms, a Kansas-based operation that “practices the art of modern-day agriculture at a high level….”

A really high level. This fifth generation High Plains farm operates a “grain-production enterprise spanning 12,000 acres—4,000 irrigated and 8,000 dryland… [and] another 20,000 acres in a custom-farming business.”

Just how big is 32,000 acres? It’s big; 50 square miles big.

In fact, the farm is so big that two members of the farming family’s youngest generation “have pilot licenses and a plane modified to fly just above stall speed over their fields” to monitor growing crops.

Moreover, reports Miller, “The family is planning for rapid growth, looking to manage 40,000 acres in another seven years.”

Whoa, buddy!

Fate delivered another delicious coincidence Tues. Feb. 5. According to press reports, a federal bankruptcy court in Michigan that day was set to sell the massive—and massively broke—Stamp Farms, LLC, a “farm” that claimed to operate 46,000 acres.

It, too, recently had been featured in a farm magazine, Farm Journal’s Top Producer. Unfortunately for FJ, the story saw daylight the same month, last November, that Stamp Farms turned out the lights.

But ain’t that the way it goes: it takes more than one picture, more than one story, to tell an accurate story.

The same is true for the almost-canonized Paul Harvey whose “So, God…” soliloquy Dodge effectively used to convert cowboy-wannabes and soft-handed farmette-owners into pick-up poodles.

The front page of Harvey's FBI file is a letter of praise from J. Edgar Hoover.

Harvey, people often forget, was a long-time favorite of PETA, the vegetarian-powered People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

No real cowboy, pick-up truck or not, can stand PETA. Indeed, real cowboys love to say PETA really stands for People Eating Tasty Animals.

And, yet, when Harvey died nearly four years ago, PETA announced his passing “with deep regret and sadness” because he had been a “PETA Humanitarian Award” winner of the past.

Even worse, Harvey’s FBI file—yes, he has a one –dives into his bald-faced act of deceptive self-promotion to boost radio ratings in the bad old days of Cold War red baiting.

But, hey, who wants to be bothered by cold facts when myth is what it’s all about.

And pick-ups and persimmon sprouts and re-capped horse hooves. Giddyup, partner.


Another View

I think Guebert misses it a bit here, much like other, weaker critics. 

The givens for me are, first that it's an ad, and that conservative Paul Harvey speaks it, and this is pure Harvey style (sentimental). For me this is not controversial or interesting, but I'm older and heard Harvey locally over and over.

But what does the Harvey text and imagery, (excluding a truck here and there, etc.) really show? I do not see "an almost celestial place," "golden light, heaven-on-earth scenes..."  That would be very different from what it was, but Guebert, for his planned thesis, lumps it together with "common folk struggling through this woe-filled vale of tears."  Yes, it was gritty, tragic, deep drama, (enough [I argue] so to make Harvey's sentimentality legitimate,) but it was not heavenly fluff, as many are claiming, to buttress this same thesis.

Guebert is also very wrong in claiming that "Standing out in the 2013 Super Bowl ad game wasn't too difficult given the ... competition."  No "mon." This is the biggest multimillion dollar competition we have, the top level, and the goal is impact, buzz, recognition, going viral. To risk a family-farm-life ad is to risk a massive mega-yawn, to risk being this years biggest loser, in this specific arena.  It isn't a rural, everyday life arena by any far-fetched stretch of the imagination.  It's a place of sensationalism, radical novelty, sheer shock value, and (yes, that typically means trying things like "insipid ... prancing male underwear models and office drones whose reggae-tinged happiness...;" you get the picture.  Yes, we'd usually expect that to totally kick the rural-way-of-life butt through the goal posts and off into space, as in The Son of Flubber. Why?  Because authentic rural people know that we live in our world, but others live in THAT world.  That, (not our small town coffee shop views,) is the "Super" standard that you must beat. 

"Myth" you say?  Yes, exactly, Myth, but not myth as falsehood:  Myth as profound symbolic truth.  Again, as the critics are misunderstanding over and over, it's not at all about "an accurate story" of "cold facts."  The colt died.  That's an example of the occasional emotional impact that sticks with you.  Paul Harvey remembered that for us.  So it's not the statistical average, it's a mythic story. It's a classic of literature, so to speak, not a sociological report designed for safety vs peer review.  I think it works in that respect, as a realistic portrayal of drama that goes far beyond the "soap opera," (try listing what happens to the average character in 1 year!) "drama queen" standards of drama.  Yes, the pace moves you right along (like leading theater portrayals, but not like daily life).  But then we resonate with it

This, then, is how Guebert's point is correct.  Yes, on one level, (but at the SuperBowl?) a classic kicks butt against the most sensational/expensive/researched of pulp fiction.  So yes, some beat-down humanities professors are cheering, such as Garrison Keilor's association of English majors. Dodge took that risk, and violated the rules, and that was the novelty, the unexpected shock--an unexpected turn of direction amid our ultimate hyper-clamor of sound & imagery & motion. I can just hear rural people in discussion:  they showed Dad out by the barn and stuff like that and it went viral, kicking butt at the Superbowl halftime???  Now I REALLY know you're BS-ing me! (I couldn't take a picture of a farmer that effective in a thousand years.  I have no idea how the top elite of professional image-makers do it?) 

Finally, it's no surprise that the drama of politics in the Farm Justice (Family Farm) Movement was not included, nor was the renewal of the family farm beyond industrial agriculture through the post modern paradigm of sustainability.  (See Wenonah Hauter's book Foodopoly for for the 1962 CED report [run 1/3 of farmers out of business in 5 years,] protests against Ford Trucks.) Hey, it was conservative Paul Harvey; and a Dodge Truck ad. Yo mon.

Well said

Brad Wilson has it just right.  I'm not in farming but was born into a farm family and have relatives in the business.  It struck a chord with a lot of folks who know the uncertainty and hard life that farming is.  

Practical impact

   I am an agricultural attorney and dairy farmer in NY.  The practical impact of this ad on us in the Northeast was entirely positive.  For a starter, we the dairy farmers of the Northeast have witnessed the loss of thousands of farms. Some 3,000,000 acres of NY grazing lands now stand empty or under used as dairy farms have been lost.   Since 2009, we have survived a few years from Hell.  The Great 2009 Milk Price Crash literally broke the backs of hundreds of farms and drove most of us to our knees.  At that time, I asked some of the same urban foodie groups who are now busy sneering at the God Made a Farmer ad for help, to at least say something...anything in support of Upstate farmers.  Almost all point blank refused, sitting in silence.  

   In 2010, ag antitrust hearings were held.  Again, the same cynics sat in silence, while we, the average farmers stared into the powerful craws of Walmart and Dean Foods at the hearings alone.  Farmers spoke of the growing share of consumer dollars in the hands of global processors while the farmers and their organizations were pushed to the wall.  The cynics stayed home.

   The Secretary of Agriculture has warned us that we are becoming virtually irrelevant in modern times.  And, we sit without a Farm Bill.  

   So, for one very public moment, rural farmers in the Northeast sat stunned, some with tears in their eyes to see a beautiful ad. Yes, we know it was an ad, Yes, we know Dodge is trying to sell trucks.  But, the important thing to us is that the ad shows how we have lived our of all sizes and types.  We felt one with the cowboys and the farmers of the Midwest shown in the ads.  The practical impact was that people I barely know approached me on the streets saying that the ad drove home to them what the local farm groups are fighting for.  Local politicians came up to me and said that they would be there for the next hearing and asked how they can help.  Maybe it is not the end-all, but at least the ad showed our lives and gave us a bit of much needed recognition.

 Its been a shame that the urban food groups who also use our images are now leading the way to parody the ad, to mock us on twitter and elsewhere snorting.. " claiming that they stay up all night with a dying colt, what a laugh".  Its not a laugh, its life or death for us, the farmers of the middle at this point.