From parachuting cows to learning-disabled farmers, commercials have effectively dumbed down agriculture.
As a full-time farmer, I don't have much time to watch television. Despite my best intentions, I've never seen an episode of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. I'm usually game for a lunchtime episode of Pawn Stars, but farming requires me to be outside most of the day, and my schedule demands an early-to-bed type of lifestyle. Suffice to say, my remote control could use a good dusting.
Whenever football season rolls around, however, I gloriously plunk myself on the couch each Monday night, put up my feet, and watch grown men in day-glo pants tackle each other at high speed. And as always, wedged between timeouts and two minute warnings, there they are: the farming commercials making us all a little more callow, distancing us from our inescapable connection to the land, and how farming actually works.
You've seen the ads. Parachuting cows imploring us to eat chicken sandwiches. Farmers who can't spell. Kids who garden with dinosaurs and chickens without bones. We're not talking about restaurant spokesclowns any more, or your grandma's 'Where's the beef?!' ads. Over the decades, commercials seem to have transitioned from pure fantasy to pseudo-reality, a pop culture kaleidoscope through which the act of farming becomes obfuscated and whisked into the realm of afterthought.
As a farmer, it doesn't especially bother me that the cows in these ads are holsteins, a dairy breed and not beef. More confounding is that while these cows can spell, they can only spell very badly -- tacitly perpetuating a stereotype of agricultural illiteracy. And it's not even that irksome to see Old McDonald, our country's de facto agricultural mascot, portrayed as a lovable imbecile. The commercial itself is funny, and most farmers don't mind a little self-deprecating humor from time to time.
But what is worrisome is these commercials are the only glimpse into farming that millions of people will ever see. For a generation that's never raised a flock of chickens or planted a row of potatoes, much less visited a working farm, how much of a stretch is it to assume that birds are now raised without bones, or that farmers flunked first grade?
Now, before I'm accused of being a (stereotypically) curmudgeony farmer, I fully realize that commercials exist to sell product; this is the nature of businesses. But with less than one percent of the country currently employed in farming, an overwhelming majority of Americans are fully disconnected from agricultural production practices. As a nation, how much do these ads influence the way we perceive agriculture? Intentionally or not, corporate America has filled an important cultural void, playing high definition surrogate to our rural education.
Commercials have long taught us that food should be cheap and abundant, an economic fairy tale that walks hand-in-hand with confinement livestock operations, herbicide monocultures and preservative-laden processed foods. Perhaps it's only natural that these ads have delved into the realm of edutainment, scripting an agricultural narrative that has little basis in reality. A generation that's been raised on artificial ingredients is now being fed a diet of farming fiction. Small wonder we're also fed ads for Prilosec.
Of course, there's a reason so few people farm these days. Regardless of what the ads would have us believe, most farmers can't produce a 'value meal' hamburger for $1, not even one made from parachuting holsteins. And they certainly can't produce a patty for 15 cents on the dollar, which is how much the average farmer receives for food grown in the United States. Provided the chance again, perhaps Old MacDonald would have spelled, "C-O-W... B-I-T-E-M-E". Dagnabbit indeed.
Give Madison Avenue some credit, though. Dodge released a heartfelt farming encomium last February, and Chipotle debuted an updated Meatrix-esque ad that's blowing up the internet. Perhaps the era of cheap food -- and cheap laughs -- is running its course. Successful advertising might someday intersect education with positive cash flow, creating a win for businesses, farmers and consumers alike. Chipotle has clearly seized this opportunity, and it will be interesting to see if others follow. Naturally, we'll all be watching.
In the meantime, however, I'll just do what all farmers do: breakdance with rainbow colored pigs, harvest cheeseburgers from a bush, and read the latest Dick and Jane e-book to my boneless chickens. It might not save me 15 percent on my pickup truck insurance, but heck, it's a living.
The book about our farm, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm, was named a Top Ten Read by Publishers Weekly, Washingtonian, and NPR's The Splendid Table. Click HERE.