The Peterson Farm Brothers Are Giving a Face to Big-ag

By Tove K. Danovich

This post was originally published by Food Politic: Journal of Food News and Culture.

If you like both watching videos on YouTube and farming, you've probably heard of the Peterson Brothers.

In 2012 the three boys -- Greg, Nathan, and Kendal -- who'd grown up on their family's beef farm in Kansas decided to turn the farming life into something a little bit catchier. Covering LMFAO's song "I'm Sexy and I Know It" they created a song that brought agriculture to the public: "I'm Farming and I Grow It."

A year later, the video has 8.8 million views and their follow-up hit "Farmer Style" has over 14 million. They're regularly touted as spokespeople for large-scale agriculture and have been guests at agriculture conferences and events in the United States and abroad.

It's easy to understand why when you think about how different types of agriculture operate.

Small, sustainable agriculture is about connecting farms directly to people. Their business model relies on people knowing what they're up to, how the harvest is going, and even upfront financial contribution in the form of a CSA. Big farms that sell to corporations or large distributors don't need to tell their story to make a living. Their sales rely on creating a product that is unidentifiable from the whole -- the perfect grocery store onion rather than Old McDonald's Heirloom Tomatoes -- so the farmers never needed to connect with the public.

Until now. The Peterson Brothers seem to think that the times are changing. There are reasons why large-scale farmers rely on the newest technology -- whether that be genetically modified seed, mechanical equipment, or pesticides. But you're more likely to hear about those reasons in an advertisement than straight from the mouth of a farmer. If farmers want the public to understand and respect their work, that needs to change.

All farmers work their fields in the way that they think is best for their income and for the public. There may be a different skill set required to grow a small diversified farm than a large monoculture, but the work is equally hard on both. Farmers -- regardless of their acreage -- are proud of the work they do.

When I emailed Greg Peterson, he had a lot to say on the subject. "If consumers aren't even thinking about where their food comes from," he said, "it ends up hurting the farmer because we lack respect from the general public. When most people hear "farmer," they just think of an old man driving a tractor around in the field, when in reality farming is what is feeding them and allowing them to live a life free of time spent growing their own food."

Those are words that any farmer would be happy to live by. Hidden inside funny videos and clever lyrics, The Peterson Brothers have been attempting to give the public the "farmer's touch" we've been lacking.

When asked what changes Greg Peterson would make to farming if given the chance, his first answer was simple, "I wish people could spend as much time appreciating farmers as they do attacking our methods."

He thought that controversial topics like GMOs, chemicals, animal confinement, and government subsidies did more work driving wedges between farmers and non-farmers than they did any good.

There's something there as well. If you don't like the things on his list, you'd probably get a lot farther talking to a real farmer about why they use those methods than trying to change the laws around them. Just look at the battle to label GMOs. If you think that food should be grown with fewer chemicals, meet with a farmer who uses them and come up with an economical solution.

No one wants to talk with someone who refuses to listen. If we took a little more time with each other, we'd soon learn that even within the great divides of agricultural philosophy, there are places where we can meet.

For one, Greg Peterson also wishes it were possible for farms to be smaller than they are today. "I realize that bigger farms are more efficient and that's the way we are headed," he said, "but it makes it really hard for young farmers like my brothers and I to get started in the farming industry." People of all politics can agree that helping young farmers get started is a smart move.

It's easy for urbanites to talk about the decline of the family farm but no one is more of an expert than someone who's been surrounded by the decline of "rural America" his entire life. The Peterson Brothers and others like them are the first people we should be talking to when trying to come up with solutions to revive rural America.

There are some things you just can't show in a viral internet video. It's less exciting to see how cold a farmer can get while doing chores in the winter than to watch a funny farm-remix of Katy Perry's "Roar." And who wants to watch a video showing how a farmer with hundreds of cattle could feel when one of his animals dies - even if you could show such a thing?

How do you explain what its like to lose a season's harvest in a three-minute song?

The Peterson Farm Brothers' main accomplishment isn't coming up with clever parodies and quick-witted lyrics; it's that they've opened the door to let large farmers speak for themselves. If people want to have a real conversation about where food and farming is going in the coming generations we need to stop preaching to our own choirs.