Monday, July 23, 2012

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

An interesting post with follow up comments in the blog Front Porch Republic talks about the latest official campaign photo of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It's an image of Romney posing in front of a barn prominently adorned with Old Glory. His hair is mussed up, just enough that is, and he's wearing a simple work jacket and blue jeans as if he actually worked on that farm. In the background there's a tractor and a log cabin. The only thing missing from the picture is a pitchfork. The caption reads: “This is a moment that demands we return to our basic values and core principles.” The message is clear; this candidate supports the traditional values of a country rooted in hard work, pulling oneself up from the bootstraps, and a strong sense of independence closely tied to the land.

Romney's portrayal in the photograph of course is, pardon the expression, bullshit. Mitt Romney is no more a farmer than I am. And while he's been very successful at making money on top of the significant amount he inherited, he's about as much of a self made man as he is a farmer.

So what's up with Farmer Mitt?

The idea that traditional American values are to be found in rural rather than urban America goes back to Thomas Jefferson and beyond. But even two centuries ago, the agrarian culture served better as an ideal than an actual way of life. A commenter to the article noted the following quote published in a journal called Southern Cultivator:
Unfortunately for agriculture, its loudest and most conspicuous admirers are constantly lavishing upon it expressions of respect, while, at the same time, they disdain the idea of proving their sincerity by any act whatever. They admire the profession but advise their sons to pursue another.
That was written in 1846 when farmers constituted nearly 70 percent of the American work force. Today they constitute less than 3 percent. The sentiments expressed in that quote should not be at all surprising, farming has always been a difficult way to earn a living. The work is back breaking, the hours are terrible, requiring constant vigilance, and you are at the complete mercy of nature that can wipe out a life's work in a matter of seconds. There are certainly rewards as in any profession, but the numbers speak for themselves.

When you think about it, the romantic image of the American farmer is almost as absurd as Mitt Romney dressed as one. The popular notion of the farmer as the last bastion of American values such as individualism, freedom and independence is a falsehood. For obvious reasons, the agricultural industry is one of the highest subsidized industries in the United States. At one time farmers depended only on nature and their own resourcefulness. Today with market forces and technological innovations changing the business at an astounding rate, American farmers are increasingly beholden to government, the marketplace, and the companies who provide their raw materials. A widely reported example of the latter is the case of the multi-national chemical corporation (you know its name) who provides farmers with seeds genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide it also sells. This company with the help of the best legal advice that money can buy, has in an unprescedented move successfully copyrighted its seed. This means that farmers who cultivate crops using those seeds, can no longer cull seeds from existing plants as farmers have done for millennia. Now they must purchase new seeds every year at planting time. You might say that farmers have the choice to plant seeds purchased from other companies, but the aforementioned corporation with all their legal might, has successfully gone after farmers who culled seeds unknowingly from volunteer plants from the genetically modified seeds that found their way into their fields. Since crops grown from these seeds are found nearly everywhere, the corporation has a virtual stranglehold on the nation's farmers.

The reality of agrarian life is miles from the myth, but we all seem to buy into that myth. That Romney photograph is a compelling image even to a city boy like me. One of the most memorable books read to me as a small child was the familiar story: City Mouse and Country Mouse, the tale of two rodent cousins who visited each others' quite different homes. City Mouse was proud and arrogant while his rural cousin was down to earth and practical. Country Mouse was able to show his cousin the pitfalls and superficiality of the city and eventually won him over to his side. This tale of the different personalities of urban vs. rural folk is as old as Aesop's Fables, and children have been told the story in one form or other for over 2,500 years. The stereotypes have probably been around even longer. A more contemporary version, again something very familiar from my own childhood was the Andy Griffith Show, the story of a small town sheriff and his town. The story line of the sit-com often involved a city slicker passing through the backwater town of Mayberry, NC. Like City Mouse, the visitor would look down on all the bumpkins of the small town, while our hero Andy would disarm him, putting him in his place with sly wit and small town wisdom. The visitor would always leave town a new man.

That character of Sheriff Andy Taylor might be what Mitt Romney is modeling himself upon in his latest incarnation. As the small town, self-effacing sheriff filled to the brim with good old fashioned common sense, he's telling us that he has a better idea than all those city slicker "Washington insiders" currently sitting in the White House. Never mind that Romney is as city slick as any of them.

Maybe Romney is playing the rural card because his opponent, President Obama, is unequivocally associated with a big city: Chicago. This big city carries with it a lot of baggage all over the country. My guess is that during the upcoming election, we'll be hearing a lot about the president's grandmother from Kansas, as well as every time in his life Romney got his fingernails dirty, which I'm guessing was not very often.

One thing is certain, regardless of who wins in November, we won't be hearing much about rural America from either of the two candidates after the election. They'll be scrambling away from there as fast as their feet can carry them.

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