On Super Bowl Sunday, Dodge debuted its ad “So God Made a Farmer” and ignited a debate over just who, exactly, the American farmer is today. A crackling recording of a speech by Paul Harvey offered an outdated description of grain farmers milking cows, weaning pigs, and birthing colts (outdated even when recorded three decades ago since most farmers stopped doing those tasks in order to grow more corn). And images of predominately white and entirely rural farmers offered up the prevailing stereotype: a typically aging, bearded white guy in a plaid shirt and seed company cap. It’s an image, both accurate and reductive, I know intimately as it describes my father and many of the people I grew up around in rural Indiana.
Dodge clearly knows its customer base (my dad has bought only Ram trucks for years), and it came as no surprise that the ad included not one image of the new farmer stereotype, the one that dominates in New York City, where I live now: the hipster farmer, young and white, native habitat Brooklyn or Portland, wearing ironic versions of plaid shirts, beards, and caps.
So who are American farmers? According to Dodge, they’re what God made on the eighth day. And in the weeks since it first made that claim, the ad has been lauded by media critics, viewed more than 14 million times online, and credited for Dodge Ram’s best February sales in six years. The automaker, which donated $1 million to the Future Farmers of America after the public’s response, now plans to produce a book featuring similarly elegiac, heroic, and, one might hope, more representative images of farmers.
The ad also spawned spoofs and re-interpretations by food and farming activists, featuring such titles as: So God made a Mexican, So God made High-Fructose Corn Syrup, So God made a Factory Farmer. Critics noted that Dodge omitted images of workers from Mexico and Central America who make up some 70 percent of U.S. farm labor (one image of Latinos was shown). Others debated how accurately it portrayed African-American farmers, when its image of one black farmer among 17 others in fact over-represented a segment of the agricultural population that stands currently around 1 percent. Meanwhile, the ad made no mention of anyone rising before dawn in a loft (think: Williamsburg, not hay) to harvest crops on a rooftop.
Dodge Ram may be offering marketing in the guise of movement; indeed, on its website it solicits email addresses from those who want to help support American farmers as it identifies companies (those that seem to have outfitted the actors in the ad with clothing and chain saws) as “partners who have joined the movement.” But Dodge’s creative team was probably quite timely in its declaration of 2013 as “the Year of the Farmer,” even if it’s not clear what official body on whose behalf authorized the making of such a grand pronouncement. It accurately discerned a real shift in cultural perceptions of agriculture—one in which a slogan like “To the Farmer in All of Us” might indeed sell more trucks. And they were right to realize that heroic language about farmers as the caretakers of our land and nurturers of our bodies is newly resonant today.
As Americans from across the spectrum of cultural, educational, and ethnic backgrounds enter agriculture, a new image of the American farmer is emerging—one just as deserving of Harvey’s grand words. So if the stereotypical Midwestern farmer like my dad felt a swelling of pride as those images rolled across the screen, he might want to thank not Dodge but the chefs, locavores, foodies, activists, environmentalists—and, yes, even the hard-working, creative, and idealistic young people too often dismissed as hipsters—who are helping make the wider American public care very deeply about who, exactly, is farming their food.