Imagine if you will a surprising biopic of a religious figure that becomes one of the most widely seen, divisive, and talked about movies of the year.
Polls show many people who saw the film—including many pundits—found it to be the best that year.
Critics of the film mostly occupied one of three silos. One group complained that it showed their divine figure crafting too few miracles. A second scoffed at the notion the ad showed the figure shaping any miracles at all. And a third group acknowledged some divine figure performed various miracles—but that an entirely different deity than the one depicted in the film was responsible.
Welcome, in a nutshell, to the debate over Dodge's God Made a Farmer Super Bowl commercial.
In case you missed it, the commercial, which runs two minutes, features a series of pastoral farm stills—farmhouses and barns, dirt-crusted farmers kneeling in church or selling their strawberries at the market, and tractors in fields of wheat—overlaid with a now-famous speech delivered by the late commentator and columnist Paul Harvey at a 1978 Future Farmers of America gathering.
I suspect that one day someone will write a term paper—perhaps even a Ph.D. dissertation—on the implications of and reactions to the commercial. For the ad, like its narrator, Harvey, lays bare all the bounty and incongruities of American farming and farm policy.
Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer and agricultural attorney in New York, tweeted to me from her @NYFarmer account yesterday that the ad “gave the dairy farmers...a joyful lift to be acknowledged…. Some of the farmers here choked up [at] images [that] evoked how we and neighbors spent our lives.” Lewandrowski called the ad a welcome break from “all the urban food movement sneering” she sees.
“I grew up in rural Illinois and was raised on a farm, as most of my cousins and a lot of my classmates were, and the response from my community was overwhelmingly positive to the original ad,” she wrote, “It really hit something.”
And, in a press release emailed to subscribers, the Animal Agriculture Alliance noted it was one of "nearly 250 regional, state and national farm, ranch and agribusiness organizations [that] sent a heartfelt 'thank you' letter to Chrysler—maker of Dodge—in response to the ad.
Summing up the opinion of many who saw the ad, Animal Agriculture Alliance president Kay Johnson Smith said the commercial "really showcased a piece of Americana.”
But to its detractors, the ad does nothing of the sort.
University of Texas historian Rachel Laudan, who grew up on a farm and finds the ad galling, writes that “if we continue to accept the kind of images promoted by this ad, images of the farmer as a good hearted chap, working with the technology of the late 1930s, and thus not frightfully smart, how are we ever going to get a sensible grip on agriculture?”
This agrarianism, argues Laudan, is built on a mistaken belief in “the simpler yet superior moral values of the rural life.”
A withering Funny or Die parody of the Dodge ad, God Made a Factory Farmer, blasts the ad for ignoring the large, subsidized corporate farms of today.
[Veronique de Rugy, the Mercatus Center economist and Reason columnist, actually has a cameo in the Funny or Die spoof—or at least one of her slides does. Note the credits at the bottom of the chart that appears about 56 seconds into the clip.]
How might Harvey respond to the detractors and supporters of the commercial? I suspect he'd probably say much they have heard, and little they’d expect.
That’s largely the result of the fact Harvey’s own take on farming and farmers—like American farm policy today—reads like a complex and contradictory time capsule from the 1970s.
On the one hand, Harvey was well aware of a growing organic movement as early as 1971—even before organic certification bodies like CCOF and Oregon Tilth existed. And he wrote about what he called organic food’s “maximum nutritious” qualities in a 1986 piece.
But that’s just a small part of the Harvey story when it comes to farms and farmers.
In 1978, for example, the year he delivered his God Made a Farmer speech, Harvey was also busy extolling the virtues of America's technological progress in farming—from the increased use of pesticides to the spread of more modern farming equipment.
Harvey wasn't the least bit skeptical of "agribusiness"—which was and often still is seen as the antithesis of the family farm. In fact, Harvey might be one of large-scale farming's more vocal defenders.
When he spoke of "the American farmer," he was very often talking about large corporate farm owners like Archer Daniels Midland. To Harvey, big farmers were just more efficient farmers.
"As efficient small farms evolved into efficient big ones," Harvey wrote in a 1974 column, "they become irresistible targets for the centralized mass media which is by instinct suspicious of any bigness other than its own."
That same column served as an homage of sorts to then-USDA secretary Earl Butz, famous for urging farmers to "get big or get out" and who, with his “fencerow to fencerow” incantation, pushed America's farmers to plant and grow more and more crops at all costs.
In yet another 1978 column, Harvey advocated in favor of what he called "farmunism"—that's Harvey’s term for communist Chinese-style farming.
While the term suggests collective farming, the policies that underlay the advances in Chinese farming that Harvey was cheering were related to Chinese agricultural deregulation policies for maximizing food output. In this case, by privatizing some farm output, China had begun to undo many of the Maoist agricultural policies that had been responsible for millions of deaths in previous decades.
Cheering as he did for policies that maximized farm output, Harvey also revealed he had no problem whatsoever putting taxpayer subsidies behind those policies, in the form of the USDA's myriad farm programs. The only thing Harvey appeared to lament when it came to subsidies was there didn’t appear to be enough taxpayer money to hand out in order to please everyone.
"The monumental multiplicity of farm programs cannot be administered with deference to all," Harvey wrote in his Butz column, before praising the USDA secretary for spreading agricultural subsidies around to the best of his abilities.
The contradictions evident in the Dodge commercial—and in many of the reactions to it—have been ingrained in America’s farm policy since the early- to mid-1900s. This is, after all, a country in which First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had both to request and receive permission from her husband’s USDA, which was “skeptical of amateur farmers,” before she could plant her White House garden.
The rest of the story is this: Harvey, a farm owner himself, admired fellow small farmers who worked hard and who maximized their yields. But he appears to have been awed by America's agricultural giants.
Those who want to see Paul Harvey as a champion of small farms must ignore the fact he was an advocate for agribusiness. And those who might embrace Harvey as a defender of large farms—the ability of American agribusiness to feed the world—can only do so by ignoring that he expected taxpayers to subsidize their growth.
Harvey’s contradictions, like those of American agricultural policy, still survive and flourish.