Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So, Didn't God Make a Farmer?

In the ensuing couple of weeks since the Super Bowl, I have been fascinated by the varieties of responses sprouting up to the Dodge Ram ad that utilized a voice-over from an old Paul Harvey speech focusing on God's need for farmers, covering various images of said farmers.  Those responses have ranged from tender, melancholic reminiscence to a near-reverent appreciation, to scathing condemnation.  The ad agency responsible for the piece has got to be smiling.  It was, after all, an advertisement whose presumed purpose was to catch public attention and sell a product.  I can't speak to the latter, but as to the former the ad has been a decided success.

As to the ad's critics, their judgments are absolutely fair.  Had the 2-minute piece been a documentary it would have been sadly, shamefully flawed -- leaving out virtually 90-percent of those responsible for moving our food into, then out of the ground, off the stem and into our markets.  The rosy, sentimental pictures of hardworking white families certainly overlooked the vast domination of agribusiness that largely renders such pictures ersatz greeting cards.  And yes, totally neglected were all the migrant farm workers -- mostly non-white and by-and-large stooping to their task illegally -- on which our food system utterly depends.  Only hinted at in the rhapsodic prose were the challenging and sometimes impossible economics that have wedged many farmers between the rock of expensive mechanization and the hard place of harvest vicissitudes and capricious credit -- pressures that have squeezed far too many off their land.  Yes, there are farmers like those depicted in the ad -- many of them -- who work every bit as hard as pictures and the narration suggested.  But fewer and fewer.  It's not that the ad told a false story; it just didn't tell very much of the true one. 

I hope that someone might come along who has as much documentary skill as Ken Burns and as much gravitas as Paul Harvey to tell these real and poignant stories as compellingly as Dodge managed to communicate the ones in its ad.  They deserve to be heard.  They deserve to be honored and appreciated and, well, paid.

But let's face it, that's not what the Super Bowl ad was aiming for.  Dodge didn't buy those extravagant prime-time minutes to air a documentary, and painful sociological statistics don't sell vehicles.  It wasn't trying to "tell the truth," it was trying to sell trucks.  As such, that well-crafted piece of economic art wasn't targeted at those thousands of farm workers who really struggle to survive under the weight of all those challenges and burdens enumerated by that beloved voice.  The ad was targeted at that 10% -- or 1% -- who can actually buy the truck. 

And I suspect I know what images and words might just cross their mind the next time they are shopping for a new ride.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For the Love of Lettuce

"Another Pleasant Valley Sunday; charcoal burning everywhere.  Rows of houses that are all the same.  And no one seems to care."  
                               ---words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King
It's hard to know whether to be heart-sick, angry, or simply embarrassed.  Because of a few complaints, the West Des Moines City Council has agreed to consider a ban on all "front yard vegetable gardens."  After all, as the article in today's Des Moines Register points out,
"Cabbages, once picked, leave holes. Squash leaves can get scabby-looking, and a blighted tomato plant is downright ugly...  Leggy sweet corn plants can seem scraggly and disproportional, especially in contrast to a well-manicured lawn."

And God knows that the situation is urgent.  As one concerned citizen puts it, “What’s to prevent them or anyone else now from, this spring, bulldozing their entire front yard and planting a garden?  If you don’t have anything in your ordinance to prevent this, I could see that happening.”

Exactly.  And what could be worse than an entire front yard full of...food?  Food that could be...well...eaten -- stretching grocery dollars, saving gas, and quite possibly improving our diet?  Yes, that all sounds like quite the public nemesis.

Can we just stop and have a reality check?  I suspect that this might be one of those moments when my Dad would say, "the world's going to hell and we're arguing over tomatoes."  Surely there are more mountainous issues for a community to be wrestling with than such puny molehills as this -- perhaps educational excellence or gun violence or access to health care or simply public health!  Moreover, at a time in our agricultural history when we ought to be encouraging everyone who has any plot of sunny soil available to sow a few seeds and not only participate in but contribute to the food supply, the last thing we should be doing is erecting impediments.

It's hard to know if this proposed ordinance stems from a hyper-carnivorial hostility to all things vegetable, or an overly steroidal devotion to some blandly homogenous suburban "aesthetic", or a subtly obfuscated slap at the poor who some West Des Moinians prefer to believe don't exist within their city limits.  Regardless, the notion is too repugnantly silly to even be funny -- let alone take up precious City Council time.

On the off-chance that reason does not eventually prevail in West Des Moines, I am modestly prepared to plow into the lunacy with the creation of a "Vegetable Rescue League" that would provide safe-haven on our humble acreage to any allium, brassica, night-shade, pepper or edible root forced to flee the city limits as horticultural refugees -- sort of a "green" Red Cross offering soil sanctuary for salads-in-process.

Compassion, and I like to think "sanity", in action.  That, and my little mission to prove the song wrong.  Somebody does "seem to care."