"And on the 8th day God looked down on His planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker!’ So, God made a farmer."
In an attempt to rekindle the buzz from their 2011 “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl ad, Chrysler Group once again made a bold advertising move this year: instead of featuring humor or irony, they highlighted earnestness. Over beautifully shot photos of American farmers, a 1978 speech by Paul Harvey romanticizes the hard work and moral fiber undergirding farming life. The final photo is of a Ram truck with the tag, “To the farmer in all of us.”
Of course, earnestness can get you in trouble. While many loved the ad, others criticized the commercial for featuring almost exclusively white men, for glossing over the realities of industrialized farming and for borrowing the idea wholesale from a 2011 YouTube video. Many of these criticisms are legitimate, but the commercial started me thinking in another direction.
God didn’t need an eighth day to create caretakers; God already did that on day six. God created humans to steward the whole of creation into full flourishing, to unlock the latent potential of the incredibly intricate world created for us and for all living things. God gave us the joyful task of tending to the earth through cultivation and creativity, but also the responsibility of making sure our work contributes to the well being of the whole. You see, it isn’t simply the land we need to care for (though that might have been enough). It is also the buildings we build, the clothes we sew, the transportation systems we design. It is our relationships with each other, with animals, with land, water and air. It all fits together! And when one aspect of creation suffers, it affects other areas as well.
I’m not pointing this out to merely quibble with Paul Harvey’s creational narrative. Throughout the commercial, images of “traditional farmers” perpetuate the myth told by our food industry that all is well with farming in America. But the fact is, our farming communities are not flourishing and it’s affecting all of us.
The industrial agriculture vision, with its narrow focus on efficiency and increased production, has led to all manner of unintended consequences. Many farmers are working harder than ever, but the way of life Harvey praised in 1978 is vanishing. Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and writer, puts it this way:
Those of us who have watched, and have cared, have seen the old diverse and complex farm homesteads dissolving into an oversimplified, overcapitalized, market-determined agriculture that destroys farms and farmers. The fences, the fencerow plants and animals, the woodlots, the ponds, the wetlands, the pastures and hayfields, the grassed waterways all disappear. The farm buildings go from disuse to neglect to decay and finally to fire and the bulldozer. The farmhouse is rented, dishonored, neglected until it too goes down and disappears. A neighborhood of home places, a diverse and comely farmed landscape, is thus replaced by a mechanical and chemical, entirely-patented agricultural desert. And this is a typical reductionist blunder, the success story of a sort of materialist fundamentalism.
The suffering of farming communities has widespread ripple effects. To name only a few: the cruel treatment of animals as products on an assembly line, the exploitation of migrant workers, the destruction of farmland for suburban sprawl, the rise of meth in rural communities, the contamination of drinking water, the increase in obesity and diabetes. Again, it’s all connected.
Let’s revisit that last shot of the commercial: a lone, pristine pickup truck flanked by animal confinements designed to need as little human care as possible. While this may be an honest picture of modern American farming, it is not a picture of flourishing for the farmer, the animals, the land and water, the community, or all of the relationships connecting them. We are all called, as caretakers, to a better and more holistic vision for the good of us all.