What that Ram truck ad missed about farming

"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.

Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma is the co-director of *culture is not optional (*cino), a publishing and community development organization in the rural city of Three Rivers, Mich. At the heart of *cino's work is a growing intentional community that seeks to live into the Kingdom through radical hospitality, delicious food and deep conversation. / Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group.

Comments (5)

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I thought the same thing when I saw that ad, Rob, and turned to my wife and said, "Didn't God already create them on the sixth day?" The problem with this narrative is that it denigrates God's order of creation as being insufficient. It's another example of adding to what the Bible says because we think it doesn't say enough. It does. In this instance, creative license is no excuse.
"God gave us the joyful task of tending to the earth through cultivation and creativity"
I have to disagree with this statement. Originally Adam & Eve did not have to work the land. It was only after the fall that He cursed mankind with having to work by the sweat of their brow to eat and cloth themselves. Caretakers we are tho and good stewards we are to be. I have a friend who farms in the very high ag culture of ND, where I also live. And the discussion of GMO's and pesticides comes up often. Monsanto is killing us slowly and nice guys like this man say, he can't afford to worry about safety from using the products because his bottom line is making money. This man is a Christian too. He doesn't follow the latest on how bad Monsanto is hurting our world and the people in it and is in denial about it when it's pointed out to him. It's a hard situation.
I said some of the same things yesterday on farminarian.wordpress.com

Dodge did a great job with the peice but their goal was not really to elevate the place of the farmer as much as to create a warm fuzzy feeling which happened to include a Dodge Ram truck. Farming is some of the things that Harvey says, but it is much more.

I'm not sure I'm ready to be as pessimistic about the industry as Rob is though. There are still a lot of well meaning, environmental stewards operating farms in our food chain.
Thanks for your comment, Schi!

In that bit of the piece, I was referring to the cultural mandate issued in the first chapter of Genesis (1:28). When God told humankind to "be fruitful and multiply," God wasn't simply talking about having children; God was also telling us to make something of the world, to image the creator by being creative and making culture. From the beginning, God intended this to be an exciting and joyful experience for the whole of creation.

In chapter three, after our inability to live into the fullness God had hoped for, brokenness enters the picture. Work becomes a burden and unexpected problems arise (thorns and thistles). As we continue to see today, this brokenness pervades everything and our short-sighted solutions (think: pesticides) only introduce more problems. Instead of experiencing the joy of creative culture making, we are often frustrated and annoyed with the difficulty of surviving, working and living fully.

We get a fuller picture of God's cultural intentions when we look to the end of the biblical narrative. The culmination of the story in Revelation 21 is a city (one of our most remarkable cultural achievements) that incorporates the best of human cultural activity (Isaiah 60). Of course, this means that what we make of the world matters all the more.
Thanks, Rob, for this piece. I found myself wrestling with the ad. Working in campus ministry at Michigan State University (the first land-grant college with more agricultural programs than I ever even knew existed), I have met and encountered many God-honoring people whose academic work and research is dedicated to improving the efficiency of the agricultural system. For many, however, this is less about efficiency for its own sake and more about creating a global agricultural system capable of providing for the food needs of an increasing global population. Many researchers at places like MSU are working to improve the ecological and environmental impact of such farming systems. And, to top it off, many of the researchers I know also own their own farm animals, believing whole-heartedly that it is important for us to know more about the sources of our food.

My point is simply this: in Christian circles concerned with creation care, we sometimes overlook the complexity of the food source debates and paint agribusiness with one broad brush stroke. I've been blessed by the people here at Michigan State who have helped to challenge and expand that perspective, even if, at the end of the day, I don't always agree with them.

 

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