Millions of people watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday were treated to a two-minute, lyrical paean to America's farmers. Beautifully paced to a slideshow background of stunning images of rural life, the ad -- promoting a popular line of pick up trucks -- featured the words of Paul Harvey, from a 1978 address to the Future Farmers of America. Here's an excerpt:
|"God said, 'I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.' So God made a farmer."|
The ad was one of the most discussed in the aftermath of the annual advertising gala that is the Super Bowl, and its YouTube version has garnered more than two million views since Sunday. We have embedded the original version here above for those who have yet to see it themselves.
All in all, the ad was a huge success. Except... The vision of rural America at the heart of the ad -- the visual definition of the farmer God made that is the subject of the two minute poem -- is, almost without exception, monochrome as can be. Out of 21 images of people representing farmers, 19 are white, one is African American, one is Latino.
Yet, today, the vast majority of physical labor done on the vast majority of commercial fruit and vegetable farms in this country is done by farmworkers -- the vast, vast majority of whom are not white. There are an estimated three million farmworkers toiling on farms in rural communities from California to Florida and everywhere in between, yet, in an ad extolling the virtues of farm work, the people who work on farms are almost nowhere to be found.
And it didn't take long for people to notice. Here's one video response to the ad, and there are more:
So how could the ad get it so wrong? How could an ad celebrating the American farmer paint such a distorted picture of the people who actually work on farms today? How could it make it through the intense editing and review that a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad faces before airing on the big day?
There are many answers to this question -- the country's original sin of racial discrimination chief among them. But there is another answer that isn't as immediately obvious, and that is the traditional undervaluation of agricultural labor -- from chattel slavery to convict lease and sharecropping to the present-day migrant farm-labor system. We have written about this before, in the context of the draconian anti-immigrant laws passed in recent years in Georgia and Alabama that cost local farms billions of dollars in lost crops when the laws chased experienced farmworkers away from their jobs harvesting watermelons, peaches, and other crops. But it is at work here again when the team that put this ad together chose to portray a vision of farm life that ceased to exist a century ago, if it ever existed at all.
It is not wrong to extol the labor, daily sacrifices, and invaluable contribution to American life of our nation's farmworkers. It is wrong to paint farmworkers white in order to do so.
The reality is that farmworkers pick the food we eat, and most of those workers are immigrant workers whose backbreaking labor -- the selfsame noble labor exalted in the ad's moving words -- is systematically underpaid and under-appreciated. If the words read so powerfully by Paul Harvey are able to reach deep inside of us and move us to buy a truck, they should be powerful enough to move us to reward the work of our country's three million farmworkers and provide a living wage and dignified working conditions in return for their virtuous labor.