Amish farmer

Aside from the sentimental Budweiser Clydesdale and the moving Jeep homage to America’s veterans, most of this year’s Super Bowl ads were the expected rousing of cheeky, goofy, sexy, or downright scary (I’m talking to you, Church of Scientology). That is, except for Dodge’s ode to American farmers using radio legend Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech. That commercial tied up a whole lot of emotions and reactions.

Early on in the spot when it wasn’t clear what was being sold, I couldn’t help but worry and think, “Please don’t let this be sponsored by Monsanto or a big-ag company.” Anyone in California who saw the television spots opposing Proposition 37 (a GMO labeling initiative defeated in November) know just how effective these companies are at distorting reality. (Most of the “no on Prop 37″ commercials didn’t even mention GMOs, but just chalked it up as a “costly food label bill.”) And the last thing American farmers need is more confusing press.

Grist’s Susie Cagle panned the ad, harping on the fact that Dodge didn’t represent the full spectrum of American farmers, which includes a large chunk of women and varying ethnicities. Cagle also noted the contentious conditions that are the norm for many farm workers. Beyond the small-scale farmer struggling to stay in the black, there’s an ugly underbelly to industrial farming that Barry Estabrook details in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit: Horrific slavery situations throughout Florida where most of the nation’s tomatoes are grown. Mexicans sneaking into the country are beholden to their transporters who often “sell” them off to tomato (or other crops) crew leaders who treat them horribly, pay them tiny wages, and charge them exorbitant rent more often than not for a filthy cot in the back of a box truck with 10 other workers.

These are worthy observations of a system desperately in need of an upgrade. But I submit another response to the ad, particularly in light of the beer, soda and Doritos commercials that otherwise dominated the airtime.

The simple fact is, our country has a big problem when it comes to food. A few problems, actually. First and foremost though is our lack of understanding of what real food is. The abundant fast/junk-food ads during the Super Bowl are proof enough. And that matters a whole lot right now when we’re facing a national obesity crisis and our children are unbelievably unhealthy. What we eat affects what our farmers grow, and our appetite for cheap corn and soy-based foods has devastated our farmers, as well as our health.

In that respect, it doesn’t matter if the farmers in the commercial were white, black, Asian or Hispanic, male or female. That’s not the message here; the message, beyond the Dodge truck sales pitch, is that there are American heroes who may not have served in our military, but for them, every day is a battlefield. They’re at war with early frosts, pesticides, price fluctuations, blights and droughts. They are veterans of the soil, veterans of the seven-day workweek, veterans of service to their fellow countrymen who would otherwise go hungry three times a day, at least.

With countless young people and urbanites now foraying into farming, we’re beginning to see a sea change in the way we perceive our farmers. The rising number of local farmers markets and CSA programs is inspiring connections with local growers and producers and helping Americans reconnect with their food. But we still have a long, long way to go.

Eatocracy collated some great feedback about the ad and there are numerous organizations and websites that can help you better understand our food situation and what challenges our farmers currently face. Civil Eats’ Amanda Oborne hits an important note: “I believe the reason the ad was so compelling is that as a society we miss the human connection that came from doing physical work side by side, and then sitting together at dinner, feeling exhausted and productive.”

As it happens, I’ve just started reading Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement, a collection of essays from “next generation” farmers. Editor, farmer and director of the Greenhorns documentary, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, sums it up incredibly well in her introduction:

“Farming is an expression of patriotism and hope. Though our votes might be ignored in this country, as farmers we can still take pride in a nation we’ve directly cultivated. We can be proud Americans to the extent that we transform this country into a place worthy of that pride. We are still a nation of great lands and great towns. No matter where we were raised, we have come to the realization that it is our job to make it a remarkable future. And across all landscapes, suburbs, vacant lots, lease agreements and lonely roads, we are crafting that future according to our own tastes. We stick our forks, tines, spades, and fingers into that particular part of the planet over which we have gained some governance. And, as a result, we eat well, we sleep well, and we earn the respect of our neighbors and families. Imagine: We can reshape the American landscape.”

Whether we do that with the help of Dodge trucks or not seems to not matter nearly as much as just making sure we get it done. And if Dodge wanted to tug on a few heart strings using this important issue to sell (American-made) trucks, good for them. Good for all of us.

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Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Bob Jagendorf