The Aug. 27 edition of the Times Recorder (Zanesville, OH) contained an article written by syndicated columnist Jim Mullen. It was titled "State fair time: Rusty rides, food on a stick."
It was written, I believe, as a satire reflecting things the author had seen on a state fair visit concerning agriculture and the farm community. Since I grew up on a farm and keep close ties with those in the agriculture industry, I could laugh at many of the author's exaggerated comments. However, the exaggerations and stereotypes that he used could leave many readers with an unsavory view of the farmer and life on the farm.
It was ironic that the article came out the same day as the Dinner on the Farm event, a project of our local Farm Bureau intended to bring together and break down barriers and stereotypes between city and rural citizens. By design, a couple from the agriculture community sits at each table, sometimes answering ag-related questions as they can, but always acting to promote local farm commodities and represent the industry in a positive way. This year, the event raised $14,000 which was donated to the Muskingum County Hunger Network.
About his trip to the fair, Mullen said, "there are still farm things at the fair: rabbits as big as Volkswagens, cows as big as SUVs, and pigs the size of a sofa." He continued to say, "Mysterious symbols were everywhere at the fair: green four leaf clovers with an H on each leaf. People wearing this symbol carried pitchforks and cattle prods, and spoke in their own coded language: 'second cutting,' 'freshening,' walking fence," 'milk house,' 'dry barn,' 'tedders,' 'manure spreaders,' 'hay loaders,"
"Must be some kind of gang or cult," he wrote.
Though they might have been meant as satire, the words in the column recreated for many readers the image of the American Gothic farm couple of the 1920s, pitchfork in hand, a much overused stereotype. I wish the author had asked a few questions or done a little research and found that these "four leaf clovers" and agricultural "gangs" and "cults" have probably advanced their industry further in the last 75 years than any other group.
Agriculture, for example, has progressed from using horses to using 250 horsepowered tractors, some of which drive themselves; from two row corn planters that just dropped the seed into the ground to 12 to 16 row planters that precisely place the seed in perfect depth and distance from other seeds; from one row corn pickers to six and 12 row combines with computer screens in the cab to show acres covered, bushels harvested, and yield per acre. This is not the farm of the American Gothic. Oh, and those mysterious green four leaf clovers? Those represent a program that uses hundreds of volunteers and professionals to teach the importance of long range goals, work ethic, commitment, family values, and the leadership skills that will be needed in the future. In Muskingum County, there were approximately 1,800 of these future leaders in the 4-H program this year.
I will concede that we in agriculture have not always done a good job of educating the public about our way of life with its seeming "secret" language, and perhaps we have not worked very hard at breaking down the stereotypical Gothic image. Several years ago, a farmer friend of mine was invited to a career day to discuss farming and opportunities in the agricultural field. One of the host adults expressed surprise at his dress (coat and tie) because he was a farmer. I guess they were expecting bibs and a straw hat though he had as many college degrees as any of the professionals there. But, it doesn't help the educational process when columnists like Mr. Mullen, even if writing "tongue in cheek", refer to thefarm community as a kind of gang or cult. After all, it is the members of this cult speaking their own coded language that still put clothes on our backs and make us the best fed nation on earth.
The Farm Bureau, in its effort to break down barriers and erase stereotypes, welcomes new members from all addresses and occupations. Suppliers and consumers are partners in the agriculture scene today.
And, by the way, Mr. Mullen, would you join us for our next Dinner on the Farm? Please be our family's guest.
Chuck Bell is a former Muskingum County 4-H youth development educator and member of the Muskingum County Farm Bureau.