The American Farmer: International Superstar

Peter, Ed, and Brian discuss how the image of the American farmer has been used in the international sphere.

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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**

ED: That was a very interesting piece, but I must protest on behalf of earlier periods. This is an old story. As long as America had been around– even before it was actually around– people imagined it as the beacon of productivity from the land. People would come here and tour the showcase orchards of the North or the big plantations of the South. When we had big World’s Fairs in the 1870s ‘ and in the 1890s, what did we show? We showed the great agricultural bounty.

PETER: Hey, Ed. You know what Thomas Paine said in 1776 in Common Sense– as long as eating is the custom in Europe, they’re going to want what we have. They’re going to recognize us, and we’re going to gain our independence, because we produce a lot of food.

ED: Exactly. And yet, throughout all of this display, whether from big showy farms or fairs, one image endures, which is that of the individual farmer– the self-sufficient farmer.

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I wouldn’t dispute that the 19th century was all about selling the image of the self-sufficient American farmer, and I wouldn’t dispute the success of that. But I do think what’s distinctive in the 20th century is this notion of the American system. We apply the term to manufacturing, but I think in the 20th century, we also apply the term to farming.

What was in that system? Well, it started with the agricultural universities– the state universities. And tractors. Mechanization was a crucial part of that. Hybrid corn, and after World War II, fertilizer. Things like DDT. Put them all together, and what America was selling to the world was a system of agriculture. Not the self-sufficient farmer or the show farm that produced show fruit.

PETER: Well, Brian, what you’re describing to me is what you might call the agricultural industrial complex. You can’t extricate one element from all the others– from technology, transportation, chemistry. And it all requires tremendous private and public investment, and I do think that makes it different than the system that Ed and I would describe in the 19th century, which is the way international grain markets and cotton markets operate. It’s not that they lack sophistication.

It’s not that there isn’t emulation, that there isn’t development of more advanced kinds of agriculture, but this is a big change. And it’s important because the Soviet world, the evil empire– they have offered the world a new system, another system, collectivism. And so a lot’s at stake in these conflicting images. It’s system again system, but this is a system that has the enterprising human face of the farmer.

BRIAN: Yeah, and it was competing for the hearts and minds of those hundreds of millions of people in the third world and Latin America, in Africa. They were watching these two systems very carefully. They wanted to know, which way do we go? And the United States gave these countries subsidized food. We sold our surplus crops very cheaply. But more importantly, we sold them, and sometimes gave them, hybrid seeds. We gave them technology so that they could produce their own system in the likeness of the United States.

ED: So what do we make of Farmer Garst, the guy in the piece? He seemed to me like an independent farmer. What do we make of him?

PETER: Well, Ed, he’s a kind of hybrid. I think that’s the way to think about him. He’s both that old idea of the farmer, but he’s also standing on the shoulders of that agricultural industrial complex you talked about, Brian. And he thinks he’s smarter than all of the Aggies at Iowa State University, but hey, he wouldn’t have been where he was, he wouldn’t be producing these seeds, if he hadn’t had the benefit of the information, all the knowledge, all the investment that went before it.

So here you get the best of both. You get a system– and I think that’s really important, Brian– but you also get enterprise. And that’s the new face of agriculture that’s presented to the world. And I think that’s the context for food diplomacy.

ED: It’s time for another quick break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll take some of your calls.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.