From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
Although the song “How Can You Keep Them Down The Farm, Now That They’ve Seen Paree?” is nearly a hundred years old (1919) and just as stupid then as now, it still lingers around the edges of popular music. The notion was that when American soldiers were shipped to Europe to fight WW 1, the glitter of the big city would sweep the dumb yokels off their feet and they’d never be content to go back to forking manure and providing the food for all those terribly intelligent, educated people for whom actual physical work was beneath their dignity. The song was meant at least partially as humor but like all things humorous, its roots were fed by the rich loam of cultural prejudice. It might not exactly be racism in the biological sense but it is very much so in the division of labor sense. Those who have to do the “niggah work” are just not smart enough for the challenges of intellectual pursuits. I tend to overreact to this bias ever since a cultural historian advised me to stick to writing about corn and leave important decisions about human progress to people better equipped for it, like of course him. He did not even know that I had as much accreditation in human cultural studies as he did. But that is not the point. He was exhibiting what in my opinion is the most destructive kind of cultural bias, as if sitting in an office cubicle all day staring out the window and waiting for your computer to tell you what to do next is a higher calling than the window cleaner who keeps the windows clear enough to see through.
From the most ancient times, the division of labor has reeked with bias against physical work. Smart people don’t dig ditches even though it takes brains and skill to dig ditches properly. For that reason, farm work has rarely been held in esteem. Farm children used to be told that the only way to success was to flee the farm. Those smart enough to know how wrong that was and stuck with farming are as rich today as any “professional” in town. None of the ones I know even bothered to go to college.
One of the best examples of this kind of cultural bias was the institution of the Extension Service begun, with all good intentions, during Lincoln’s Administration. Since farmers were, as everyone just automatically accepted, too stupid to figure out how to farm correctly on their own, they had to be instructed. This despite the fact that farmers had developed very sophisticated ways to farm four thousand years before there even was a United States. The truth of the matter, which continues to irritate me to this day, is that the real purpose of the Extension Service and its army of County Agents was to convince farmers to farm in ways that were advantageous to industrial aggrandizement. Proof? In Lincoln’s time around eighty percent of the population was involved in farming; today under the tutelage of off-farm advisors, scarcely three percent farm and of those, the ones I know well, hold the Extension Service is disdain.
But yes, I am being unfair. There are or were Extension Service personnel that were highly motivated and helpful and became victims of their advice just like the farmers who tried to listen to them. Do County Farm Agents still exist?
There is a bright side to all this. The appropriate song for today would be “How You Gonna Keep Them Down In Paree, Now That They’ve Seen The Farm?” Curiously, the world of the arts has turned away from the cultural bias against farmers. Time was when novels of rural life were saturated with bias against farm work. Much more evident now, in writing, in pictorial art, and even in music, is a new perception of the dignity of manual labor lovingly and skillfully applied to sustainable food production. There are so many examples, but the best is Wendell Berry, my close friend (pictured above with wife, Tanya). He is one of our most honored writers but is also a real farmer. Throughout his years of creating great fiction, non-fiction and poetry, he was also working his butt off on his little farm, practicing what he preached. That is why his writing is so genuine and so irritating to industrial agriculture.
Some of his poems have been set to music. There’s a new documentary out, “The Seer,” celebrating his philosophy of farming with understated music to match the intimacy of his farm stories. It has the backing of Sundance Film Festival founder, Robert Redford.