On a mid-summer day last year, The Guardian and Modern Farmer Magazine each published an article urging readers to ‘stop romanticising’ farms. A few days later, Grist ran ‘Farming is full of shit, blood, and stubborn fields. How’s that for romantic?’ All three articles were resolved to punch holes in a rose-coloured vision of farming, full of pretty fields and handsome, healthy people working the land. Collectively, they argued that idealising agrarian life prevents modern-folk from understanding the deeper realities of farming and the fundamental problems with our food system. So, should we be concerned about romanticising farms and farm life?
Gauging by the online response, Sarah Searle’s article in Modern Farmer was the most controversial of the three. With an introductory photo depicting a sweeping landscape, complete with a smitten couple idling in a hay field, ‘Stop Romanticizing Farms’ provoked eighteen pages of comments on Modern Farmer’s website and an additional six on their Facebook page (far more than average).
Although much of what happens on farms can be imbued with the romanticism of a by-gone era – after all, agriculture has been largely removed from modern life – it is farm weddings that really annoy Searle. She finds the glamorised, sentimentalised experience that they offer, ridiculous. Her larger concern is that romantic characterisations of agriculture, have reached ‘fever pitch’, enticing farmers to give up actual production in favour of more profitable endeavours, such as agri-tourism and hospitality. Searle contends that polished excursions to the countryside cannot provide a ‘real’ taste of farm life and that, without this experience, there can be no empathy or understanding of the true nature of farming. For Searle, staging an ‘agrarian chic’ wedding is not only false: it is falsifying.
But, what exactly is the ‘reality’ that visitors ought to experience on the farm?
Somewhat incredibly, the example that appears most often in all three articles, as well as in their respective comments, involves the stink and muck of farm life. In fact, manure is mentioned so frequently that I became unsure whether I should be reading it literally, or as a metaphor for the raw aesthetics implicit in farming’s intimacy with all aspects of the life cycle. That filth emerges as the most common example of the ‘reality’ of farm life and an essential part of every visitor experience is something of a red flag.
Farming has an authenticity issue, but it has nothing to do with romanticisation. Instead, part of the issue lies in how the ‘reality’ is described by well-meaning advocates. If the revival of small-scale or family farming is to have any staying power, it cannot hang, quite literally, on an argument about smelling the shit. This dichotomy assumes that the romanticisation and reality of farming are opposed, when they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
In my experience, farmers (obviously well-acquainted with the realities of agriculture) often idealise what they do, ‘romanticising’ their own work. Having grown up on a sheep farm and worked as a farmhand for two small-scale diversified operations, I have seen growers revere their fields and articulate the self-reliant values of farming (with a romantic flourish, that is). One farmer told me that romantic attitudes towards country life may seem like an urban perspective, but he also chooses to see his own labours ‘romantically’. Having fantasized about becoming a third-generation farmer ever since he was small, he thinks his dreams have come true: today, he is raising a family in a ‘beautiful and constructive setting’, where he intends to teach his children how to carry on this age-old ‘tradition’.
Beyond embracing a romantic regard for their own work, farmers also consciously project romanticism for their own benefit. It can be valuable to them in how they promote and market their farm. While working on an ethnographic study of farming in the American Midwest, I found that farmers who understood how to market the ‘romantic’ qualities of their operations also tended to be more financially solvent than those who focused only on production. A farm’s ‘image’ can support its sales. Recognising the nationwide turn toward local food, one grower observed:
“We’re producing more than we ever did with fewer people, but our towns are still dying…So what can we do? We need to add value to our product. We need to take advantage of this ‘local’ movement.”
Drawn by the ‘romanticism’ of small-scale agriculture, people flock to farmers’ markets supporting a wide array of producers.
Romanticism need not obscure the realities of the farm. It can be appropriated in the service of real conversations between growers and consumers. For example, throughout the 2014 growing season, I ran a pick-up site for a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. Once a week, participants in the scheme would come to the host’s parking lot, where I presented the week’s harvest in the most attractive fashion I could manage. In the beginning, I would cheerfully greet each person and tell them about the vegetables, but, as the season progressed, I came to learn the specifics of their lives. After five months, it felt as though we were an actual community of the sort that is often invoked nostalgically. I had cultivated an image that transformed into a meaningful reality.
Farmers’ markets are an interesting intersection at the crossroads of the romantic and the real. When I used to stage markets, I would spread out a tablecloth, arrange fresh-cut flowers in a vase, and place every variety of vegetable in woven baskets. Almost in spite of the increasing integration of technology into agriculture, other vendors would scribble their offerings onto chalkboards and rely on antique scales for measurement. Many growers, including me, would wear something presentable (but not too smart) that suggested the possibility of manual labour. As envoys from our respective farms, we made these calculations to cultivate a particular mood, a mood that, in turn, helped with sales.
Throughout history, writers, from Wordsworth to Thoreau, have challenged our increasing urbanisation by capturing something of the romantic spirit of the rural. It might even be argued that the urban and the rural romantic are positively correlated: with the rise of the former, comes the resurgence of the latter. Almost implicit in the romantic trope is the assumption that rural life is in decline, a phenomenon that Raymond Williams, the Welsh cultural studies scholar of the twentieth century, might have called the ‘regular slide towards a past tense and a fixed form’. Treating small-scale agriculture as a thing of the past does not make sense for those of us who spend our days caring for animals and tilling fields. While it is worth cautioning that the romantic, when overemphasised, erases the possibility of robust debate about farming, an excess of ‘reality’ also has its consequences.
Last year, a passionate piece in The New York Times made the claim that ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Production as a stand-alone activity is not – and has never really been – the norm. For today’s farmers, romanticism is a tool that can help develop second and third income streams for their businesses. Income diversification is an increasingly important factor in the financial viability of small farms. So, the prescription to ‘stop romanticising’ the farm is not necessarily a helpful one – our romance with agriculture is part of what helps keep it real.
Photograph: Steve Evans
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