Different images in popular culture are used to represent organic farmers versus conventional farmers, are these representations accurate? To find out, I interviewed four farmers across the country who use a wide range of farming techniques.
Picture a farmer-you might conjure the popular image of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”- a weathered old man with a pitchfork propped next to his thin-lipped apron-clad daughter. While Wood claims to have painted in appreciation of Midwestern culture, writers such as Gertrude Stein saw satire, and Iowans were outraged at their depiction as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.”
I can’t help but wonder, if Wood were alive today, what would his Instagram look like? Would he plaster his feed with Paul Harvey quotes–“God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer”–or satirize his own painting, costuming his subjects in hazmat suits? Grant Wood’s depiction of a farmer may have been accurate when he painted it, but it is now a caricature. So who is really growing our food?
Farmers make up less than 1% of the US population, and a quick Google search shows that their image is complicated by labels like “organic,” “conventional,” and “GMO”. Are these images accurate? Both of the farmers themselves and of the techniques and tools they use?
When I think about farmers, I remember my friend Kyle Martinez timidly reciting Macbeth in a Shakespeare class at the University of Colorado. Despite his degree in political science, Kyle’s heartstrings pulled him back to tiny Olathe, Colorado. Now, he’s farming 200 acres, serving on the board of directors for the local energy co-op, and studying for his master’s in healthcare administration, all while working full-time for his family’s home care business. When I congratulated him on his engagement he laughed,
“it takes a strong woman to stand behind the idiots who farm”.
Kyle and Kat Martinez are first generation farmers, so they’ve had to borrow just shy of a million dollars for land, equipment, and yearly inputs just to get their crops in the ground. So far, Kyle fits Harvey’s romantic description of a farmer: “Somebody willing to get up before dawn…work all day in the fields…and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” I wanted to see where he fits in the stock photo world of farmers, so I questioned his pest control methods.
“We do crop rotations, and I’ve started doing cover crops in front of my sweet corn,” he tells me. “I grow a minimum-till cover crop that has 8 or 9 different crops like radishes, winter peas, turnips, winter rye grass…That’s just us trying to take better care of our soil.”
Crop rotations and cover crops are often billed as organic farming methods, so I pry, “Is any of your corn genetically modified?”
“All of what I call field corn (corn for animal feed) is Roundup Ready (RR).”
RR corn is genetically modified for resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the household herbicide Roundup. So here is a farmer using not only crop rotations and cover cropping, which are often associated with organic farming, but also GMOs and glyphosate for weed control? I try searching “organic and GMO farming” and find I’ve confused Google. All of the images seem to imply the two are polar opposites firmly at odds. Yet Kyle, a conventional farmer by definition, uses the same techniques that benefit soil health in organic systems. I ask how the herbicides are applied and if he is concerned about toxicity.
“We take it upon ourselves to wear gloves and masks while we’re mixing,” he explains. “From the consumer standpoint, it’s not really a concern. With the sweet corn, the ear is not exposed and we spray the top of the onions, not the onion that’s developing underground. We do our part to make it safe for everybody else, but I’ll eat onions or an ear of sweet corn right out of the field.”
With his array of methods, Kyle doesn’t seem to fit any pigeonholed farmer images. Wondering if his hodgepodge system is unique, I interview several more farmers beginning with Doug Wilson, a classmate of Kyle’s who also lives in Olathe. Doug is also much younger than your typical farmer (averaging 58 at the last census) and has an endearing way of emphasizing the long E in “sweet corn”as he proudly gushes over his conventional crops:
“We have ‘Olathe sweet’ sweet corn, the sweetest corn in the US. The quality of our sweet corn is of the utmost importance. We do residue testing for quality assurance for our customers and we’ve never had a problem with pesticide residues.”
Each of Doug’s fields averages 20-30 acres, not the large “industrial-type” farm we typically picture for conventional systems. I ask Doug if his family eats the crops they grow:
“We have a feedlot down the road that we sell (genetically modified field) corn to that we buy our beef from–that’s a local farmer– and we buy pork from them as well. We eat our own sweet corn, we eat our own onions, and we always keep our own beans to make chili and refried beans”
Olathe is not the only place where farmers have diversified their practices. Allen Williams, a farmer in Carro Gordo, Illinois, grows certified organic crops as well as “genetically modified soybeans for a seed company called Syngenta, and…non-GMO beans for food grain.”
Allen describes using crop rotations in his various systems as well as hand weeding and herbicides in his organic and conventional fields respectively. He explains that the yields are less in his organic systems, but the revenue per acre is double, because some people prefer to buy organic food:
“I grow varied types of crops to spread my risks. We grow organic because it’s more profitable.”
John Callis, a conventional pear farmer in the Sacramento River Delta uses chemicals to control pests in his 700 acre orchard, but not the kind you might expect. The synthetic chemicals he sprays are not insecticides but moth sex hormones called pheromones. He uses an “integrated pest management (IPM) system” to “balance the good guys against the bad guys”. The moth pheromones don’t kill insects, but attract and confuse male moths, so they can’t find females during mating season. As a result, the pear-munching codling moth larvae are not produced during the part of the year when the fruit is developing. John directs me to a University of California-Davis webpage outlining similar IPM systems for dozens of crops. Many of these systems include the use of synthetic chemicals, but reflect a major goal of organic agriculture, to “optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people”.
As I reflect on my interactions with these farmers and the inaccurate representations in simplistic caricatures floating around the Internet, I consider Wood’s motivation in painting “American Gothic”. According to his biographer Darrell Garwood, Wood passed the house in the painting and “thought it a form of borrowed pretentiousness, a structural absurdity, to put a Gothic-style window in such a flimsy frame house.”
The house still stands today. Perhaps Wood misunderstood the structure and the people who lived there as many of us misjudge the motivations and practices of modern farmers. Given the rising popularity of the food movement, I hope this post inspires the reader to get to know the challenges facing real farmers rather than relying on internet stereotypes or romanticized idealizations.