American Gothic is a painting by Grant Wood. Created in in 1930, it depicts a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife. In reality, the figures were not farm folks but Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. Yet, for some strange reason, this image has become synonymous with agriculture and rural life in the minds of many people. Rural people have always found the image insulting. When the image appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette shortly after its debut at the Chicago Art Institute, Iowans were furious at their depiction as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.” However, with the onset of the Great Depression, the painting came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit. Unfortunately, today it still has a close association with agriculture. Just a few years ago when the Indiana State Fair wanted to celebrate “The Year of the Farmer,” they put a giant replica of the gothic figurers outside the 4-H building.
This is just an example of how out-of-touch and out-of-date most people’s image of agriculture is, and this out of date image could keep a new Farm Bill from getting passed. At a recent policy summit, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Growers, the point was made that Washington is a much different place today than it was the last time we tried to write farm legislation. Patrick Delaney, director of policy communications with the ASA in Washington, stated, “Our arguments and opinions about the Farm Bill have got to get tighter. They have to be more succinct and impactful.” He said today Washington lives in a 140 character world, “The President and the administration respond very well to very simple information. So it is really a challenge for farmers to figure out a better way of talking about what they do.” Delaney stressed that many of the old clichés we use for support of farm programs have got to go.
“We feed the world” and “Agriculture cut program costs in the last Farm Bill” are phrases I commonly hear from farmers and farm groups when they talk about fam policy. While they are true, they don’t mean squat to those people who are going to decide if we get to keep using crop insurance or have funding for soil conservation. As most lawmakers see it, we are asking for billions of dollars to be spent on a few million farmers who live in rural areas. We need show them how supporting farmers impacts them.
Here is a good example of how this approach can work. At the end of April, President Trump was within hours of signing an executive order to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA. Such a move would have resulted in a massive disruption of U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, only a few days on the job, rushed to the White House with a map. He then pointed on the map to each of the states that would be adversely impacted by a withdraw from NAFTA. The President noted that most of these states were the ones who voted for him. The executive order was then changed to call for a renegotiation of NAFTA, which is currently underway. This true story shows how effective we can be if we help people connect the dots between agriculture and their own interests.
Agriculture is at the foundation of the food system. A safe, affordable, and sustainable food supply in this country depends on profitable farming operations. Even the food assistance and nutrition programs depend on agriculture. Jobs and commerce depend on agriculture. This is the story we need to tell. American Gothic is a relic of the past and should be put in barn loft along with all the other old tools with which we just can’t bear to part. It is time for a new approach, one that can be communicated in 140 characters or by a meme.
By Gary Truitt