Veiled Prejudice Against Farmers


American society seems to have lost its old prejudices against farmers since the hick and hayseed days and in fact the small, local variety is probably being canonized more than we deserve. But the class conflict between city and country is still around. The whole simplistic political division between so-called red and blue states has its roots in that ancient mistrust and misunderstanding between farm culture and city culture, or what I prefer to call it now, old culture and new culture. The fact that both town and country people live about the same today doesn’t deter the prejudices. Educated people, especially with advanced degrees, still view those who don’t go to college with veiled disdain while the uneducated still strike back and ridicule college graduates for their presumed lack of practical knowledge.

Sometimes however the intellectual snobbery towards farmers gets even more absurd than the blue collar contempt for “egghead” PhDs.  I got a letter recently from a newly-graduated art student who is also a farm girl. She sent along a passage from a book that I am not going to quote directly because what the author says is ridiculous and he may not have meant what it sounds like he meant, or would like to qualify it. The book is about landscape art, and the author says in passing that “agricultural workers” tend not to like art depicting natural settings because they associate the fields with hard work and the seacoasts with the danger of storms. More disturbing, one of the art graduate’s professors said he agreed with the author.

I try to think of an instance where he might be correct. The best I can come up with are migrant workers harvesting tomatoes in the sweltering sun while being referred to as “greasers” by the natives. But no, not even that works very well because I have picked tomatoes in the hot sun, once right along side migrant laborers, and I still love landscape paintings more than any other kind. I am sure that the migrants, being like most other humans, enjoy landscape paintings too if they have any interest in art at all. (One of them I worked with was putting his children through college on money earned picking tomatoes.) In my experience, the people who don’t like landscape paintings are very urban in their backgrounds and prefer abstract art in all its many forms.

So why would an artist-author suggest that “agricultural workers” don’t appreciate landscape art (and by innuendo, don’t understand art)?  Having written The Mother of All Arts, in which I suggest that all art is rooted in the farming experience, I am obviously prejudiced about this subject. But I know, just from the agony of getting that book into print, that much of the art world does not at all appreciate yokels like me suggesting that the struggle between man and nature to produce food is the source of a very significant portion of human art. No way, say my critics. Cities are the cauldron out of which art bubbles and spews and yokels like me should stick to writing about how to grow corn. (Honest, I was told that.) I could see that prejudice especially when Andrew Wyeth, who almost always painted farm fields and coastlines and the people who dwelt there, became one of the premier painters of the 20th century. The art elitists just couldn’t stand it when millions of people from all over the world, especially rural people, made Wyeth one of our most beloved artists. The urban art enclaves rose in wrath and ridiculed his paintings, sometimes in surprisingly nasty terms. They were, I’m sure, really ridiculing all of us “agricultural workers” who love his landscapes. They knew that Andrew’s grandfather made his living operating a farm supply store and his father, N.C. Wyeth, also a celebrated artist but belittled by the urban art world, chose to live and work on a farm.

What is an “agricultural worker” anyway? We certainly don’t call ourselves by that label. We are cattlemen, cowboys, grain farmers, market gardeners, dairymen, hog producers, corn growers, and contrary sonsabitches. I don’t know any farmer who refers to his help as “agricultural workers”.  Employees maybe, or hired help, or machine operators or assistants.  I have a suspicion that “agricultural worker” is just a veiled urban euphemism for sodbuster, hayseed, redneck or greaser. And of course rednecks and greasers might know how to grow corn or pick tomatoes, but they sure don’t know anything about art, right?
See also Our Hidden Wound


Those with narrow minds much too often stereotype and do not understand those that are farmers ,homesteaders and others (including crafts people,writers and artists) whom appreciate the beauty of a simplistic,rural lifestyle.

One oddity of this is that even rural people do this.

I’ve split both worlds for a long time. I’m from a very rural background, but misfortune deprived my father from being able to enter the family business, which had to be sold when he was a teenager. He recovered, and became the first college graduate, and professional, in his family. But his friends and life always remained focused on things rural. As I had no place to go on to, I ended up doing the same, getting a professional degree, but I’ve managed to run cattle and always aspire (unsuccessfully) to give up my office job for raising cattle. Anyhow, because of being exposed to both worlds so heavily, professional life and agriculture, I’ve noticed over the years that farmers and ranchers are often heavily prejudiced against their own family entering the business and believe to an absurd extent that everyone in town is living the easy life. I’ve actually overheard parents attempting to dissuade young people from following in their footsteps, and met more than one miserable lost doctor or lawyer whose parents pushed them off the farm, thinking that was heading them off towards cubicle or office bliss.

Ever since time began, we’ve have this debate. Its only gotten worse in recent times since fewer folks work on the land. And since our high schools stopped educating hands in shop and home ec classes we’ve only expanded the gulf..

We all have forgotten that our hands are connected to the brain and you learn/experience by your hands as well as your eyes..

Keyboards in not educating one’s hands.. its a start, but a limited one…

I had a farmer that I worked for who called all his help “laborers”. It was a shame since he never talked to or knew the names of the “laborers”. He only got off the tractor if you were doing something wrong and much less looked at you as he drove by.

As an “educated” man (chemist turned mechanic/farmer), most people where I live associate the “simple” life of farm folk with simple mindedness. Tho I have yet to find anything simple associated with a farm.

    In response to Farmer Brown, I too have yet to find anything simple about farm life. It takes all my skills (as an university alumnus) continuing to learn about chemistry they won’t teach at Monsanto-funded schools, animal husbandry, business management and human psychology (how do I get people to buy my stuff at a reasonable price) to make it. I think the “simple life” means getting rid of many of the extras many have (on borrowed or “real job” money) to make it work.

I get the funniest looks from some people, especially colleagues at the office, when I tell them I raise heritage hogs on my little farm, and that I’d take it up full time if I could. Some of them wrinkle their noses and say “ewwwwww!” Or some of the more polite ones look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and try to reconcile my clean hands, clothes, hair and face with their idea of a “dirty” hog farmer. After all, what kind of person could possibly enjoy such dumb nasty creatures? I suspect they sniff the air after me, pretty sure they’ll catch a whiff of eau de swine. I doubt a single one of them could appreciate for one moment the pure and absolute beauty of a well-tended sow surrounded by her horde of satisfied piglets, snoozing beneath the cottonwood trees, utterly content, at one with everything, in a moment of sheer porcine bliss. They wouldn’t be able to hear the music of twenty cloven hooves clambering to be the first at the feed trough at the crack of dawn. Or they’d completely miss the comedy in a cantankerous boar’s romp on a brisk spring afternoon. Not to mention the artistry of a six hundred pound sow’s surprisingly long eyelashes. Their loss! (And then of course the people who enjoy the wonderful pork they produce think hog farming is a pretty cool way to spend one’s time.) Wonderful post!

Enjoy your work. Hope you saw the report on the news feeds today, supposedly out of the UK, about how large scale ag is more sustainable than small, organic type farms. Needs response, if your blood pressure can stand it

I am inspired to know that there are people out there like me! Even my ‘so-called good’ friends have pretty much abandoned me because of my ‘odd’ views; i.e., keeping chickens, bees and eating out of my own garden, hanging laundry, composting, water barrels, etc. all in the suburbs. Oh well, I’m not changing my views or lifestyle to ‘fit in.’ It makes me feel good to know that there are other so-called odd ducks out there (although I know WE have the right idea!).

    I feel the same. I have chickens, bees, fruit trees and a big garden all on my little 1/2 acre. Most evenings I’m outside doing some sort of “work” and I can see into 8 backyards (4 to the left and 4 to the right) and never see anyone outside except for cutting the lawn once a week or maybe see a few swimmers as a couple of houses have a pool. Most are in watching TV as it can be seen by the blue flickering through their windows at night.

      Thanks Clint, you sound just like us! Our 1/2 acre yard is pretty secluded on purpose with trees and shrubs but still peek at the useless lawns and empty decks of the neighbors. Not a soul ever outside and the weather in the last week has been absolutely gorgeous. Just once in my life I’d like to live among like-minded folks, but at least the internet makes me feel OK with my choices. Thank goodness for people like Gene as well as Helen and Scott Nearing whom I’ve been reading since the ’70s.

You know, I find it fascinating that so many people have commented about the negative responses they get from others when they talk about being a farmer, because I have never mentioned it to anyone I know (and my circle of acquaintances includes people from medical doctors to Ph.D.s to housekeepers to truck drivers) who hasn’t had a reaction of ” how cool!” or something similar. I wonder if that’s because I live out west?

I was born on a Pennsylvania/Mennonite dairy farm, I left the farm at 18, I returned to school at 23, I taught at the university for ten years, I left the university, I am now a small farmer/homesteader in NH.

I am happily married to a professor (a microbial soil ecologist).

My life story is that of a man caught in the tension that exists between city/country and university/non-university. Or I should say is was a tension for many years. After I actually made the move back to the farm, the tension lessened considerably.

The writings of three people helped me make the move: Wendall Berry, Thoreau, and Annie Dillard.

Why was there tension and why did I need help? Because of what Gene writes here: Because American culture views the move from farm/land to city/university as a step up, the move from city/university to farm/land as a step down. We all wish to be viewed in the act of stepping up. We all wish to be deemed “successful.”

As a result of my experiences, I now have a rather unorthodox life thesis. It goes like this. That the most healthful and successful life is that which combines the life of the hand (farm/land/craft) with that of the life of the mind (university/arts/intellectual curiosity). To stand on one side only is to stand on one leg. I have found that I need two legs.They help me get around. Having two legs has made it easy for me to succeed.

    To small farms matter big, sounds like a very wise and holistic approach. Thank you for sharing so eloquently. Many people don’t really understand farming, so they either idolize or demonize farmers. You, Gene, and the gifted authors you mentioned can express yourselves well in writing and can help people better understand. Years ago I read Sue Hubbell’s account of beekeeping in Missouri. Her writing sent me down the road to becoming a beekeeper myself, which is how I now supplement my retirement. It’s heavy, hot, hard and sometimes heartbreaking work, but endlessly fascinating and rewarding. I can’t imagine being happier doing anything else.

    In reply to small farms matter big and all the marvelous observations expressed here. I too learned that the full life was having one leg in farm/land/craft and one leg in intellectual curiosity pursuits. Oddly, I learned that in seminary life. Mornings I was in classrooms and libraries; afternoons and weekends I was in the barn milking the seminary cows and other farm work. It made life so full and beautiful and I have managed from then on to live in both worlds. Gene

      Right there with you, Gene. I published a magazine for some years from my five acres and knew I would never want any other life than a writing life on the land. Life happened and lots of hard times but I have hung on to my dream and my land no matter what. For me that has come to mean commuting 60 miles five days a week to Seattle with only evenings and weekends on my 6-1/2 acres and it’s really hard at times; still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. People have often urged me to sell my place and have insisted it was too much for me, and you know, it probably is; still, I can’t envision any other life for myself. When I’m out in my (huge, productive, planted and tended completely by myself on weekends) garden picking beans or cauliflower or broccoli, I’m in the one world, the one universe, that makes sense to me and that gives me a reason to write about life and the earth and people and creatures. The one struggle I have is being away from my animals (chickens, sheep, cats) so many hours of the day. Still, just as I think I have carved out the best of all possible worlds for myself, I think the world my animals have is about as good as it gets for animals in this time, nice expansive pasture for the sheep, protection from critters for the chickens in their (very rustic, made by me!) movable greenhouse. The rural ways of the past are not available to us anymore, for the most part, but it is still possible to be rooted and centered in the land. Respect.

    So very true! Why it’s assumed those who live rural agrarian lifestyles are uneducated is beyond me. Truly, the uneducated are those who remain ignorant of the inherent connection between life itself & the land!

    Well said SFMB, I like having two legs too : )

just today my 17 year old came home and said she had mentioned her goats in class and another teen said, “oh, a FARMER. I shouldn’t even talk to you, you know how farmers are.”
I asked what she meant by this and my daughter shrugged…we were both kind of astounded.We aren’t even real farmers, just hobby homesteaders. But I’ve gotten that kind of reaction from women my age (50+) when I’ve mentioned keeping chickens, too.

I loved your book “The Mother of All Arts”. You introduced me to the work of so many talented artists and writers. And Michael Perry’s new book, “Visiting Tom” made the NYT’s best seller list @ #21.
Maybe we should just let urbanites have their prejudices. If they find out how much nicer it really is in the country, they’ll all want to move out here…..then it won’t be country anymore. Love the post.

Gene, interesting post.
I am an art school drop out myself, I find it too bad that anyone would think that if they work outside they might not like or understand art related to outdoor labor or any fine art at all. Art usually comes from what is around us whether that be a painter in the city painting about ideas in that sort of life or a painter outside the city painting more rural things. Most people are drawn to what is familiar, I think this is why these prejudices exist in the first place. Paintings should not have to make us feel good all the time either, they should be able to provoke different emotions or give us something to think about just like literature.
I can ramble on forever but farming practices like Gene talks about is defiantly art, I think industrial ag. has taken away many a great artist from farming.
That being said do not overlook the city type modern artists either, they are just making art that dialogues with those around them just like we farmers gather at the hardware store and talk about cows.
I will finish with a great quote from Jim Gerish. “Some of the best graziers I know are fine and liberal artists”

Absolutely excellent. I’ve always wondered how people who live other than on the land can even make art. I’ll be sharing widely. Thanks, as always, Gene!

Country folks don’t appreciate art? I see art every day these art ‘experts’ can only dream of like today I raked a hilly winding field of hay nothing more pretty and more artistic than a neatly raked field with the windrows winding around and over the hills with green grass between them this time of year.The woods surrounding the field have just a hint of Fall in them,every time I rake a field I enjoy looking at it before baling.I love to look at spider web designs as I walk around feeding the poultry and pheasants in the mornings with a little dew on them they shine in the Sunlight,spiders can created art no human can come close to creating.Watching a hen with small chicks cross the yard in search of bugs,grasshoppers and such is art in motion with each chick running ahead stopping then catching up. Or watching a squirrel get a Hickory nut and return each time to sit on its favorite stump to cut and eat the nut. Country people see real art and the art on paper or canvas in the city is dull and mundane copies of the real thing.Sort of like tomatos if you’ve never eaten a good one just picked ripe off the vine you’d be happy with the one in the supermarket.

What is more beautiful than looking over rolling hills of farm land? Be it row crops or pasture, it sure inspires what little artsy side I have. Of course, who am I? I like to pee in the corn rather then walk back to the house. I guess I’d be contrary trash

The prejudice extends to the earth itself, with the connotations of “dirty” and “soil” (as a verb). Let’s not forget that shit deserves to be so much more than a cuss word!

I received this today and it’s all to fitting…

“I live in Auburn where we have a very special neighbor by the name of John Bacon. John is 93 years old. He is one of the oldest living POWs in the United States, and has been a beekeeper since 1953 at his home just a few houses from mine.

John rents his bees to farmers then collects and sells honey to keep himself busy at his age. He walks everyday and is always willing to stop and tell war stories to anyone that will listen.

Last week one person complained that they were stung by one of John’s bees. John told them that if they could prove it was one of his honey bees and not the several other species of bees, hornets, or wasps in the area he’d be glad to move them.

The person complained to the city and now the city wants to take John’s bees from him leaving him with nothing to do. John’s bees were grandfathered in and are protected until he passes. However, the city manager, Jo Ella Krantz, has found a loop hole to get rid of his bees.

John is a hero of WWII, as a POW he was imprisoned for many months behind enemy lines. He has been an inspiration to the Auburn community and people everywhere that know him. The bees help him deal with what happened to him all those years ago.

John was in the forced march in Germany during WWII and put on display by our enemy at the time.

Don’t let one person and a city government shut down a hero that can no longer defend himself. Please, show up at the city council meeting on September 17 th at 7:00 pm to support John.

I would love to see as many vets on Motorcycles as possible and busses of dressed vetrans here to support a hero.

Thank you”

I’m just wondering what is the name of the artwork at the top? I’ve appreciated much Wyeth art, but have never seen that one before. Thanks!

I have a theory that it’s a conflict between two polarized ways of engaging with the world:

one being that of acceptance of the power and mystery of nature and seeing the role of man as a part, and the other being a belief in the human brain and it’s dominance of every living thing.

Human brain worshipers believe there is a man-made solution for every ill and that civilization is grounded in human invention. They have very noisy brains and the fact that they may be mistaken is beyond imagining.

Obviously this leads to much misunderstanding, scorn and criticism, each for the other. Of course, this is a gross simplification – you’ll find grounded folks in very urban jobs, and HBW’s fretting on farms…

I started out as a human brain worshiper, but farming has shown me my mistake : )

Thanks for the thoughtful post, this is a conundrum I think about often.

Who the hell is calling you a yokel? You have a PhD, for gawd sake, in Social Sciences, no less. Rural, OK. Yokel?

    Ann, I did every bit of the work for a PhD including language requirements and a dissertation and all the course work. I should have a PhD but in fact only a Masters degree. My work was in American Studies, sort of like Social Studies but not quite. .It is a long story that still makes me angry but not much anymore. I am sort of glad I didn;t get it now, in fact. Gene

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY (something I wish I could undo) and I dream about the day that I can move onto my own farm and live as nature intended life to be. I see cities and limiting and depressing, the grandest skyscrapers are silly to me. When I see a beautiful farm scene it’s the most inspiring thing in the world to me. The physical work of a farm is only drudgery if you don’t appreciate the lifestyle. Try sitting in a cubicle in Manhattan staring at a computer screen for 9 hours a day, and you’ll yearn for the hard labor of a farm.

The popularity of Robert Frost as a poet ebbs and flows (apparently on the rise now) and I think he was the finest voice for the countryside that ever wrote. His popularity tracks the attitude of the “literati” toward the rural life.
I think what the art critic meant is that someone who lives in the country can look at a landscape and relate to the beauty, but the reality of the labor and hardship impinges on the appreciation of scene itself. I look at paintings of horses and mentally critique the conformation, or note that a harness is inaccurately drawn. That does not mean that I cannot enjoy the beauty or skill of the work itself.

I have to say that personally, I prefer the term farm wench 🙂

Looks like this antipathy has been around for a while, Gene. Heard this broadcast last week on NPR:

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