How Can You Keep Them Down In Paree’, After They’ve Seen The Farm?



​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.


I work with a lot of mid-twenties veterans, most talk about and are saving for the same thing: a small house with as much land as they can get. None dream of a house in a subdivision.

I remember my father (a vascular surgeon) and several doctor friends, standing in awe of my husband (who had a high school education plus a couple of college courses in certified welding) as hubby used a backhoe to remove a cow that had gotten trapped in a mud bog. No one had to touch the cow or get in the mud, hubby just picked her up with the backhoe and lifted her to dry ground. Had it been up to the doctors in the group, the cow would have died in the bog. Competence is competence, whether gained through higher education, extensive thought and independent reading or hands-on experience.
I suspect a combination of the latter two are more effective in most occupations and avocations, as higher education can be fraught with nonsense. Consider this post from my blog:
An applicant for the director position at Iowa State University, Ricardo Salvador, was turned down for the position despite being well qualified in many ways. Indications are that the primary reason he was turned down was his advocacy, in an application interview, for the position that cows had evolved to eat grass. Imagine that—cows eat grass! Now, it’s bad enough that such a statement would potentially disqualify an applicant, but he was applying for the directorship of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. What really makes this such a farce is that the dean of the school of agriculture, Wendy Wintersteen, said she didn’t have an opinion on whether cows were evolved to eat grass because she’s an entomologist—a scientist who studies insects. She added that entomologists couldn’t be expected to know if cows evolved to eat grass. I swear I am not making this up; here’s the full article: I always understood that the purpose of education was to deliver a student who could think her way out of a paper bag. I’m afraid that the system has failed Ms. Wintersteen and I submit that she in turn, and this so-called school of agriculture, are failing their students. There are some things in this world so basic that even if you lived in a closet for most of your formative years, by the time you became a dean of a school of agriculture, you really should at least have an opinion on whether cows evolved to eat grass.

At our local coop’s annual meeting last weekend we were voting on a proposed change to the bylaws that would allow voting by every member in good standing, rather then only those present at the annual meeting. One member stood up and said that as a lawyer she couldn’t understand the proposal. As a college drop out it seemed pretty plain to me. I guess it’s just a reminder that law school/MBA/Med school, are just glorified Vo-Tech. If you didn’t learn to think by the time you got an undergraduate degree a higher Degree ain’t fixing you. I personally think stacking hay, mowing deep ditches and cutting down timber is a better overview of Newtonian mechanics then most schools are capable of delivering.

As it happens I just started re-reading “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. Combine that with “Shop class as soul craft” and you get an expanded and thought provoking look at a problem that Gene just boiled down to ~900 words

It’s weird that the same people who disdain physical labor spend big bucks on gym memberships to stay ‘fit’. They also flock to big gyms where they don’t know the
person next to them. I find that working in my big garden, tending my chickens, and walking outside in my neighborhood make me happy. God gave us this body to use, as productively as we can, to live a good life and help our community. I would like nothing better than to die used up and wore out – the way it’s supposed to be!

Keep them coming Gene. Your now part of my morning reading list . thanks


Another home run!

For some reason the people who actually produce something in our economy are looked down upon, whereas the bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, stock brokers, etc. are superior-just ask them, they’ll tell you so.

As for Extension, they were so successful pushing the industrialized version of agriculture that there are few clients left. Agribusiness has never had it so good.

I can hardly wait for the next Depression when these behemoth farms collapse under their mountains of debt.

I grew up on a local farm with immigrant grandparents – sold to take care of my mom who I swear got altzeimers.. I swear from 24D. I now live on a homestead and teach those willing to learn gardening skills …I host Wwoof folks. My husband before he passed away, invented a word that a librarian thought was a real word “Academentia ” It says it all.
I offer a garden program to teach people garden skills such as seed saving, composting preserving foods but no one’s interested… such a pity. I grow most of my own foods and haven’t been sick in many years . I love this post. It is spot on.


There are a slew of really book smart people at the Enormous State University to my west that I wouldn’t let near a shovel since it has too many moving parts for them. But I will say, that though most farmers are mechanical wizards, they scare the compost out of this electrician/plumber when it comes to wiring.

The local extension agency in my county is a good resource for water issues and for getting soil tested.. We do not rely on them for husbandry or garden advice. That comes from a well developed web of contrary homesteaders in our area.

Gene, a most happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Gene, you don’t explicitly mention the recent events in Paris as the background to your choice of song, but I would venture to guess that you had them in mind. Chalk up another good argument for staying down on the farm.

If you have a hundred thousand dollar college degree and lose your job you can take that degree somewhere else and start again. Lose a hundred thousand dollar farm and you get to be a hired man. Be like my children and not like me, invest in something that you can’t lose.

Oh my, yes, they still do have County Extension agents, but they are too smart to call you back when you call to complain about all the herbicides and pesticides from conventional farming that may be killing your bees. They send the state guys out for that (Tennessee Dept of Agriculture). They come out in the guise of wanting to be sensitive to your concerns but really want to find a way to blame your ignorance and your uninformed beekeeping practices for the demise of your hives and honey business. Do you treat for mites? That’s a loaded question cuz if you don’t, you’re stupid, and the mites are probably to blame. If you do treat, you’re stupid cuz you’re introducing harmful chemicals into your hive. I don’t treat but I do know enough about mites to know they are not my problem and have developed mite-resistant bees through the years. I do think that I convinced them that I was a passable beekeeper and they did go away with honey to sample for Roundup, 2,D-4 and one of the neonicitinoids, although they don’t think that’s what’s killing my bees. They say they are “confused.” I spent a lot of time talking to these experts about bees and studies from reputable institutes of higher learning about the effects of agricultural chemicals on our pollinators only to have them look at me like I had 2 heads. Sorry for the rant–you hit a nerve!

I don’t know about the whole argument ‘who is smarter’, to me obviously seems like the smartest ones choose to live as much in touch with nature as possible, but what do I know.
But here is one thing for sure. I worked at the farm called Three Plaid Farmers, so I thought, ok, I need to be a farm girl and get myself a plaid shirt to match the dirty jeans and boots.
Suddenly then I see this new trend of plaid being the new black – and every city slicker wearing plaid. So maybe farming is becoming hip. If not farming, then plaid for sure. 🙂

Thank you for the reference to the documentary!

The real reason those is had such disdain for farming and chores such as digging a ditch was they were too stupid to dig a proper ditch with a grade that would drain properly. lmao The father or farmer that hired them probably realized after seeing them dig a small pond that wouldnt drain on a hill ,that the kindest thing woulld be to send them to the city where they might find a job to keep from starving!. The huge tractors and combines now have so much technology in them that they look like a space shuttle inside!! Setting all of that up to figure in acres,bushels,etc would leave legions of committees of suburban folks befuddled for months if not years! Think about trying to farrow in a small pull together shed like i used to . If there was a rat hole letting in the winds and blowing over newborn pigs ,the city slickers would be on the horn trying to call in a carpenter and get a time and date set for when he could fit them into his schedule. Where as the typical farmer with a PHD in contraryness would just stuff a rag or paper bag in the hole!

Yes, small scale farming seems to be viewed as a less desirable way to earn a living or romanticised as something other than hard work! Either way, it tis dififficult to get young people to get into & stay into this hard work here in MO.

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