When I was in middle school, there was a group of farm kids who wore letterman jackets with the word “Farmer” on the back instead of “Football”. I remember them all leaning against the brick building at recess in their matching jackets looking intimidating. They were all boys. I thought the farm kids were a little scary, tough, and course. In hindsight I cheer for these kids, proud to grow up on farms way back in the 80’s long before farmer was equated with hipster or anything remotely cool. But at the time, I had nothing to do with the farm kids.
Actually, there is one exception. I remember that there was one farm kid, who everyone thought was the biggest, meanest and toughest of them all. But it was probably just that he was the biggest, an eighth grader already the size of a grown man. And I was a new shy and small sixth grader who stepped in front of him in the hall one day and tripped him.
He came down hard, notebooks splaying, and pens rolling away. I was terrified, and expected him to exact immediate, violent and humiliating revenge. Instead, he rose next to me like a giant and then reached down to give me a gentle pat on the head. “That’s ok,” he said before gathering his stuff. After that he would smile at me in the halls. But I kept right on fearing the farm kids.
But by my first year in college, I was transformed into a farmer myself growing food for a food bank and falling in love with all of it. And now that I am raising my own little future farmers, I want to make sure they don’t absorb the same tired ideas about farmers I had as a kid. I am sensitive to it and weed out plenty of children’s books where the farmers are too simple, too gritty or too much the punch line.
Last week, my first grader brought home an assignment from school to disguise paper cut out of a turkey so it could fool the farmer and not become thanksgiving dinner. I get that the point of this story is the plucky, heroic turkey but the farmer comes off looking pretty silly since he is supposed to believe a turkey in a tiara is a princess and a turkey in a football helmet is an NFL player.
I don’t want to exaggerate my reaction, I get that this is mild and we are still having fun with the assignment. I just think that in the big picture we should be moving past these kinds of images of farmers as fools. I suggested to my son that we need to remember that farmers are not easily fooled, especially by their own animals and plants. He has been working on camouflaging his turkey with autumn leaves rather than trying to turn it into a ninja, or superhero, or whatever. I realize it is not earth shattering either way, but I still think we should be careful of passing on old tired stereotypes like the old, simple farmer to the next generation.
Others are working to broaden ideas farmers beyond Old McDonald. I just learned about a photographer who is capturing images of women farmers to help broaden ideas about who can be a farmer. We still more of this, new songs, children’s books, and school assignments to ensure we are moving forward. In the meantime, let’s remember to teach our children that there are all kinds of farmers in the world.