The “God made a farmer” commercial for the 2013 Super Bowl was a consensus favorite. Featuring only still photographs and the aged timbre of radio host Paul Harvey, versions of the video have been watched over 23 million times online. When photographing at the 2013 FFA conference, I was impressed to see the entire crowd focus their attention to the jumbotron, only to sit in silence, watching the commercial. There has been an accompanying book of photographs published by National Geographic, and numerous remixes uploaded to YouTube to espouse the messages of the narrator.
I made my own version with photographs I had taken in the past two years while working as a staff photographer for a custom publishing company in Franklin, Tennessee. The photos are from projects for state departments of agriculture in Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin. As a San Francisco native, a lot of what has made the past two years special has been meeting the people directly involved in the process of making the food we eat.
I think the wide appeal of this ad can be explained by its ability to tap in to a narrative that just isn’t explored today by pop culture. As children we grow up singing about Old McDonald, until we start hating the food conglomerates that profited from our obesity… and meanwhile very little is done to understand or acknowledge the life of the 2% of the American population who still live and work making our food.
There were plenty of criticisms about the original ad’s lack of inclusion of minorities. The demographic balance in my own video is a bit skewed towards who answered the phone, who was there the day I photographed, and whose phone numbers I was given in the first place by the department of agriculture. My video also isn’t about the problems of monoculture, nitrogen run-off, or the way food is distributed and marketed nationally. It appeals the “Jeffersonian values” that were a part of this country from the beginning, and have returned time and again in forms of political and cultural expression. To see it re-emerge in its most recent form as an advertisement for a brand of trucks owned by an Italian holding company is an odd twist in our shiny new 21st century.
But dramatizing someone’s life isn’t supposed to be the whole truth. It’s just a truth. One that I am thankful for witnessing, and happy to share.
Watch in high definition on YouTube or Vimeo.