For a second, it was as if home had suddenly popped up, bigger than life, on our television screens.
The Super Bowl was all over except for the confetti and the celebrating on the gridiron, when, instead of a silly Dorito commercial, we were treated to some beautiful words spoken by a voice that has been silent for years.
Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl commercial, running two minutes long and narrated by the late radio commentator Paul Harvey, struck a chord with much of the nation, especially those of us who live here in the heartland.
The piece consists of still photos of farm scenes – farmhouses and barns, dirt-crusted farmers with beat-up hands and weathered faces, tractors at work in fields. One reason the ad hit home is nearly every image could have been shot here in South Dakota.
The ad is uplifting and a bit discomforting, all at the same time.
The beauty lies in the celebration of a way of life that I and hundreds of thousands of people my age remember. We grew up on family farms, and the emphasis must be placed on the word “family” to truly describe that lifestyle.
Farms at that time really couldn’t exist without families that owned them and cared, diligently, about every minute detail needed to make sure the operation was a success.
The farms were smaller, meaning there were more farmers. And more farm families, meant my hometown, despite being only 20 miles from Sioux Falls, was, again, during my childhood, much more vibrant and self-sufficient than today.
The discomfort from the Dodge ad comes when, after experiencing a flood of nostalgia from the barrage of familiar images, all described so accurately by a man with a trusting, familiar voice, you’re easily left with a feeling of longing rather than satisfaction.
I know farming has changed a lot since I was a kid. Not all of the changes have been positive ones. Farm operations, like every other business in this country, have had to adapt or die. Today’s farms are much larger and much more mechanized.
According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture (the last census was conducted in 2012 and the data isn’t readily available yet) seven South Dakota counties experienced at least a 10 percent loss in farm numbers, and Clay County just barely escaped being part of that group.
Davison, Bon Homme, and Sully counties encountered the greatest percentage loss. Geographically, the James River portion of South Dakota lost the most farms. Of the counties the James River runs through (Brown, Beadle, Davison, Hanson, Hutchinson, Sanborn, Spink, and Yankton), only Beadle County gained farms.
According to the census, there were 484 farms in Clay County in 2007. In 2002, the county had 536 farms. That’s a decrease of 9.7 percent during that five-year period.
The census deals mainly with numbers and raw data. It doesn’t speculate as to why, in the last decade, God has seen fit to not create as many farmers in Clay County. It’s a trend I fear the latest census will only confirm to be continuing once all the numbers from 2012 have been crunched.
Perhaps Paul Harvey saw this coming. At the time that he made the speech used in the Super Bowl ad, he also was busy extolling the virtues of America’s technological progress in farming – from the increased use of pesticides to the spread of more modern farming equipment.
Harvey wasn’t the least bit skeptical of “agribusiness” – which was and often still is seen as the antithesis of the family farm. In fact, Harvey might be one of large-scale farming’s more vocal defenders.
What’s revealing – and a bit sad – about the Super Bowl ad is that in memorializing and purporting to celebrate farm families and their way of life, the television spot highlights the fact that they’re disappearing.
The way of life I’m currently pining for wasn’t perfect, and I don’t mean to idealize it. What I remember most about our farm, though, was the unique human interactions it allowed my family to experience with so many other people.
God made farmers, in part, because we need that human connection that came from doing physical work side by side, and then sitting down together outdoors in the shade in sweaty fellowship, to eat sandwiches and freshly baked cake, feeling exhausted and productive.
To me, the Super Bowl commercial wasn’t about trucks. It was about us and what we miss about being connected to each other.