We Romanticize Farms because Farms are Romantic

Romantic Farm

My parents’ neighbors have a rooster. I know this because, on recent visit there, I heard him doing what roosters do: getting up early to demand everyone else be up admiring his awesomeness. Hearing his crow in the early morning reminded me of waking up 35 years ago in a bedroom at my grandparents’ house to the bellow of their own irrepressible bird.

Though I heard a different bird in a different place on an occasion more than three decades removed from that morning at my grandparents home, the pattern of rooster behavior was unchanged. And so, the bird pulled together for me these two long-separated mornings.

Farm life affords these reminders. Such mementos are everywhere. People see this when they visit. The presence of otherwise neglected patterns of living on small farms is , in part, responsible for the recent surge of interest in farming.

Lately though, some have been wondering if all this interest is really in farms or just in some dreamy, unrealistic vision of what consumers imagine farm life to be. First, Sarah Searles urges us all to Stop Romanticizing Farms. She recounts her experiences attending friends’ weddings on farms that have become more or less scenic event centers while neglecting their essential work of producing food.

At Grist, Darby Minow Smith picks up the theme of consumers who think they love farms but really are only drawn to beautiful, antiseptic images that exist exclusively in their minds. Smith concludes by offering a decidedly unappealing image of an orphaned calf wrapped in the skin of another calf who has died to trick a cow into adopting it.

While it is true that many consumers are drawn to pretty pictures of farms and to overly-polished imagined pictures of rural life, there is more to the phenomenon than has yet been said. People romanticize farms because farms, especially small farms, are romantic. Indeed, that we are even talking about the possibility of romanticizing farms proves the point. No one is ever accused of romanticizing the work life of the cubicle-dwelling data entry assistant, are they?

Let me explain. Romance has two parts: unpredictability and connection. Think of any romantic gesture someone in your life has made, and you’ll see these two components. Let’s take an example from the movies. When Lloyd Dobler shows up outside Diane Court’s bedroom with a boombox over his head playing that Peter Gabriel song, it’s romantic because it is surprising, we couldn’t have predicted it, and because he is seeking to connect with her even more deeply. He is inviting her to adventure and to love.

Farm life offers these invitations in ways that much of the mechanized, routinized, atomistic urban way of living does not. Life lived close to the earth is less predictable. Maybe it will rain too much, or not enough. Maybe you’ll get sick when its time to harvest. Maybe that hawk will come falling out of the sky and carry one of your best layers away. If you want reliable order, you will find it in a cubicle in the high-rise next to the interstate, but not here. Life for the farmer is more open to surprise.

Even more, life on a small farm is about connection. Every time the farmer thrusts a hand into the soil, he cements the connection between himself and his origin. When a farmer harvests her crops, she ties herself to both the earth beneath her and the community she feeds. Such connections are just easier to find on the farm than they are commuting to work on the freeway and people are drawn to their presence.

Since both the elements of romance are present in abundance on a small farm, it makes sense that we should recognize their inherently romantic nature. If we mean by “romanticize” that we celebrate the adventure and connection that life lived close to the earth provides us, I say, “romanticize” away.

My friend Sarah told me that others writing about this issue aren’t using the word “romanticize” the way I am. What they mean by this word is, I think, something more like “idealizing.” Sarah said she thought others meant “all the good and none of the bad” when they wrote, “romanticizing.”

She’s probably right. The concern others have about this issue seems to be that modern consumers want a “farm experience” where the hard parts are hidden. They want vegetables on their plate without sweat, meat without death. When consumers ignore the hard realities of farm life, it’s reasonable to ask whether their support for rural ways of life is genuine or part of a passing fad.

The answer, I suspect, is both. The need of some consumers to seek out idealized rural experiences is very real. The longing for escape from the predictability and triviality of modern urban life into a world of greater adventure and connection is powerful. Such longings are rooted deeply in the modern soul and send urbanites everywhere scrambling to markets and farm-to-table events on the weekends. These impulses bring attention and much needed money flowing to those whose commitment to rural life is more permanent which is good.

At the same time, the nature of a consumer economy necessitates fads. At some point, the vogue farms are now enjoying will pass. Many will lose interest. But not all. Some, drawn in by their idealized notions, will stay, captured by the romance of the life. In the meantime, those who care deeply about sustaining rural and small farm life have an opportunity to encourage those who are interested, to invite them into the adventure and the connection farm life affords until they are ready to embrace such a life themselves, until the seed of idealized notions of farm life blooms into a more deeply planted love able to sustain itself even in the face of ugly realities.

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