Don’t let Hollywood’s poor image of farmers rub off

Judy Hopps is tiny and adorable and has dreamed her entire, short life of being the first ever bunny police officer. As a child and a rabbit in the Disney animated feature Zootopia, she’s told by the local bully (an unintelligent, overall-wearing fox) she’ll never be anything other than a “stupid, carrot-farming, dumb bunny.”

Her farming parents tell her the secret to being happy is to give up on her dreams, and settle — settle hard, her mother says.

When Judy is forced to quit her job as a police officer in the enlightened metropolis of Zootopia, she heads back to her parents’ carrot farm in Bunnyburrow with her once-perky ears flopped and her fluffy tail between her legs.

That’s example one. Here’s another:

At the beginning of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Galen Erso, scientist and Death Star mastermind, is found and taken from the agrarian planet of Grange. “You’re a hard man to find,” Orson Krennic tells him. “But, farming? Really? A man of your talents?”

These characters, Judy and Galen, have two things in common: they have farming backgrounds; and they’re considered heroes.

But why aren’t the farmers in these stories heroes for being, well, farmers, for growing the life-sustaining magic we colloquially refer to as food?

Popular media characterizes farmers as uneducated, hillbilly bigots. Think Elmer Fudd and Dwight Schrute from the TV series The Office.

Even in children’s classics like Babe and Charlotte’s Web, where the farmers portrayed are more redeemable characters, they’re white males.

Although it’s demographically accurate, children who aren’t white, and who aren’t male, can’t see themselves in those roles.

“Those of us who are involved absolutely have to be out there in the public eye, and we really need to coach up those of us who are seen as fringe groups,” Andy Overbay, a senior agriculture agent with Virginia Tech in Virginia’s Smyth County, told me in a recent phone conservation.

“One of the things I have to be at least cognizant of is I’m out there trying to tell people that it’s not a sport for older white guys, yet I’m an older white guy.”

Overbay studied the perceptions fourth-grade children had of farmers as part of his PhD research.

What the 40-plus-year-old farmer and educator found was those children identified farmers through the image of Old MacDonald — an old, white male with a beard, wearing a straw hat and jean overalls.

He also discovered that the children believed farmers couldn’t read, and if they did, didn’t have to read well.

When I made the decision to leave a career in journalism and start a small farm, I was nervous about what my media friends would think: that I couldn’t cut it as a journalist; that I was running back to Mom and Dad.

This is what Overbay describes as a meta-stereotype — how we perceive the way others perceive us — and it can be just as damaging as regular stereotypes.

“We do a lousy job of selling our industry,” Overbay said. “We always kind of want to pan ourselves off as, ‘oh, you know, we’re just out here scratching out a living.’ We try to downplay it.

“We, as farmers, really need to be aware of how what we do and say affect that public perception.”

We also need to be aware of this because the freeze-dried food astronauts eat aboard their spaceships has to come from somewhere, as does the wheat and fruit that makes the jelly doughnuts scarfed down by the cartoon cops (also grossly caricatured) in Zootopia.

These images of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats with wheat between their front teeth, and the images of engineers, scientists, and police offices, who fall back into farming because they failed in their other careers, are tired tropes and ones we need to replace for the sake of our future farmers.

Nikki Wiart is a new farmer living in Castor, Alta., writing when her garden, bees, chickens, and pigs allow.

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