In Media, Big Ag Looms Large while Farmers Get Younger, Better Looking

In September 1965, CBS broadcast its first episode of Green Acres, a mini-series documenting a family’s transition from an urban life of prestige and luxury, to one of mud, manure, and chaos on a farm in the fictional town of Hooterville.

Green Acres took off, in part capitalizing on the popularity of its 1963 predecessor, Beverly Hillbillies, which was the number one TV show in America during its first two years. While Green Acres commented on the awkward integration of city elite into rural America, Beverly Hillbillies followed a clan of poor Ukrainian farmers through their upgrade to flashy Beverly Hills (but only after striking oil – mistakenly – on their land). The two TV hits were only a part of a mass of mini-series placing a farmer, or farm family, at the center stage. Other notable shows included The Real McCoys and Petticoat Junction. According to film critics, these series succeeded for their comedic portrayal of culture clash; for the agricultural community, however, the shows unfairly labeled farmers, and the farming occupation, as backward, poor, uncivilized, and low-class.green-acres

By the 80s and 90s, TV focusing on the rural farmer waned in popularity. Perhaps the last big effort to revive the genre came in 1993, as 20th Century FOX released Beverly Hillbillies in a movie format. The critic reviews gave the movie an A for low-brow humor, but labeled the overall effort a pointless remake of a worn-out past. Worse still, the film’s directors received complaints from (mostly southern) viewers who found the movie insulting, irrelevant, or both. And so, by the end of the 20th century, the relationship between TV, film, and the farmer was headed for reform.

Admittedly, media’s desertion of the country farmer role reflected the reality of a swiftly changing food environment. As the US food system was appropriated by massive industrialized farming operations, fewer Americans could survive as independent farmers, and the bucolic image of rural food production -overalls and mud – no longer resonated with the TV-watching, movie-loving public.

By the 2000s, popular film took on industrialized food production, and began to depict agriculture as a mysterious and powerful force of greed and deception. One such portrayal came in the 2007 movie Michael Clayton, which followed an elite lawyer through his defense of an agrochemical company’s billion-dollar class action lawsuit brought for damages caused by toxic chemicals. Two years later, the movie The Informant publicized the true story of an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agriculture processing companies. The plot depicted the details of this employees’ harrowing experience as a whistleblower against executives found to be fixing the price of lysine, an additive for livestock feed. Read More >