A couple walks past my tent at farmers market, pushing a baby stroller. “Look!” one of the parents exclaims, gesturing at the photographs of farm animals adorning the tent leg. “It’s a piggy! What noise does the piggy make?”
The child looks up, squinting against the bright sunshine, and notices the picture. “Oink.”
“Good! And what’s this?”
“Right. What sound does the cow make?”
By now, the child is enjoying the game. “Moo-ooo!”
“Yes! Now, what’s this one? Over here?”
Chicken, sheep and duck calls ensue. Spontaneously, right here on the city street, I find myself enjoying a symphony of barnyard noises. Eventually, the parents sneak a quick glance at me, a mixture of pride and shyness, as if they had just taken a nostalgic trip back to their own childhood. I smile, and nod with practiced understanding. A few minutes later, the scene repeats itself with new participants.
Every so often, the conversation runs deeper. “Are these pictures from the farm where you work?” someone will ask.
“Yes. And I’m the farmer who raises them.”
This reliably provokes a reaction of surprise. “Really?” Eyebrows raised, studying me up and down, they examine my face, my clothing. “I’ve never met a real farmer before. Aren’t farmers….” Here they pause, searching for the right language, sorting through a lexicon abandoned in middle school. “Aren’t farmers… supposed to wear overalls?”
I smile good naturedly. “Mine are at the dry cleaners,” I respond in my laconic West Virginia accent. “I’m picking them up later, after I get my pitchfork waxed.”
They laugh. Breaking the ice on these cultural stereotypes usually gets the conversation headed in a meaningful direction. “But if you’re the one who raises the animals,” they ask, starting over, “then how come you’re here in the city?”
“I farm, but I also sell all the food that I grow.”
“But when do you grow it?”
“When I’m not here.”
They glance at their watch. “I mean, it’s seven in the morning right now. What time do you start your day?”
They examine our price list, then allow their eyes to sweep over our displays of fresh farm products. “And you’re responsible for all of this?”
I nod. “Well, me and my family, of course.”
“That’s incredible. How do you guys do it? I mean, how did you get started? If all this food comes from your farm, how… how does it get here?”
It may seem silly, even a touch eccentric, but whenever I’m asked these sorts of questions, my first impulse has always been to begin singing.
“Why,” I imagine myself saying, “it’s easy! We’ve… got… a… moo-moo here, and a moo-moo there… here a moo, there a moo… everywhere a moo-moo….”
Of course, I restrain myself. Instead, I tell them that someday I’ll write a book about it (and I did!). They laugh, but always promise to buy a copy. As they walk away, I hum Old McDonald to myself, indulging my inner idol.
It dawned on me one day that all American children, from the time they are toddlers, are taught the song about Old McDonald’s farm. Don’t believe me? Perform this simple test the next time you see a child older than two: enthusiastically begin singing, “Old McDonald had a farm…!” then abruptly stop. Reliable as the sun, you can be assured that a rambunctious chorus of “E I E I O!” is on its way.
The story of old farmer McDonald permeates our culture. On Christmas morning each year, three year olds across the country wake up to plastic farm play sets. These cardboard boxes come equipped with a spacious red barn, several standard farm animals, and a chubby, ruddy-faced farmer. This tiny plastic farmer, presumably, is there to orchestrate it all.
As sentimental as it might sound, and in spite of how jaded and skeptical we’ve become as consumers, Old McDonald’s farm can still be found. I should know. It’s where I live.
Our farm, passed through our family for seven generations, has a handsome red barn on the hill. It has rolling green hills, and pretty fences, and a sunlit, happy barnyard. Indeed, there is a cluck cluck here, and a baa baa there, and certainly enough oink oinks to satisfy all visitors. We have one green tractor, and roughly half a dozen pitchforks. Unlike those plastic childhood play sets, some assembly was definitely required.
The idea of the family farm seems to linger in our collective consciousness for a reason. We learn as children that the small farm is something worth saving, a tradition that should be preserved. Farmers are commonly upheld as role models of hard work and self-sacrifice, toiling for something greater than themselves, providing sustenance for their community. Like all great stories, there is a message here that remains timeless.
At some point in our childhood however, the story of Old McDonald becomes jumbled. The lyrics segue into Dinah with a banjo, and a dog named Bingo. The toys get put away. We gradually become participants in the ‘real world’ of corporate jobs, new smelling cars, and houses in the suburbs.
Our family farm may look like a page out of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme book, but it’s not a fairytale. It is a place where food is grown, and fed to an appreciative community. Jobs are created here, and lives are lived. While no one would (yet) mistake me on the city street for the old farmer in the song, our version of the song shares many of the same characters, and certainly carries the same harmonies.
The American farm has been romanticized to the brink of mythology. We are not a slogan, or a logo. We’re certainly not trendy. Family farms provide the world something it is otherwise missing: food with transparency, identity and local flavor. Our farm’s story happens to pick up at the exact moment where Old McDonald’s leaves off.
In a world of globalization, where food is commodified and customer service is outsourced, farms like ours are valued for their unique beauty, and as models of dignified self reliance. The family farm cannot be franchised. Ours will forever remain a work in progress.