Farmer (n.)

July 8, 2012

Let’s do a little word association test. I’ll mention a word, and you indicate what image you associate with it. So, for example, if I say “Mickey”, you may conjure a picture of a big-eyed black and white Disney cartoon character with abnormally regular circles for ears. Alternatively (but less likely) the word might bring to mind somebody handing over a mixed drink laced with chloral hydrate, as in “slipping a mickey”. In my mind’s eye, the drink has little currents and bubbles wafting above it, some looking suspiciously like a skull and bones. The Disney and Finn mickeys suggest rather different things, and the one that comes to mind may says something about a person’s socialization, cultural background, or recent exposure. In any case, it reveals a certain habit of association, which is (Duh!) what word association tests are all about.

So are you ready? Here we go with my word association test:  FARMER

Ah! Ah! No cheating here. No rushing ahead to the next paragraph without actually taking the time form that image association, Bucko! Before reading on, be sure you are set with a firm mental picture.

Now there may be a few truly bizarre types out there who may associate this word with a person such as the Harvard physician Paul Farmer or the Antiques Roadshow appraiser Ken Farmer (I’m excluding the possibility that anyone who reads the Thornapple Blog might also associate the name “Ken Farmer” with Australian rules football). Given that this is a food and farming blog, I’m going straight to the idea that what you are envisioning in my word association test is someone who farms, someone who engages in the occupation “farmer”. In fact, I’m kind of guessing that most of you had some kind of mental image before you based solely on the title of this week’s blog, and I’m guessing that it was a either a stereotyped individual, or some real farmer that you happen to know.

For lots of the Americans I interact with, the picture conforms either to the character that Hugh Brannum played for many years on Captain Kangaroo or to a more modern type who would be wearing ordinary jeans and a work shirt instead of overalls, and who would be sporting a sweat-stained gimmie cap from the feed store instead of a broad brimmed straw. So whether it’s Mr. Green Jeans or some anonymous guy with “John Deere” emblazoned above his forehead, it’s the gender that’s of interest to me here.

Because as members of the Thornapple CSA should certainly know, the male gender is hardly typical of the reality for a lot of what’s happening in alternative agriculture in the 21st century. Here I can post a few links back to places where the blog has, in a casual and off-handed way, indicated that women are calling the shots and doing a lion’s share of the work. In this, they would also be typical of much if not most of the farming that goes on around the world. Women are dominantly the farmers in Africa, and very typically doing both most of the labor and most of the management in Asia and Latin America. When farms become large and highly mechanized, men tend to take over. And men play a disproportionate role in controlling property rights in many parts of the world, though there is certainly more equality on that score in North America. I could go on (I shouldgo on) about the ethics of all this, but in the interests of not boring you on a glorious Sunday afternoon, I’ll just say that the both tendencies ( to assume that farmers are male and for men to run the show when farms get big) are tied to many ethical problems. Shape up, America!

In fact, it’s a little amazing that the women let me write this blog, but maybe my loyalty in posting week after week after week after week has earned me a little bit of slack. And to be honest, I’ve kind of stayed away from pointing out the gender thing, because I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off in a manner that would not smack of gross sexism and would at least be mildly amusing.

Did I pull it off?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


7 thoughts on “Farmer (n.)

  1. Hi, I am an assistant editor on the blog We’re constantly looking for new content for the blog, and your writing would fit well with our other content. You should shoot me an email at if you’re interested in getting your writing out on our blog.


  2. This is the first season that the USBWA has selected a women’s national player of the week. The weekly national player of the week is added to the award’s watch list, which will be released at mid-season.


  3. A Google image search for “farmer” yields exactly two women farmers in the first five pages of results. That is about ten percent of the number of cartoon character farmers shown in those results, and only twice the number of images of bearded men holding two grapefruits in suggestive locations. Maybe women farmers need better internet exposure.


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