The town of Maricopa may be surrounded by Arizona desert, but a small plot of land near its northern border may qualify as the most closely studied piece of farmland our planet has ever produced. Here stands the LemnaTec Scanalyzer. Weighing some 50,000 pounds, the device sits on a steel gantry that moves back and forth along tracks that line the field. It monitors the growth of every plant below it, and by the end of the day it generates five to eight terabytes of data. What it records could help scientists develop the next generation of genetically modified seeds. The University of Arizona, the company LemnaTec and the U.S. Government, which funded the project through the Department of Energy, all agree: this could be the future of agriculture.
“Culture in all its early uses was a noun of process,” Raymond Williams says in Keywords. It described “the tending of something, basically crops or animals.” Eventually, by way of metaphor, the word was “extended to a process of human development.” But the roots run deeper still: for much of human history, culture, in the sense of ceremony and arts, has been tied closely with cycles of agriculture, from work songs in fields to celebrations of harvest. In America, this tradition sees some of its most potent representation in country music. The genre has produced countless songs about life on the farm, but few are as straightforward as Alabama’s “American Farmer,” from 2015. “They’re out there every morning, planting those seeds in the ground / Riding those big wheels, until the sun goes down,” sings the group’s frontman, Randy Owen. Owen tells a familiar story, paying tribute to the wholesome grit of the farm tradition. Yet with the nature of farming accelerating rapidly into the future, the labor he describes could soon be obsolete. Not many farmers will ever have access to a 50,000 pound robotic field scanner, but if the corporations that dominate the agriculture industry get their way, farmers will see their work transformed by smaller devices like drones, automated tractors, and mini-robots that crawl the ground.
At the front of this shift is the German company Bayer AG. We usually associate the name Bayer with aspirin – or heroin, which it trademarked in the late 1800s – but the pharmaceutical giant has steadily grown into one of biggest names in agriculture. In 2014, its market capitalization – the value of its outstanding shares – stood around $112 billion. This should soon rise: Bayer is now in the process of acquiring the American seed and pesticide firm Monsanto, itself worth around $66 billion. Now, on Bayer’s “Crop Science” website, the company promotes technological upgrades geared to the future. One article mentions another “scanalyzer” that “allows an automated measuring of crop growth.” But planting those crops can be automated too, and to this end, Bayer promotes a robot called Prospero, an “agricrab” that scuttles across fields, drills holes and deposits seeds.
Prospero’s inventor, David Dorhout, imagines a small army of these on every farm, a “swarm of autonomous robots” doing all the things Alabama’s American Farmer used to do. So what happens to the farmer? Dorhout has already considered this: “The farmer acts like a shepherd, giving his swarm instructions,” he says. “Then his robots carry out these orders by communicating with each other through infrared signals.” In bigger picture, robots like Prospero will “change the role of a farmer from being a driver to an instructor, which robots will pick up,” Dorhut continues. They will “alleviate the physical work of farmers, which gives them more time to focus on the economic part of their business.”
If country music gave voice to many American farmers during the 20th century, what does it have to say about the fundamental shift in farm labor that is coming to define the 21st? If farmers become robot herders, spending more time in Quicken than in the field, what will that mean for the culture that grew out of it? Will representations of farm work, like those in country music, keep pace with its realities?
The ongoing process of automation affects jobs in just about every sector of the economy, yet for farming, the shift toward robots creates a unique ideological problem. That’s because in American culture, the farmer usually represents self-sufficiency, both personal and national – the ability to live with two hands, connected to the land, without the need for modern devices like robots and computers. In country music, no song makes such a claim quite as forcefully as Hank Williams, Jr.‘s “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
A Number Two hit in 1984, “Country Boy” beings by foretelling an apocalypse: “The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry.” The resulting environment of scarcity and conflict divides urban from rural, businessman from farmer. You can guess which side adapts quickest. Though as Hank tells it, the rural country folk barely need to adapt at all. They already know how to plow a field, harvest heirloom tomatoes and ferment wine. “I got a shotgun, a rifle and a 4-wheel drive,” he sings. What more does one need?
Williams’s country folk are drawn from myth as much as fact. Subsistence farming was once common in regions like Appalachia, but by 1984, the practice was nearly extinct. In the coal mines that the singer mentions, subsistence farmers were violently incorporated into the markets of capitalism. Those still in business tend to grow one crop, like wheat or corn, as nodes in a supply chain that extends around the globe. If “Country Boy” is an indignant song, some its fire seems to come from this fact: the singer has missed the first era of American household agriculture, so he eagerly anticipates the divine providence that will bring about a second.
Thus “Country Boy” is at once nostalgic and millenarian. It claims to speak for the working class yet it rejects solidarity with the urban poor. Over 30 years later, it remains one of country music’s major points of reference. We hear its title spoken at the end of tracks like Montgomery Gentry’s “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm” and looped throughout Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.” Search its title alongside the name of just about any male country star and there’s a good chance you’ll find shaky cell phone footage of a live cover.
So what happens when even farmers lose the skills that Hank Williams, Jr. is counting on? We can began to trace this shift even in the multiple versions of “A Country Boy Can Survive.” On songs like the anti-gay, anti-disco “Dinosaur,” Hank Williams, Jr. proudly proclaims his obstinacy, his refusal to change with the times. But when it comes to “Country Boy,” even he has twice amended his own tune. In 1999, Williams collaborated with George Jones and Chad Brock on a “Y2K Version” of “Country Boy Can Survive.” The update emphasized the country boy’s distance from Wall Street; a new line proclaimed that “if the bank machines crash, we’ll be just fine.”
Yet two years later, after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, Williams returned to the studio to record a new version called “America Will Survive.” The original had seemed to imagine a world after America, and took its own shots at downtown Manhattan, hardly acceptable in late 2001. But this latest iteration attempted to reconcile the earlier contradictions – urban and rural, farm and finance – in defense of a nation that will now triumph together. As Hank sings:
Our flag is up since our people went down
And we’re together from the country to town
We live back in the woods, you see
Big city problems never bothered me
But now the world has changed and so have I.
A changed world needs changed country stars. Enter Luke Bryan.
If “A Country Boy Can Survive” represents one axis for contemporary farm songs, another is Tim McGraw’s 1994 hit “Down on the Farm.” McGraw’s record documents not an old man waiting for the apocalypse but a bunch of teens blowing off steam after a week on the tractor, partying in a backfield with “old Hank” himself playing loud on the boombox. The music video recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend: A road closure creates a long traffic jam, so McGraw and his band play from a makeshift stage in the middle of the street. The song charts a new distinction between country and city, favoring the sticks because they’re more egalitarian and more free. He even invites urbanites to join the party. Sings McGraw:
You can have a lot of fun in a New York minute
But there’s some things you can’t do inside those city limits
Ain’t no closing time, ain’t no cover charge
Just country boys and girls getting down on the farm.
The landscape “Down on the Farm” describes has become the setting for much of what’s been called bro country, a trend that brought backwoods parties to the forefront of country music in the mid-2010s. Luke Bryan is one of the artists most closely associated with the term. More than any of his fellow bros, he has expanded McGraw’s narrative into not just a whole world but a whole worldview. “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” “That’s My Kinda Night,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End”: these songs, all Number Ones, chronicle the lives country boys and girls live after dark. They lack the spite or menace that characterizes many of Williams’s hits. It’s party music, mostly, but it’s generous party music, filled with people who look for meaning in each other, and in music itself.
This generosity extends to genre. Bryan often cites rap and R&B in both his sound and lyrics, and when he covers “A Country Boy Can Survive,” he often embeds it in a medley of pop music. In one YouTube video, he uses the song to complete a piano medley that progresses from Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” to Lionel Richie’s “Easy” to Adele’s “Someone Like You” to Journey’s “Faithfully.” When he reaches “Country Boy,” he plays the wrong chords and laughs off the mistake.
This combination of charm and ecumenicism has made Bryan one of the biggest stars in country music. In six years, he’s gone from McGraw’s opening act to a headliner who can fill any arena in the United States. Even people who don’t listen to country often know his early hit “Rain Is a Good Thing,” another farm track. The country boys and girls really get down on this one: “Rain makes corn / Corn makes whiskey / Whiskey makes my baby / Feel a little frisky,” Bryan sings on the hook.
Lyrics like this beg to performed not in a stadium but on a field in the boondocks. Accordingly, every summer since 2009, Bryan has set aside a few weeks to play shows on moveable stages in farms like the one his family still owns. “The Farm Tour was something that I used to do on a tiny scale back when I was in school at Georgia Southern, and we’d go set up under a tractor barn,” the singer told country blog The Boot.
I did that for years. When I moved to Nashville, I said if I ever find the opportunity to just find some cool locations out in the country, set up in a field and just make a big old party and bring something to a small town that wouldn’t necessarily get it otherwise, I always wanted to do that.
Appropriately, YouTube footage from the Farm Tour looks like shaky-cam outtakes from inside the “Down on the Farm” music video. This year’s tour brought Bryan to six venues. Most are small towns like Boone, Iowa and Baldwin City, Kansas, about an hour outside mid-sized, Midwestern cities. These areas can attract touring country artists, young and old, especially during fair season, but it’s rare that they host a big star. That makes the Farm Tour a great example of creative booking, a way for Bryan to play his songs for the people they describe, in the kinds of settings where the songs take place – even if Bryan requires host farmers to overhaul their fields in advance of the shows.
Still, I suspect that good practice is not the reason that the Farm Tour has continued for nearly a decade. More likely, the Farm Tour has continued because it’s a tremendous marketing opportunity for the agriculture industry’s richest brands – especially Monsanto. In 2010, the cost of the tour was underwritten by Deltapine, a Monsanto-owned brand of genetically modified cotton seed. In 2011, its top sponsor was another seed manufacturer, DeKalb Genetics Corporation, a key part of Monsanto’s portfolio since the chemical company purchased 40 percent of it in 1996. (It bought the rest in 1998.)
Monsanto likely sponsored the tour under the names of its subsidiaries because the company’s own name is so reviled – it would be a risk for pop stars to associate themselves too closely with the parent company’s record of exploitation. This may be one reason why Monsanto is being sold to Bayer, which will likely apply its own name to much of the company’s present activity if the deal is approved, putting the German firm in control of about a quarter of the planet’s seed and pesticide market. In Europe, Bayer is well known for its agricultural business. In America, they’ve used Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour to increase brand awareness, not just sponsoring the event every year since 2015 but going so far as to change its official name to the Bayer Presents Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour.
Journalists often compare Bryan’s Farm Tour to Farm Aid, the yearly concert where artists like Neil Young and Willie Nelson raise money to support small farmers. It’s an easy mistake to make. Thirty-two years after debuting as a one-off fundraiser, Farm Aid has become, in the words of its website, a “nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on the land,” raising money “to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.” This is the type of farmer Luke Bryan sings about. Yet through the Farm Tour, Bryan does the bidding of those whose mission is precisely the reverse: he makes himself a front for those companies that have monopolized tools that family farmers need and squeezed family farmers at every point. Now these same companies are attempting to remake those farmers’ practice through drones and cloud computing, using these technologies to roll back what limited autonomy farmers still have.
Farm Aid explicitly criticizes this agenda: articles on their website call out companies like Monsanto and the corporate power they represent. But through Bryan’s Farm Tour, corporate power has found a way to co-opt both FarmAid’s medium and its message. Using concerts that claims to give back to small farmers, it attempts to sell them the type of products that forced farmers out of business for generations. Before returning to Luke Bryan, we will need to look at how capitalist institutions, working with the state, have targeted the self-sufficiency of farmers, their ability to grow crops without corporate mediation, for over a century.
In 1997, a new magazine called Precision Ag Illustrated published its first issue. The cover reworked the Grant Wood painting American Gothic, equipping its much-parodied Midwestern couple with a laptop, a satellite dish and field-monitoring tools that, 20 years later, are already long out of date. The issue’s cover line was as jarring as its art. Using the broken font of a hurried graffiti artist or a samizdat press, it addressed prospective readers with the kind of message you don’t expect to find near the check-out counter of a Home Depot. “You Are the Revolution,” was all it said.
Published today as Precision Ag Professional, the magazine defines its subject, “precision agriculture,” as a “a turbocharged, georeferenced, data-driven approach” to three practices intended to remake farming. First, there’s collecting data, whether through drones, soil sensors or satellites in space. Second, analyzing that data, which the farmer outsources to “a legion of educated, experienced agronomists who pore over multi-layered field maps to draw inferences and interpolations and make recommendations.” Last, implementing those recommendations, which falls not just to the farmer but to the farmer’s internet-connected equipment: smart tractors like those made by John Deere and, in the future, to robots like Prospero.
These steps are based on some remarkable advances in technology. Already, chips buried in the ground can provide real-time information about irrigation and soil quality. Machines in the air can spot small bugs crawling on plants below; farmers, in turn, can use machines on the ground to spray pesticides in only those areas, targeting the point of infection rather than blanketing chemicals across large fields. It sounds good, and there are some real improvements here. But for the companies developing these technologies, issues like sustainability are always secondary. The main goal is to increase the penetration of capital into the farming process, maximizing yields in massive, mono-crop fields while increasing efficiency, largely by cutting labor costs, within supply chains dominated by companies like Wal-Mart and Perdue. So while new technology has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of pesticide farmers spray onto their fields, the patents for this technology are increasingly falling into the hands of the very companies, like Bayer, that profit most from selling pesticide. Sure enough, variable-rate pesticide application stands out as one of the few precision services that was harder to purchase in 2017 than it was in 2011.
Can the country boy or girl still survive? What happens to the farmhands who will be laid off, reentering the workforce elsewhere, as their manual labor is automized?
This question is rarely covered even within the agriculture press, yet occasionally a story about technology and farming goes mainstream. This happened last March, when Vice reported on American farmers using a secret forum to purchase a black-market John Deere hack from Polish and Ukrainian coders. Whose tractors did these farmers intend to hack? Their own. Today’s John Deeres use sensors to monitor not just what’s happening in the field, but what’s happening within and to the tractor itself. The company uses the latter readings to enforce a licensing agreement that prohibits farmers from fixing their own equipment. The John Deere contract stipulates that this work can only be done at a Deere dealership or an authorized repair show, and the tractor itself is equipped to reject any “unauthorized” work. Or, worse, it could log such work and send a notification to John Deere, which could then begin a costly breach of contract suit. That is, unless the tractor has been hacked beforehand.
Yet a tractor that prohibits the owner from fixing it looks almost old-fashioned next to the “Autonomous Concept Vehicle” developed by one of Deere’s biggest rivals, Case-IH. This is a tractor that lacks a cab, a seat and a steering wheel. Farmers can operate the Case-IH only by iPad. Or they can ditch the iPad and let the tractor control itself, allowing it to cross their field on a route calculated by the vehicle’s own onboard computer. Case-IH, a former sponsor of Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour, describes this as “high-efficiency farming” designed to “optimize” a farm’s “manpower.” If these vehicles become the norm, farmers lose not just their ability to fix a tractor but the capacity to operate one altogether.
The political economist Philip H. Howard refers to developments like this as a process of “deskilling.” “Deskilling increases control for capitalists but makes us more dependent upon them by eroding our knowledge and abilities,” Howard writes in his book Concentration and Power in the Food System, a study of the agriculture supply chain. For Howard, deskilling accompanies a deeper process that he describes as a new form of enclosure. His primary example is seeds: “Seeds and animal breeds have been open access for millennia, a common resource improved through the efforts of countless generations of people,” Howard writes. Now, just as England’s original enclosure laws turned common land into private property, companies like Bayer and Monsanto are working “to privatize seeds and breeds” to “make them more amenable to capitalist strategies of development.” This has meant the creation of new, copyrightable seeds, but it has also required a massive “deskilling” effort. Backed by national governments and international economic alliances, these companies have manipulated markets and intellectual property laws in an attempt to erase and even outlaw traditional agricultural practices around the world.
In Ramp Hollow, a recent history of Appalachia, the historian Steven Stoll traces American enclosure back to the late 1700s. Alexander Hamilton’s 1771 “Whiskey Tax” inaugurates this process. Because Hamilton taxed all distilled spirits – not just those that were bought and sold – he intended to penalize people who produced for home use. Moreover, by requiring that the levy be paid in cash, he forced subsistence farmers to sell their produce on the market rather than trading it or consuming it themselves. This was intentional: Hamilton designed the tax not just to pay off war debts but to build an economy in which the market was central.
At the time, Appalachia’s subsistence farmers shared forests where they’d graze animals and forage for fuel and food. These lands were the region’s equivalent to England’s commons, an essential precondition for agrarian life. But over 50 years, from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, they were almost totally destroyed. This ecological catastrophe, combined on the other end with the pressure of an expanding population, forced people across the region into wage labor. Often they worked for the very companies that had driven them off their lands.
This shift is the subject of countless folk and country songs. More than that, it is a precondition for the early 20th century recording sessions that cut into shellac songs by Appalachian artists like the Carter Family, a group that to some extent embodies the transition from agrarian to wage labor. A key figure in the music exploitation of Appalachia is the man who first recorded the Carter Family, Ralph Peer of the Southern Music Publishing Company. The same economic logic that led to the extraction of material resources like timber and coal also drove Peer’s attempt to mine the region for intellectual property – that is, the song copyrights sought by him and his local surrogate A.P. Carter.
This was no isolated incident – the history of intellectual property in the United States is not one of libertarian individualism, but corporate consolidation. Howard begins his story of “criminalizing self-reliance” in the period after the Second World War, when companies that had supplied chemical weapons to the Allied forces attempted create a domestic market for their new products. These companies included names like DuPont and Monsanto, and they campaigned to make farmers dependent on synthetic insecticides and herbicides. By the 1980s, their efforts had proved almost too successful: so many farmers adopted these products that the industry’s growth rate began to slow. A round of mergers reduced the ag-chemical sector to six conglomerates. Then these conglomerates invaded the seed industry, leveraging “monopolies in one input sector to monopolies in another.”
But unlike pesticides, seeds have the ability to reproduce themselves. This is the precondition not just for the country boy’s survival but human civilization as we know it. Yet for capitalists trying enter the seed business, it was a problem, an impediment to growth eventually overcome through collaboration with the state. This is the case that economist Jean-Pierre Berlan and Marxist geneticist Richard Lewontin made in their 1986 essay “The Political Economy of Hybrid Corn.” Berlan and Lewontin describe how in the early 1900s, the United States worked with private firms to develop and standardize new “hybrid” corn seeds. Previously, farmers would save the seeds from their best ears of corn and replant them for the following harvest. Hybrid seeds, however, do not exhibit consistent characteristics between generations: The size of the yield drops with each replanting, which means that new seeds that must be purchased every year.
Hybrid corn seeds were adopted with astonishing speed. In 1933, almost none of Iowa’s corn grew from hybrid seed. By 1944, almost all of it did. Alexander Hamilton would have approved: The new seeds integrated farmers deeper into the market, forcing them to sell more crops to create the cash needed to pay for their increased annual expenses. From 1910 to 1975 alone, the ratio of purchased to self-generated farm inputs increased more than 500 percent. For Lewontin and Berlan, this meant that already, in the mid-1980s, “the farmer has been changed from a primary producer into an intermediate converter of manufactured goods.”
Here’s how they describe the transition, as it appeared at the time of their writing:
In 1910 farmers gathered their own seeds from last year’s crop, raised the mules and horses that provided traction power, fed them on hay and grains produced on the farm, and fertilized the fields with the manure they produced. In 1986 farmers purchase their seed from Pioneer Hybrid Seed Co., buy their “mules” from the Ford Motor Company, the “oats” for their “mules” from Exxon, their “manure” from American Cyanamid, feed their hogs on concentrated grain from Central Soya, and sow their next corn crop with the help of a revolving loan from Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Co.
Around 30 million Americans operated farms 1930, but that number has steadily declined ever since. Today, it’s closer to three million, many of whom supplement their farm income with other jobs of their own. Yet the losers in the hybrid-seed economy didn’t always go quietly. In the early to mid 1930s, protests and acts of radical solidarity took place in farming communities across the Midwest. At foreclosure auctions, farmers intimidated people who came to bid on repossessed equipment, thus preventing the bank from making a profit. The Farmers’ Holiday Association advocated that its members withdraw from the market – one slogan was “Stay at Home, Buy Nothing, Sell Nothing” – and block streets to prevent outside deliveries of dairy and produce. In Loup City, Nebraska, the left-wing People’s Standard demanded a cancellation of all seed loan debt as part of its program.
The Loup City farmer’s movement, organized in part by Communist Party activist Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, was eventually quashed by local vigilantes supported by the police and judiciary. In the hundred years since the invention of hybrid corn, the state has continued to intervene on the side of agribusiness. In 1970, the federal government extended corporate control of the seed market by strengthening intellectual property rights over hybrid seeds. It would further strengthen these property rights with legislation like the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed private companies to patent innovations rooted in publicly-funded research. In the courts, rulings like Asgrow v. Winterboer did to seeds what John Deere is now trying to do with tractors, transforming them from something that the purchaser owns to something the purchaser can merely license. This allowed companies like Monsanto to force their customers to sign extortioner contracts and use the legal system to strong-arm violators.
Because the U.S. uses its military and economic power to impose its copyright laws around the world, these laws and decisions have a global impact. We see the effects of this in cases like Monsanto Canada v. Schmeiser. The defendant, Percy Schmeiser, had grown canola independently for 50 years, saving seeds from one crop cycle to the next. By the mid-1990s, farms near Schmeiser’s had begun to use Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” GMO seeds, and in 1998, he discovered that some of his own crops were displaying the herbicide resistance characteristic of Monsanto’s proprietary seeds. Schmeiser did not exploit this for commercial gain, and even Monsanto would eventually admit that he did not intend to grow these plants: it’s likely that the seeds were carried into his fields over the wind, or that their genes entered his crop through the natural process of cross-pollination. There’s little Schmeiser could have done to prevent the Monsanto seeds from entering his farm. Nevertheless, Monsanto sued him for patent infringement. They won the case.
In 2016, Luke Bryan coordinated Farm Tour with the release of new, farm-centric EP called Farm Tour…Here’s to the Farmer. For Brandon Soderberg, in the debut issue of his country zine Daddy Lessons, the EP’s song “Love Me in a Field” invokes the 1979 porn film Summer in Heat, best known for the scene “where Jack Wrangler gets a big ear of corn shoved in his asshole.” Daddy Lessons thus declares “Love Me in a Field” the best bro country song of 2016. The verdict on the rest of EP is less enthusiastic. “Here’s to the Farmer stinks for the reasons a lot of things in this country stink,” Soderberg writes, “plenty of sympathy, maybe even empathy, but a profound lack of solidarity.”
Perhaps what Soderberg means is that, although the Farmer EP praises small farmers and names some of their struggles, it never names an enemy – whatever it is they’re struggling against. This failing makes the struggle seem abstract, more existential than material, and the farmers themselves become little more than cutouts, nostalgic archetypes in a Nashville songwriter’s white pastoral fantasy. This nostalgia is jarring particularly in the context of the changes described above, but I don’t believe that it’s accidental. The EP’s title track is representative. It depicts an honest every-farmer patriarch who works every day until the sun goes down, at which point he sits for dinner and says grace with perfect nuclear family: a son, a daughter and a “farmer’s wife / that loves him every night.” The song slides beyond even anachronism when Bryan asks the listener to a raise a glass not just to the farmer but also “the banker downtown that got him on his feet with handshake money.”
Why, in a tribute to farmers, are we asked to toast the person who owns the farmer’s debt? In country music, such a line is almost unprecedented. Since the 1920s, few genres have been so reliably anti-banker. This isn’t just true among radicals like Woody Guthrie, the singers whose music would eventually be embraced as folk, but even conservatives like George Strait, whose song “Give Me More Time” depicts a farmer trying to avoid foreclosure, and Hank Williams, Jr., who sang on his 1981 song “Give a Damn,” “Let’s forget about the banker / Let’s try to help our neighbors.” But “Here’s to the Farmer” attempts to recuperate that banker, not just including them among the neighbors but singling them out for praise and gratitude.
More than a song and an EP, “Here’s to the Farmer” was the slogan of a new ad campaign Bayer launched in conjunction with Bryan’s release. These projects are inextricable. The nostalgic orientation of the Here’s to the Farmer EP can only be understood with the aims of Bayer’s ad campaign in mind.
Bryan’s songs attempt to recenter the farmer at the exact moment when farm labor is being automated and independent farmers themselves eclipsed. At first, this seems like a contradiction, yet it’s completely in line with the angle taken by Bayer’s marketing. The company’s internal research has found that “consumers remain emotionally skeptical about trusting science and research” in the field of agriculture. Many farmers have similar fears. The Luke Bryan partnership is designed to change this, using the singer’s relaxed drawl and affable reputation to reassure the public that Bayer is working to make their lives easier.
In advertisements, concerts and the Farmer EP, Bryan helps Bayer automate farming by avoiding almost all talk of automation. Bayer’s “Here’s to the Farmer” TV commercial opens with Bryan standing in an open field, speaking of his “friends at Bayer” and their “passion” for “feeding the world.” He bridges the gap between Bayer and farmers the way a mutual acquaintance might introduce two guests at cookout. When the moment’s right, he carefully praises Bayer’s “solutions for farmers” while a camera shows the inside of a tractor filled with digital equipment.
The commercial concludes with Bryan directing his fans to tweet the hashtag #HerestotheFarmer. The singer claims that Bayer will donate one meal to charity for every hashtag posted, though according to Bayer’s math, one “meal” meant a donation of just nine cents and the company’s goal of one million “meals” meant a max donation of $90,000. That didn’t stop music magazines, farming websites and local news broadcasts from praising Bryan and Bayer’s generous charity. Some directed viewers and readers to the website HerestotheFarmer.com. The site has the same name as Bryan’s EP, displays Bryan’s tour dates and links to the “Here’s to the Farmer” music video, but the URL itself appears to be owned solely by Bayer.
Bryan’s publicist declined to answer a list of questions I sent regarding her client’s relationship with Bayer. She also declined to comment on why the Here’s to the Farmer EP did not come out Capitol Records Nashville, the label that released all of Bryan’s previous recordings. It instead came out on something called Row Crop Records, the LLC for which was established under the name of Bryan’s lawyer about a month before the music hit stores. The label is connected to no other release, and reference to it appears only in Here’s to the Farmer’s copyright. Whether or not this means Bayer funded the EP, the context of thematic coordination suggests some kind of involvement – at the very least an implicit limit on what can be said.
The patronage relationship between Bayer and Bryan aside, the sort of conspiracy narrative that imagines pop stars solely as marionettes controlled by sponsors and labels doesn’t tell the whole story. The same developments we see in the agriculture industry – processes like automation, and the shift from owning to licensing – are also remaking country music, both the way it’s made and the way it’s consumed. Just as hired farmers are losing work to robots like Prospero, so session musicians, especially those that play on demo recordings, are finding their instruments replaced by GarageBand loops. And where fans once purchased CDs by their favorite artists for a one-time payment of 10 to 20 dollars, they are now pushed toward subscription services where they rent access to that same music for a fee of 10 dollars monthly.
Like precision technology in agriculture, this new business model reorients the music industry in the direction of data. Consumption habits, like plant growth in drone-monitored field, become data points. These data points, analyzed and packaged by companies like Spotify, or its subsidiary the Echo Nest, become commodities themselves. Last summer, the Texas country singer Josh Abbott explained to Rolling Stone how he uses Spotify to determine where people are listening to him and thus where he should tour. “Now that the live shows make up probably 80 percent or more of artists’ gross income,” he said, “I view the songs we put out as the marketing to get people to the product, which is now your live show, where your margins are better.” For Abbott, the song is no longer an end in itself. It’s a way to mine data, and advertising for something down the road.
But why are live margins are so much better? One answer brings us back to sponsorship: The decline in record sales has opened the door for corporations like Bayer to increase their presence in country music. Today, ads play on stadium jumbotrons in between the sets of almost every major country tour. Some tours even incorporate ads into the show, playing them when the room is dark between the main set and the encore. A venture like Farm Tour would not be possible without this kind of support. According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Bryan, the 2017 tour required a convoy of 60 buses and tractor-trailers, moving over 100 crew members. This for shows where attendance only reaches about 10,000 people and most tickets are sold general admission.
There’s not a lot of money here for Luke Bryan, but for Bayer, access to this market is nearly priceless, well worth underwriting much of the tour’s expense. More than just sponsor the 2017 Farm Tour, or change the name to Bayer Presents Luke Bryan Farm Tour, Bayer set up onsite booths to advertise products like K9 Advantix and “crop science brands” like Bayer Advanced, Credenz, Stoneville and Fibermax. Bryan’s crowd skews young, but someday, perhaps in the very near future, many of the 20-somethings at these shows will take on the job of farm management. Bayer wants them to trust the brand – and trust new technologies – the way older farmers often don’t.
Those new technologies are making farming in 2018 even stranger than Lewontin and Berlan could have imagined. Today, the act of sowing seeds, something the older scholars took for granted, is itself targeted for extinction. Just as pesticide growth slowed in 1980s, seed growth hit a similar wall in the early 2000s. Seed companies responded by increasing prices, but this only worked in the short term – farmers were willing to pay more in part because GMO seeds made things like fertilizer application easier, allowing them to cut labor costs. When commodities prices stalled around 2008, farmers could no longer pay the new rates. And just as in the ’80s, the slowdown has led to new mergers. Dow Chemical merged with DuPont. Monsanto tried and failed to buy the Swiss company Syngenta, which in turn was acquired by ChemChina. Monsanto shareholders then pressured the company into taking the buyout offered by Bayer.
These giants, in turn, have padded their precision operations by acquiring as many tech start-ups they can afford. The goal is to reduce labor costs even further – to “alleviate the physical work of the farmer,” thus allowing farmers to lay off their employees or, if they’ve already done so, to drive an Uber on the side. Monsanto, for instance, has recently acquired the robotics company Precision Planting; soil sensor firms Solum and SupraSensor; and, most importantly, at the price of $1 billion, a weather company called the Climate Corporation. Climate Corporation may be one of the most important pieces in Bayer’s own acquisition of Monsanto, though Bayer itself had previously purchased its own software companies like proPlant and Zoner and worked with robotics firm F. Poulsen Engineering.
In “A Country Boy Can Survive” Hank Williams, Jr.‘s white-collar foil is a third-generation businessman living in New York City. Today, that businessman’s own kids might be investing in agriculture. They may even have moved west, to Silicon Valley. Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs are notorious for affecting farmers by manipulating the commodity market, but today, finance capital is attempting to insert itself deeper into the actual methods of farming. According to AgFunder, an “online investment marketplace” open only to accredited investors, investment in ag-tech is growing at an astronomical pace. In 2012, the investments tracked by AgFunder totaled only about $500,000. By 2015, the number had risen to $4.6 billion. It is surely higher today, and Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2050 this market could be worth $240 billion. WinterGreen Research predicts that the market for agricultural robots alone will reach $16.3 billion in the next two to three years. Already, venture capital is flowing not just from Bayer and Monsanto, but outside companies like Microsoft, Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures.
Climate Corporation, founded by two former Google employees, originally used satellite forecasts to sell weather insurance to ski lodges and farmers. Now, integrated into Monsanto, it sells subscriptions like “Climate FieldView Pro.” For three to four dollars per acre, a farmer receives satellite data collected on weekly flyovers, combined with “sensing data from row units, soil measurements, drones, weather stations [and] Doppler weather stations.” The bet is that subscriptions like this will become as standard as annual seed and pesticide purchases. They can then be used to enforce what Howard calls “tied monopolies.” Already, Monsanto forces farmers who plant Monsanto seeds to purchase Monsanto pesticides. Services like Climate FieldView can extend and enforce this control. It’s easy to imagine: FieldView subscribers would have to sign a contract that requires them to use only the Bayer-Monsanto pesticides its algorithm recommends. Then, if a subscriber applies anything different, or if anything different is merely blown into a subscriber’s field, soil censors notify the company that the contract has been breached.
This is farming in the age of big data. It’s too early to tell what will happen if precision instruments become as common as GMO seeds, but independent observers like the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) have some deep concerns. IPES’s most recent report, “Too Big to Feed,” foresees more tied monopolies and even more foreclosures: “Data-driven agriculture reinforces the need for farms to scale up and draw on credit, as generally only larger mono-cropping operations can afford the specialized machinery and communication technology necessary to benefit from Big Data analyses.” Small farmers, the kind that often find themselves the subjects of country songs, will be hit hardest and foreclose most often.
Because submitting to these monopolies is so often a losing proposition, the industry is fighting a battle not just for legal hegemony, but the hearts and minds of the heartland. We already know with certainty that direct product placement has made its way into country music. In 2012, Jason Aldean’s single “Take a Little Ride” was serviced to country radio with a line in which the singer decides to “swing by the Quick Stop, grab a little Shiner Bock.” But then Aldean signed an endorsement deal with Coors, and his management asked programmers to begin spinning a new version that foregoes the Shiners for “a couple Rocky Tops.” This is the version that hit Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and now plays on streaming sites like iTunes.
Such sponsorship is not an entirely new development. The Grand Ole Opry radio show started as a way to sell life insurance. Bands like the Light Crust Doughboys were even created by companies – in this case, the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company – to advertise products in their songs and on the radio. Bro country is especially fertile for advertisers, in part because its lyrical form often replaces conventional storytelling with lists of cultural referents, the sum of which constitute a “country” identity shared between artist and listener. Luke Bryan’s most recent single, “What Makes You Country,” takes this model and expands its scope. The song starts like a track on the Here’s to the Farmer EP, the singer recalling his roots “on a no-cab tractor hauling them bale.” That’s what makes him country, but, he explains, there other ways to be country too. Even people from the city can be country, if they’re lucky enough to have been “converted by an Alabama song on the radio.” The meaning of country can differ to the singer and the listener, and Luke is fine with that. “You do your kind of country… I do my kind of country,” he concludes just before the instrumental begins to fade out.
This kind of pluralism is incompatible with “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Yet Bryan’s tune is not the first to deviate from Hank Williams, Jr.‘s story of the farmer’s secure rural dominion. In a 1985 song called “American Farmer,” Charlie Daniels Band warned that the country “better wake up” because the person who grows its food is being “treated like a outlaw.” He could be talking about the Monsanto lawsuits that began over a decade after the track hit radio. “We’re… standing on the sidelines and watching him fall / Selling his land to the big corporations / What you gonna do when they get it all?” Sawyer Brown’s 1992 hit “Cafe on the Corner” tells the story of one such farmer. When the song’s main character is priced out of agriculture, he takes a job at a local restaurant and finds himself serving a whole community of “farmers without fields” stuck in the same predicament.
On “Last of a Dying Breed,” from 2005, a song with a spoken-word introduction from General Tommy Franks, Neil McCoy frets that the kind of country boys who can survive are literally all perishing. More troubling still is Ryan Upchurch’s “hick-hop” track “Can I Get a Outlaw,” an underground hit with a hook from rising country star Luke Combs. “Where’s all my country folk that actually can go survive?” he asks. Hank Williams, Jr.‘s apocalyptic scenario feels close at hand, and Upchurch is ready for retribution: “When that stock market crashes I’ll be somewhere deep off in these pines / Killing shit, kicking ass and taking what the hell is mine.” Were he born 150 years earlier, Upchurch might have been a follower of agrarian reformer Henry George, yet here, he veers right. Like Williams, Jr., he warps the categories of “country” and “self-reliance” through prisms of race and nationalism. In the “Outlaw” music video, he displays no less than seven confederate flags while rapping the quoted verse. His official merchandise includes a T-shirt that prints the words “Fuck off we’re full” inside a map of the United States.
Upchurch seems to be addressing Luke Bryan when he criticizes the popularity of country artists who take the stage wearing “skinny jeans, smiling like a covergirl.” Bryan, it seems, is not country enough for Upchurch. Yet the very success that Upchurch despises makes the singer a useful barometer for developments that exceed him. Their divergence is clear in the contents of two more of Bryan’s songs: “Muckalee Creek Water,” from 2011, and “Huntin’, Fishin’, Lovin’ Every Day,” a Number One hit five years later.
Both tracks bring the singer to the same place, a 76-mile stream in southwest Georgia. The first song hews closely to the template set by “A Country Boy Can Survive.” With a distorted guitar riff crunching behind him, Bryan welcomes a future where he retreats here to hunt his own food and drink his own moonshine:
I feel right at home in this neck of the woods.
If this was all I had, then I’d be living good.
So let the stock market do what it’s gonna do.
Let the dollar go down and gas up to the roof.
At first listen, “Huntin’, Fishin’, Lovin’ Every Day” seems to announce the fulfillment of this vision. Bryan is back in the same river, self-sufficient, and the defiance in “Muckalee Creek Water” has given way to dreamy satisfaction. But the bridge reveals a twist. First, when Bryan slows the song to address the listener, it’s revealed that his audience isn’t other farmers but city-dwellers doing wage labor in skyscraper cubicles. “So while y’all are up there / Breathin’ in that old dirty air / I’ll be down here, knee deep, in the Muckalee,” he says. He sing the title once, then reveals he too belongs to the city. “Y’all close them eyes,” he continues. “Let’s go there in our mind.” The whole thing is a fantasy.
It’s tempting to end on a positive note, perhaps by imagining a happy future where country stars, when they sing about farming, grow to make music that actually is born of solidarity, unafraid to name the people and organizations against whom we must struggle. But many who start here with the best of intentions soon forsake country for its NPR-approved cousin “Americana,” a supposedly progressive alternative to country that barely seems to progress at all.
That’s not to say we should necessarily be optimistic about pop country either. Rather than the scenario described above, it’s just as easy to imagine a dystopian future where farming, like most things, is fully automated, yet Nashville stars keep trotting out “Country Boy Can Survive,” the song becoming more important as the skills of survival become more removed. A future where “farmer” survives as an identity wholly removed from any actual farming. This seems to be the future that singers like Chris Janson, a former Farm Tour opening act, are preparing for. Like grape drink that contains no actual grape juice, Janson’s 2017 song “Who’s Your Farmer” is notable mostly for the fact that, despite its title, it contains no actual farming, only an awkward metaphor for making love. Janson sings of “plantin’ them kisses” and tells his partner he’ll “lay your life out in pretty little rows.” The innuendo grows increasingly absurd as it builds toward a sort of climax where the singer implies intercourse with the line “let me show you how to drop a row marker.”
If country music is so thoroughly compromised, like Luke Bryan’s Bayer-funded paeans to the American farmer, why continue to listen? Regardless of these corporate ties, the music of Bryan, for instance, can not be reduced to this relationship. His use of pop repertoire, dance beats and even his corporate patronage make him the heir to Western Swing groups like the Burrus Mill and Elevator’s Light Crust Doughboys. The first time I saw him live, at the New York City venue Terminal 5 in 2011, he finished with a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” that made a lot of straight men visibly uncomfortable.
Over the past decade, a new generation of music critics and academics has forced their disciplines to reassess a long-standing prejudice against country music. Some find theoretical justification in Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of class and taste, concluding that bias against country music in fact expresses a bias against working-class people. This point often holds true, but it says nothing to or about working-class people who reject country music themselves. Such listeners are entirely absent from studies like Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music by Nadine Hubbs. Hubbs correctly rejects the idea that working-class country fans are deluded by false consciousness, yet her analysis so thoroughly identifies what she calls the “white working class” with country music that white working-class dissenters against the genre – rap, metal, and even “Americana” fans among them – now appear guilty of some false consciousness of their own: they have betrayed their class by adopting what Hubbs understands to be a “middle-class” position.
Even as a country fan, I’m not convinced. Everywhere in the United States, there live working class people who don’t like country music. It is a mistake to reduce this aesthetic judgement entirely to an aspirational identification with the middle class. Just as often, perhaps more often, it reflects the belief that country music too often presents an account of working class life that’s limited or even false – that in fact it speaks very poorly on the working class’s behalf.
Perhaps because of this blind spot, Hubbs undertheorizes country’s own move toward the middle class. A recent survey by the Country Music Association put the average household income of country fans $81,900 per year, $5,000 higher than that of the average pop fan. An earlier report claimed that half of people who make over $100,000 consider themselves country fans. Same for one-third, perhaps more, of those with professional or managerial jobs. The CMA has actively courted these listeners, often with marketing copy that, like Hubbs’s book, portrays the genre as a vehicle for truth.
Harlan Howard famously described country music as “three chords and the truth.” This connection-turned-cliché is one reason why companies like Bayer work so hard to become associated with country music. There’s reason to doubt the political efficacy of benefit concerts, and one may certainly hesitate to call for more, but in the 1980s and ’90s Farm Aid somewhat successfully used music – especially rock and country – to link farming with liberal politics suspicious of big business. These politics may be milquetoast, but for corporations like those described above, that link can pose an existential threat – a bigger threat even than the money that Farm Aid raises for charity, the organization’s nominal purpose. The Here’s to the Farmer campaign should be understood in part as an intervention responding to this particular problem. Its purpose is not just to build brand awareness in the United States, but to break this chain: to encourage country listeners to identify less with a political position than with the brands themselves.
This state of affairs is troubling, but there is no reason to assume it should be final. A corresponding intervention might not just attempt to undo the advances of companies like Bayer, but rather to raise the stakes further, beyond even the bourgeois politics of organizations like Farm Aid. Such a move only seems far-fetched if we fix country to descriptors like “conservative” and “traditional” while ignoring the antagonisms that take shape in the music itself.
One such antagonism lies between the desire for autonomy or self-sufficiency and growth of capitalism, which requires people to submit to the market. Country music may be used to reinforce this submission, but intervention in country music might also attempt to change the way this desire is articulated within the genre, linking its fulfillment to a new anticapitalist politics. Something like this can only happen through engagement with country music and the spaces in which it takes place. If it doesn’t happen, we might expect to hear more songs like Upchurch’s revanchist rap. Lacking anti-capitalist politics, this same desire for self-sufficiency can produce not socialism but nativism and fascism.
Meanwhile, many of the farmers that country music claims to be speaking for continue to engage in their own forms of cultural resistance, in Raymond Williams’s pre-industrial sense. After the ratification of NAFTA in 1994, indigenous farmers in Mexico, often aligned with the Zapatista movement, rejected hybrid corn seeds, arguing that they displaced native plants and destabilized local economies. In 2010, a group of Haitian peasants promised to burn hybrid seeds that Monsanto shipped into the country in the guise of earthquake relief. Now, back in the United States, two new varieties of open-pollinated corn seed have been bred specifically so that farmers can save their seeds without risking cross-pollination from hybrids or GMOs in neighboring fields. Their names? “Rebellion” and “Revolt.”