Williams Supplement Essay 2012 Ford

Why Tufts?

Looking for examples of past college essays that worked? These are some admissions essays that our officers liked best from last year.

Jonathan Marc Leon-Salans '20
Chevy Chase, MD

The Super Show was, for me, the defining moment of the Voices of Tufts program. From students “Banging Everything At Tufts” to slam poetry, and from African to Indian dance, Tufts' amazing diversity was on full display. People from all different backgrounds were not only performing in the show but also watching it, and all of us were having the best time. It was clear to me that, at Tufts, differences are not only accepted, but celebrated. It was the moment I realized Tufts is the place for me. On no other campus have I felt so welcome and embraced.

Yang Lowe '21
Beijing, China

I never imagined I would be talking to Jumbos about everything from ethics in politics to squid in bibimbap, but my conversations with students during my visit confirmed everything I love about the school. Tufts is a uniquely curious, playful and collaborative platform that exudes intellectual diversity like none other. I can study anything from genetics to psychology, and pursue anything from the Entrepreneurship to the Culinary Society. As a metal guitarist who enjoys woodworking and reading up on human behavior, I've never felt like I fit neatly into one category. At Tufts, I won't have to.

Jesse Ryan ’21
Concord, MA

I spent my Tufts campus visit in a "Sociology of War and Peace" class. The discussion was rich as ideas were tossed back and forth, comparing and contrasting modern warfare in different regions and cultures.  The dialogue instantly excited me, but when the students I was sitting with invited me to come to lunch with them, to continue talking about the Middle Eastern conflict, I knew that Tufts was the kind of environment I was looking for: an open community that values dialogue, and a campus with a strong intellectual pulse, even outside of the classroom.

Isaac Joon-hyuk Choi ’21
Saint Joseph, MO

As an artist, I believe that one's work should reflect the world beyond it. Thus, I'm most attracted to Tufts SMFA's combination of rigorous artistic study with a challenging liberal arts curriculum at the School of Arts and Sciences. I want to inform my art-making with in-depth exploration of sociology, justice, and international relations, creating works that comment on global issues--a prospect uniquely possible at Tufts SMFA. With numerous opportunities for combining art and community work on campus and in Boston, the SMFA program shows art isn't only meant for the classroom; it's meant for the world.

Christopher Sprunt ’21
Hudson, OH

I vividly remember stepping onto the roof of Tisch Library and seeing a group of kids sitting in hammocks, overlooking the Boston skyline. I briefly tuned out my tour guide's presentation and began to eavesdrop. The students covered everything from physics to what they had for lunch that day. When they spoke about physics, they did not speak with pretension; instead they spoke with passion. Likewise, when they spoke about something as simple as lunch, they did so with witty intrigue. Tufts students are as interesting as they are interested. This description not only resonates with me, it defines me.

Plearn Arronchote ’21
Bangkok, Thailand

I'm not a picky person, but in the college search, I sure was. Luckily, I found Tufts, a school that checked every box.

At Tufts, the many facets of my personality will be embraced. I can be an environmental engineer who does research in the Water: Systems, Science and Society program, takes US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, and stage-manages a musical. At Tufts, an institution that celebrates interdisciplinary learning, my diverse interests won't be met with judgmental indifference. Instead, they will be encouraged by peers who are just as enthusiastic about pretty much everything as I am.

Yarmina Kamal ’21
Mesa, AZ

I fell in love with Tufts Engineering because of its extended focus on society. With the school's emphatic value on civic engagement and a larger global conversation, the engineering program allows me to supplement my profound fascination for math and physics with my impassioned value on service and learning. My love for the world and for its people empowers me. I see this same kind of love reflected within the Tufts community, which is why I know with wholehearted certainty that Tufts University is where I belong in order to be both the engineer and person I aspire to be.

Esther Tzau ’21
Weston, MA

As a girl interested in computer science it's common when visiting university websites to utter "you go, girl" to the lone female faculty member smiling proudly amidst a male-dominated CS department. However, Tufts is a unique community that not only encourages minorities in STEM, but actively recruits female faculty like the spunky and inspirational activist/engineer/professor/entrepreneur Dr. Laney Strange, who I met at Girls Who Code. With my passions ranging from multimedia art to Latin American culture to CS, Tufts excites me since it's where diverse interests are celebrated and where I can have stimulating conversations with anyone I meet on campus.






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, YouTubefootage 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.”

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