When the dust final settled and the media lost interest in the winners and losers, Beyonce and the stadium power outage, Super Bowl buzz focused on the Dodge Ram ad that incorporated the late Paul Harvey’s speech, “So God Made a Farmer.”
The legendary radio announcer penned the essay and delivered it verbally at the 1978 Future Farmers of America (FFA) national convention. It was never meant to help sell pickup trucks.
Rather, the message – much needed at the time – was to bolster confidence in and support of American farmers, who were beginning to suffer after several salad years in the early 1970s.
It was the beginning of a dark period for farm families from the Great Plains to the South and Midwest. The seeds had been planted for a massive failure that would be harvested in the early 1980s – the result of a perfect storm of lending practices, high debt, reduced price supports, the lowering of trade barriers and government policy.
The farm mortgage foreclosure disaster already was underway, and everyone involved in agriculture knew more and more farmers were behind on their notes and what was going to happen when the bankers clamped down tighter.
A severe national farm crisis was in progress. It would only get worse, but things were bad enough that farm organizations staged demonstrations in 1977 and 1978. The American Agriculture Movement led a farm strike in Washington, D.C. in January of 1978. It was punctuated by a 3,000-tractor protest parade — the first national “tractor-cade.” Farmers drove or hauled their tractors across the country to participate.
My recollection is that Dodge-Chrysler was not a sponsor, but an acquaintance of mine from Tennessee made national headlines when he drove his tractor into the Mall’s reflecting pool.
The main issue was the plight of small farmers, for whom price supports weren’t high enough for continued survival. They managed one major concession. The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) implemented a two-year moratorium on foreclosures. For many small operations, this only extended the waiting period before their eventual loss of land and equipment.
I recall when our local soybean farmers crashed and burned. They had seen their incomes rise in the early 1970s due to good yields and favorable markets. They extended themselves to buy or rent more land and equipment, then the bottom dropped out.
The social and human toll was high. Farm auction notices took up pages of space in local newspapers. Grain elevators closed, agricultural jobs were lost; rural communities diminished. I knew two bean farmers who committed suicide. In other parts of the nation, it was dangerous to be in the rural finance business. Several bankers were shot and killed by distraught farmers.
So when I saw the Super Bowl ad and heard Paul Harvey’s words, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer…” I knew that context and place in time had been sacrificed. History was being re-written or revised by marketing gurus to sell a line of pickup trucks.
The irony for all of us who remember the agriculture crises of the latter 20th Century is that there are fewer family farms now than then, fewer real farmers to buy Dodge trucks.
Paul Harvey, in his memorable way, composed “So God Made a Farmer” to console and support rural families during their trials and tribulations. It was and still is, in my opinion, not advertising copy.
Those FFA members who actually heard Harvey recite “So God Made a Farmer” probably were questioning their career paths at the time of the speech. It would become much more difficult to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. In truth, the period from which this speech arose was a sad chapter in American agriculture, not as bad as the Great Depression but bad enough.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.