Agriculture Wars

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 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.”

Author of the article

is journalist based in New York City. He is a former editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and has contributed to the New York Times, Pitchfork, and Vice.