Amber waves of pain
The grim truths behind Big Beer's American heartland fetish
On May 9, 2021, Busch Light announced a partnership with John Deere. In a series of limited-edition cans, the iconic blue and white Busch mountains were now green and white, and in front of them was a field filled with yellow corn stalks and a John Deere tractor. “For the farmers” was written at the top.
Busch announced that for every can sold, it would donate $1 to Farm Aid (up to a total of $100,000) and that John Deere would match the donation. Farm Aid is an organization that offers material assistance to struggling family farmers.
Corporate culture is caught in the gravitational pull of the myth of America’s middle spaces.
Farmers account for less than 1 percent of the population in America. But the American farm occupies an outsized role in the corporate imagination. Chipotle’s food is straight from the farm (or so the company says). On the eighth day, God made a farmer, a Ford commercial declares. It’s a pandering appeal to heartland values, which can be summarized by the lyrics to a 1985 Miller High Life commercial.
Where I come from folks stand proud and tall.
They’ll look you in the eye.
A place where pride is a whole lot more than money can buy.
Where people care about their families.
Where laughter’s sincere.
Where your word is your word.
A friend is a friend.
And Miller’s your beer.
In that commercial, when the singer drawls out “USAAAAA,” the image of a combine in a corn field flashes on screen. The message is clear: America, real America, is in the fields and the farms.
Brands like Busch and Miller High Life want to align themselves with the essence of being American. Or, at least, the imagined idea of what is American. In this narrative, America is open spaces — green fields, blue skies, a lone farmer in a field with nothing but a tractor and nature to keep him company.
The mythologized emptiness of America’s heartland makes it the perfect place to project our cultural and corporate hopes. The American Midwest, in the corporate imagination, is a neutral space. Apolitical, vast, empty, full of promise. Politicians glom to this image, too. It’s nearly impossible for a politician, Republican or Democrat, to launch a campaign in most parts of America without appearing before a green field with their sleeves rolled up.
But this image of America is more fiction than reality. And imagining the heart of America as empty space relies on a violent erasure of history. America is a large country, but not the largest — Russia, Canada, and China all have more land mass. And 83 percent of Americans live in urban areas, up from 64 percent in 1950. This slow population bleed from rural America didn’t happen by accident. It’s a result of systemic racism, Native American genocide, and destructive corporate farming practices, among other things.
America’s heartland was intentionally disemboweled. Native Americans lived here long before the Westward expansion of the American government. In April of 1862, Black Hawk leaders fought hard against the growing land grab in Illinois and Michigan, but the war was short-lived. After that, the American government chopped up the Midwest into parcels, doling them out to white immigrants who would stay and cultivate the land. Iowa was divided into lots of 160 acres. It took only 40 years for Iowa to become covered with small farms. By the 1930s, the mechanization of pig slaughterhouses was consolidating hog farms. And chicken production followed in the 1950s, as post-war American industry pushed for bigger growth and wider profit margins.
By the 1970s, Earl Butz, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, was pushing the idea of the large-scale American farm. “Get big or get out,” he liked to say. Many farmers went deep into debt to buy expensive equipment and more land. A decade later, under President Ronald Reagan — as interest rates rose and the Soviet Union enacted an embargo against U.S. grain — farming hit a crisis.
It only got worse when the head of the U.S. Farmers Home Administration, Charles W. Shuman, issued a directive in 1981 to reduce loan delinquencies — meaning that instead of offering extensions on loan repayments for farmers already crushed by the global markets, the federal government was prioritizing repayments and, if necessary, foreclosures. State directors were offered bonuses for foreclosures. The result was disastrous. Farmers lost their homes and their livelihoods. And the desperation drove up rates of suicide and even murder by desperate farmers.
Rural America still hasn’t recovered. Banks closed. Post offices left. Schools consolidated. Once-thriving towns are now bedroom communities.
Corporate America and government policies and systemic racism cored out the heart of America. But the fields of corn are still used as a staging ground for sales tactics. Big companies will pander to the middle while providing nothing more than cheap beer and menial minimum-wage jobs. America’s green fields should be more than a marketing gimmick.
These aren’t the only ways Middle America was gutted. As formerly enslaved Black Americans fled the South looking for work, the Midwest made itself unwelcome with the creation of sundown towns, where Black people weren’t welcome after dark. Redlining practices also helped keep the Midwest very white. These practices became federally subsidized when, in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt launched the Federal Housing Administration as part of the New Deal. The FHA was designed to encourage home ownership; it also helped entrench racial segregation by helping to deny mortgages to Black Americans. And FHA subsidized homes in white-only developments that had racial covenants forbidding owners to sell to people of color.
Writing in the Washington Post, Aaron Kinard explains that the impulse of people in the Midwest to declare their niceness and neutrality only deepens racial divides, “When White Midwesterners deny the histories of structural racism that shaped their region, they can see themselves as being outside of racism. But people can disdain racial slurs and embrace the trope of ‘Midwestern nice’ politeness — and still be embedded in a broader system of exclusion and violence that harms Black Americans.”
Images of American farmland swathed in rows of soy and corn are also images of poison. Every year, thousands of pounds of hog shit are sprayed on fields and run off into streams and rivers, making their way into the Missouri and Mississippi river basins. Iowa’s agricultural waste has played a huge role in creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is an oxygen depleted area of the ocean.
Researcher Chris Jones writes in his book Swine Republic that the Midwest looks nothing like what it did when Native tribes occupied this land. What we think of as good earth, wholesome outdoor living, is killing us.
There are more realities erased when we fail to see America’s heartland as it truly is. Farmers are at increased risk of dying by suicide. Gun violence in rural areas is higher than in cities. Forty-three percent of all fatal crashes involving alcohol occurred in rural areas.
There is no place in America that is better than any other. Laughter in America’s heartland isn’t more genuine than in New York City. The heartland is not outside of or above America’s political divisions, it’s not a neutral space; it is not nicer, or more genuine than any other part of America. And when corporations fetishize farmers and fields, they work to ignore the violent realities that are roiling beneath the ground.
📬 Good post(s) alert
🤨 The “beer question,” questioned
Hey! It’s Dave again. Because Lyz’s generosity knows no bounds—none, I tell you! Not one bound!—she let me take the reins at Men Yell at Me today, where I wrote about the pernicious political myth of “the guy you’d want to have a beer with.” Here’s a teaser:
Politicians are not your friends! It’s weird to treat them like drinking buddies, celebrities, or—god forbid—sex symbols! They are supposed to be improving your life, not handing you a High Life! If the chill-seeming guy next to you at the bar turns out to be doing crimesdoing crimes, it’s pretty easy to move seats. If the chill-seeming presidential candidate turns out to be doing crimesdoing crimes, it’s considerably less easy to move countries. For these reasons and many more, the “beer test” isthe “beer test” is a deranged rubric with which to evaluate someone who wants to play quarterback with the nuclear football. Yet as this country’s lift-kit bourgeoisie goes Nazi and hellfire blankets the land, it persists. Why?
That’s the question I tried to answer in my piece. Please go read it right now!
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