Welcome to Modern Farmer's new column, Farm Pop, where we'll be examining all things farm that find their way into pop culture. First up? We take a look at the enduring image of the farmer's daughter.
For many people, their first farmer’s daughter is Laura Ingalls Wilder. It likely wasn’t their last.
From the beloved series of books to Melissa Gilbert’s almost unbearably earnest-faced TV version, Wilder has entered the hearts and minds of American children since the initial “Little House on the Prairie” book appeared in 1932. And aside from the occasional crop failure or locust swarm, it paints a pretty appealing picture of rural girldom — Laura is fundamentally kind-hearted but also kind of a bad ass. Laura rides horses! She does NOT wear her bonnet all the time, much to Ma’s chagrin! Cross her, and she won’t think twice about shoving you in the deep part of the creek with all the leeches!
So far so good.
On television after that, at least, it’s a pretty quick backslide into a hodge-podge of one-dimensional characters, women whose main characteristic is their apple-cheeked good looks and stern fathers. The most famous of this varietal is probably Daisy Duke from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” cousin to Bo and Luke, frequent car chase participant and wearer of eponymous, impractical cutoff shorts. (Oddly, Laura and Daisy’s time on TV overlapped each other’s for five years.)
Images of farmers’ daughters tend to swing on that pendulum, from wholesome to tempting. Call it a Laura-Daisy Complex.
Do a search for “farmer’s daughter” on Amazon.com and you will find: An MP3 of the Rodney Atkins country song “Farmer’s Daughter” (I’m on the tractor and she’s on my mind / And I can’t wait till it’s quittin’ time / And just when I think it can’t get no hotter / I come home to the farmer’s daughter), a book of Mennonite recipes, a pastoral jigsaw puzzle, a sexy joke-apron, and a 1986 copy of Playboy with a farmers’ daughters theme. (Playboy also produced a video about farmers’ daughters in the 1986. Major farm chores according to Playboy: Looking sun dappled, twirling in a see-through negligee in a hayloft, naked inner-tubing.)
Images of farmers’ daughters swing from wholesome to tempting. Call it a Laura-Daisy Complex.
The classic farmer’s daughter cliché, of course, is the old joke about the wanton and naïve daughter, taken advantage of by a traveling salesman or some other wanderer, who is subsequently chased off by a farmer with a shotgun. The trope was even lampooned in a 1996 episode of “Seinfeld” called “The Bottle Deposit” in which evil mailman Newman finds himself cast as the salesman.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this tawdry all the time — although determining exactly when this character appeared in mainstream culture is not easy.
“The interest in the farmer’s daughter has been around for a long, long, long, long time,” says Zachary Michael Jack, author of “The Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: In Search of an American Icon.” Jack, who comes from a long line of farmers, was inspired to write the book after visiting family gravesites in Iowa. He realized that he knew much more about the men whose names decorated the stones than the women, even though those women toiled right alongside their male counterparts.
“I think it really ramps up after the Industrial Revolution,” says Jack.
As men drifted towards urban centers and women stayed behind on the farm, “farmers’ daughters came to be a symbol for a kind of lost innocence as the developed world moved more towards industrialism.”
During the World War I, farmers’ daughters became a brass ring for the troops, who were constantly reminded that she was waiting for them back home. In World War II they achieved pinup status (“beautiful in a more wholesome way” says Jack) and by the ’50s and ’60s, farmers’ daughters had gradually become full-fledged sex symbols, in part because their images were being strained through an urban, Hollywood eye. (Hello, Daisy!)
These days, representations of farmers’ daughters in the media are harder to find, although there has been a rush recently to put rural people at the center of reality TV shows. A company approached Jack recently about recommending women to participate in a reality TV show about farmers’ daughters. He declined. But just because he isn’t amped to help cast a “Jersey Shore” knock-off in Kansas doesn’t mean he isn’t perturbed by the lack of farmers’ daughters in media.
“When farmers’ daughters disappear from the nation’s conscious and they are only represented through the most saccharine and flimsy stereotypes, it does great harm to the character of a nation,” says Jack.
Of course, if women weren’t capable of shrugging off annoying stereotypes with an eye-roll (and maybe a drink? what time is it?) we’d all have carpal tunnel from tapping out righteous missives to Halloween costume manufacturers. And the farmer’s daughter is no exception. But the most annoying thing about a stereotype is how it obscures a person’s true experience.
Which is why it’s nice to go straight to the source.
Recently, Modern Farmer asked to hear from actual farmers’ daughters and dozens of women responded to talk about growing up in agriculture — and what it means to them to be a farmer’s daughter. Some of the women who responded had picked what they liked from the media buffet, embracing the idea of being tough and sexy, discarding the rest. But perhaps the most common sentiment running through the emails were that women who grew up on farms, whether they toil in public relations or as a nurse today, felt they had a deep respect for the land. Childhoods spent birthing calves, driving tractors and fixing cars had imparted in them self-reliance and a respect for hard work. Below are edited excerpts from just some of the responses we received.
The first thing that comes to mind would be country music. I mean, how many songs have a line referencing a farmer’s daughter? You know, “cowboys dance with the farmer’s daughter” kinda stuff. But I would say most songs give us the image of being of high value, attractive, wholesome gals wearing daisy dukes and cowboy boots. I mean, lucky for us, not a bad image to have, but there is much more to us for sure. Whether you got the heck out of Dodge the first chance you got, or you stayed and became a new generation, I think most are grateful for being rural raised, riding bikes on dirt roads and getting an up close and personal lesson in hard work. — Megan Haverland, 27, Santa Monica (formerly of rural North Dakota), Public Relations Executive
Early on, I read “Little House on the Prairie”; “Sarah, Plain and Tall”; “Charlotte’s Web”; and “Anne of Green Gables”. I remember playing with the Little Tikes farm, which didn’t come with a girl toy, but I repurposed my Crystal Princesses. Later, I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Cold Mountain, and the Foxfire series. My mother’s, aunts’, grandmothers’, and great grandmothers’ stories of growing up with farmer fathers most definitely influenced my understanding my perception of what it meant to be a “farmer’s daughter.”…Although many families practiced strict gender roles, farming family stories also revealed to me that women were also capable of doing work outside of the home, like driving a tractor, milking a cow, or delivering a calf. — Lauren Wilson, 24, New York, NY (formerly of Bakersville, North Carolina), Digital Editor for Edible Brooklyn
At some point in the early aughts, I learned about the graphic tee and found one with the slogan “I’m Proud to be a Farmer’s Daughter.” I think I understood the irony associated with this particular slogan being marketed to urban hipsters, and it made me all the more proud to take ownership of the identity more literally. It was around the beginning of the DIY agrarian movement, so I do think the existence of that shirt was symptomatic of a larger shift toward embracing the farmer’s identity. That being said, I was always proud to be rural. When we were very young, my sister would call me a “city girl” whenever she wanted to enrage me. — Kristin Nothwehr, 25, New Haven, CT, (formerly of Clarinda, Iowa), student, working towards a Masters in architecture
On the farm:
One of the most frustrating and angst-y moments I ever had growing up was when I was 13. I remember my dad watching the weather channel deciding on if he should bale the hay or leave it overnight in case of rain. I told him not to do it. He did. It rained. The thing is, it didn’t start raining until 3:00 am. I remember at that moment how much I loathed the smell of leather gloves, which he threw at my head while telling me to get up, the tractor was running and we had 2 hours until the real storm was going to hit. If we didn’t get the bales in the barn before this down poor, we would lose 500 bales. I remember being so angry, which I took out on throwing the bales on the trailer while my dad stacked. I threw them so high over my head. I am not sure I could throw them that high ever again. As the sky started getting lighter, the rain started coming down harder, but we were able to save close to 400 bales, with just the two of us.— Janet MacDonald, 26, San Francisco, CA, nurse
I was convinced our farm, for some reason only an 8 year old could imagine, was going to be bombed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I heard a sonic boom (we were in the flight way of the SAC – Strategic Air Command out of Omaha) with two other sisters after getting off the bus and I was convinced we were going to die while Mom was shopping and Dad was busy combining that fall’s corn. One older sister decided that she was going to die and not die dieting. She constructed a sandwich of grand design of meats, cheeses and mortared with a jar of Miracle Whip and wolfed it down with gusto. Another sister wandered about the house in a daze awaiting our fate. — Phyllis Selby, Arkansas (formerly of Iowa)
From the time I could drag the plastic gallon-sized repurposed Gatorade jug up the driveway, it was my responsibility rain-or-shine to get fresh milk from the barn for the family. When I was going through my ‘beauty queen’ phase, I insisted on sporting my plastic purple Barbie heels up and down our gravel driveway — this certainly didn’t make lugging a sweaty gallon of cold milk up the hill any easier. But it did make me feel a little more glamorous. —Lauren
I can remember my dad driving me out to a pasture late one evening when a heifer was struggling to deliver a calf. We had to round her up and pull the calf, which turned out to be stillborn. It was a sad moment, but I remember feeling proud because we had managed to save the heifer. Participating in a small way in the lifecycle of these animals gave me such an appreciation for both its fragility and its persistence. —Kristin
On what it means to be a farmer’s daughter:
I may not be smokin’ hot and wearing daisy dukes every day but I can change my tire in a pair of stilettos, bust my ass to get the impossible done, know where my food comes from, shoot a gun, and know which direction is north. I can cook a meal with three ingredients, I know what ordering a black Angus steak actually means and exactly what went into that rib eye. I can tell you what soybean aphids are, the difference between Canadian thistle and lambsquarters …I also appreciate dirt under someone’s fingernails. It means work to me. —Megan
I feel somewhat conflicted about the designation in our current cultural moment, in that I often find myself at odds with friends with whom I normally see eye to eye. My parents’ farm is traditional farm, which is a term that is often mistakenly equivocated with the “factory farm”. It is a large farm by some standards, and a small farm by others. I frequently hear disparaging remarks regarding the disconnect between farmer and land associated with mainstream agricultural practice, which couldn’t be farther from my experience. I feel very lucky to have grown up so connected with the rhythms of the natural world, it’s made me much more conscientious of my own potential effect on the world around me. —Kristin
I had to learn about life and death, symbiotic relationships, steeping in poop, and the art (and sometimes mystery) of composting and herding cows. —Janet
People like to joke about the farmer’s daughters being the girls wearing the plaid shirts and daisy duke jeans. They are “stereotypically” the ditzy, kind hearted, slow thinking girls who get into a lot of trouble. I think that being raised on a farm is something to be proud of. I believe in #rockinruralwomen and that “farmer’s daughters” grow into fantastic people who do an amazing job of taking care of their families and communities. I think every girl in the world should take a moment and instead of making fun of the farmer’s daughter, she should figure out how to be more like her.— Katie Toney, 28, Saskatchewan, Canada, mother, rancher, photographer.
An enormous thank you to all the women who took the time to write to us about their experiences growing up on the farm.
BONUS: Farm Pop Roundup
It’s series premier season and, lo, the farm is this season’s favorite guest star. Let us count the ways. (Spoilers, we guess.)
Endlessly obsessed with surveillance, “The Good Wife” finally catches up to the Goat Cam craze.
“Downton Abbey” kicked off with Lady Mary encased in black, ignoring her baby and in a truly righteous fit of mourning for dead husband Matthew. Oh, but what should pull her out of that funk? Why, the Farmers’ Conference of course! The Earl of Grantham is plotting to keep Mary from attending a gathering of the farmers who lease Grantham land, but you can’t keep a Grantham/Crawley lady down. No, she WILL have opinions about the Farmers’ Conference and she WILL be heard.
Pictured above: Girl next to barn, circa 1941-2, Library of Congress via PINGnews
Correction: This article was corrected to reflect the fact that Daisy Duke was the cousin of Bo and Luke Duke, not their sister. We regret the error.