Love is in the air in Rural America. Farmers seeking mates can visit Farmersonly.com, an online dating service designed especially for rural people or those seeking the country lifestyle. And if one can’t find a mate for the “simple life “in cyberspace, there’s always Reality Television.
FreemantleMedia, the production company that brought us “The Price is Right” and “American Idol,” recently held auditions for its proposed show “The Farmer Wants a Wife.” The show has already debuted to strong reviews in European markets. The idea behind the show is to match up busy young farmers with city women who want to live the “traditional” lifestyle of a small farm (whatever that means in our highly technologized age). The casting team recently held well-attended auditions in Nebraska, producer Julie Uribe’s home state, as well as in California, Ohio, and Texas.
Farmers are a practical and innovative lot, and when they see a potential solution to a problem, they try it out. . So I don’t blame the male farmers lining up to audition for the show. It is hard to meet women when you’re farming twelve hours a day and when the nearest night club is the Grange Hall.
However, John Hansen, President of the Nebraska Farmers’ Union, is concerned that “The Farmer Wants a Wife” will portray farmers as a bunch of “hayseeds.” Even some of the farmers who recently auditioned for the show worry that they might be portrayed as rednecks or simpletons. Concerns over the show’s potential portrayal of farmers are well-founded as rural people often end up as fodder for hicksxplotiation films and television shows. On one end of the extreme, farmers are often revered as noble yeomen, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the chosen people of God.” On the other end of the extreme, they are the overall wearing, “golly gee hayseeds” of children’s books and television shows or the “tebaccy” chewing rednecks of B-list films.
Farming as an occupation also gains mixed press. Often, farmers are depicted as fat cats drawing on farm subsidies (living off so-called “agriwelfare”) or they are portrayed as an endangered species, as those who are obsolete, losing their farms and way of life because they are not sufficiently modernized or efficient. Never mind who really profits from farm subsidies (often large, corporate farms), and never mind the farm policies that have driven medium and small producers into the ground and off their land. That’s a story that won’t make it on reality TV or if it does, it will be a 20 second scene accompanied by sad fiddle music.
Could it be that the “simple” in the “Simple Life” (another “reality TV” farce set in rural America) refers to the naive view that many hold of rural life in general, and farm life in particular? Although we eat every day, how many consumers of food living in urban and suburban areas really understand what it means to be a farmer, let alone a farmer’s wife? And by the way, let’s not forget that women are farmers, too. If the producers of the show are going to really take up the challenge that farmers face finding a suitable mate, they should consider matching a woman farmer with a male city slicker looking for his heartland honey. And what about Brokeback Mountain cowboys and cowgirls-those who seek love with the same sex? What kind of billing will they get?
For the “Sex in the City” women earnestly seeking those heartland hunks, I’d suggest, before you sign the contract, checking out a true “reality show”: The Farmer’s’ Wife, the much-watched 1998 PBS documentary series featuring Nebraska farmers Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter (see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/farmerswife/). David Sutherland’s documentary provides insights about what it means to be in a marriage where farming is at the center: dealing with stress, in-laws, loan officers, large farm debt, low prices, crop failures, and second jobs. While I agree with critics like A.V. Krebs that the PBS documentary is not as instructive as it could be about the current state of the family farm and farm policy, there are insights here about what it means to be married to a farm as well as to a farmer.
I would like to challenge the producers of The Farmer Wants a Wife to do more than strike the twangy-chords of Reality-TV induced rural romance. Try to tell more than a one-dimensional story about American agricultural life and the relationships of those engaged in it– for that is a story the American public needs just as much as those farmers need their wives.
Eileen Schell grew up on a third-generation family farm in eastern Washington state. She is Associate Professor of Writing at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org