Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dirty Kids With Shovels/ SUNY CoW 2016

[stock image of child with shovel and sapling]

Today I write to you about what I'm going to be talking about this weekend. A while back I wrote about the July 2014 National Conference on Horticulture in Ohio (Hort’14), and the 66th annual national convention for the Garden Writer's Association (GWA). Here's proof (with a very adorable bio):

Sustainability was a major focus of all the conversations. Specifically, the challenge of sustaining the industry by attracting young, creative, college-educated workers. With the average age of the American farmer at 58, there is a need to integrate actual millennials in all levels of agribusiness (beyond niche farming). Here they are trying to recruit me with an expensive trowel I won in a raffle. 

The closing keynote speaker at GWA 14, Paul Redman from Longwood Garden, stated that if agriculture is to be sustainable the first step is that “we need to stop taking pictures of students with shovels in their hands!" (Aug 11 2014).

Holy Effing Manure. No truer words had been spoken. The thing, THE THING that had kept me from dropping out of grad school (on the worst, and poorest days) was the fact that I did not DID NOT want to end up being dirty, and doing manual labor for the rest of my life. And my fear was that if I were to stay in the family landscaping business, that my only option was a life with a dirty shovel. This is also a reason I have stayed away from the "Farmers Only" dating website.

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I'm smart. I'm educated. Why didn't I realize prior to that moment that there were job-options in agribusiness that didn't require shovels? Why did I assume that I was just a dirty kid with a shovel, that would grow up to be a dirty adult with a shovel? At my college graduation party (which was landscape-themed) I rebelled with jewlry, straightened hair and makeup. And a hammer (one of the least-used tools in landscaping).

Paul made it pretty clear. The visual rhetoric of stereotypical, dirty farmer perpetuates the idea that agribusiness is fueled by underpaid, physical labor. The visual rhetoric of agribusiness in general perpetuates this myth. When I entered college, or grad school, there simply wasn't a pool of pictures of career options that were appealing to me as a critical-thinker.

Don't believe me? Google “students with shovels. These are the first 3, of 2,320,000 images returned to you. The first is an image of Emeril Lagasse's Foundation Kitchen Project.

 The next is from St. Paul's University College, University College, at the University of Waterloo. 


And the third is from Point Park University, PA.

These pictures were familiar to me. They were part of the vocabulary of "the only options" in agribusiness. What Paul pointed out that day was true. Moreover, it was reinforced by other things at the conference.  The opening keynote, Rick Darke, gave a talk called "Writing to The Palimpsest." The first words out of his mouth were directed at the audience. He said, "Palimpsest--how many of you use this word on a regular basis?" My hand shot up (lonely-like)..... People laughed, he and I talked afterwords.

In his talk he taught us about the landscape as palimpsest (and what that word meant--basically a text, or object, worked and reworked upon). Afterwords we talked about the need for bridging theory with horticulture. Finis Dunaway’s Seeing Green (2015) might argue that we have this hold-over of using images of young people in this way as a result of the visual history of the environmental movement. 

The great minds in Rural Literacies (Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell; 2007) might explain this residual visual rhetoric as another element in "the rhetoric of lack" pervading discourses of rural space, and working in that space. So do I have an answer? No. But maybe if I had seen pictures of people using their noggins, instead of shovels, I would have gone into an agricultural job, or found a way to join the family business in the 21st century.

We already know the stigmas about 'going into a trade' rather than 'going to college.' But if this industry continues to use imagery that asks young people to choose between brute strength and brains, we are going to have some major sustainability problems. No more pictures of dirty kids with shovels.

Show a multiplicity of career options that include reading dirt as a palimpsest.

And come to SUNY CoW 2016: