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The Farm Myth: Fantasy Farms, Factory Farming

by Vita Sleigh

Falmouth University

“It is an indication of the extent to which people are now isolated from the animals they eat that children brought up on storybooks that lead them to think of a farm as a place …[of] …idyllic conditions might be able to live out their entire lives without ever being forced to revise this rosy image” (Singer 1975).

In the forty years since Singer wrote his landmark book Animal Liberation, a farm myth still persists: a fairy-tale image of farming which is firmly rooted in children’s books about farms. Animal rights organizations have improved quality of footage and technologies with which to show images of farming, dissemination of which has been greatly helped by the rise of social media. As more people understand the truth about factory farming and seek alternatives, rosy perceptions of so-called “high welfare,” “free range,” and “humane” farms are pressed on buyers through the farm myth imagery in advertisements and packaging.

Children’s books about farms may be for many children their first introduction to conceptualizing animals within a framework of anthropocentrism and objectification. The impact of children’s books about farms is long-lasting: it is a cultural myth which acts as one of many barriers to people finding out, or fully comprehending, the reality of how animals who are (ab)used for food live their lives. For these reasons it is imperative that illustrators, publishers, and writers make a commitment to championing children’s books that do not romanticize or sanitize the farming industry or objectify farmed animals.

The farm myth is created and sustained in three main ways:

  1. Romanticization: The books romanticize the reality of farms in a way that is not accurate about the lives of farmed animals. This rosy view of farms can outlast childhood into adulthood, leaving the legacy exploitable by advertisements for animal products.
  1. Absence: The absence of suffering or death in the books constitutes deceit by omission.
  1. Myth: The ways that inaccuracies are presented as fact, and how this misrepresentation can seamlessly develop into outright lies.

The four examples of books about farms have been chosen for the span in suggested reading ages (between four and ten years old). Due to practical limitations, all four examples are written in English and set in Western cultures.

These are:

  1. Look Inside A Farm, published in 2013, is a pop-up book which takes the reader through a year on a farm, and describes such processes as milking, sheep shearing and collecting eggs. The blurb describes it as “perfect for…inquisitive minds” (Daynes 2013).
  2. Big Red Barn, originally published in 1954 and reissued in 1989, is a narrative tale of a group of animals’ day playing on the farm and ends with the animals going to sleep together in the barn.
  3. The Tale of City Sue, published in 2015, tells the tale of a “city cow” who comes to “Fairy Meadow” farm with a dislike of being outside, and has to be taught by the other cows to be a free-range cow. The book was funded and commissioned by the dairy company Kerrygold.
  4. That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, published in 2013 by vegan author and illustrator Ruby Roth, describes through words and illustrations the differences between how farmed animals live currently and how they would live if they were wild.

Approximately two in three farmed animals1 are now raised in “factory farms” worldwide (Compassion in World Farming 2018). Here, animals are confined in large sheds for the entirety of their short lives, in some cases so that they cannot turn or move let alone fulfil their urges to nest or forage. Mutilations such as tail-docking and beak-trimming are routinely carried out without anesthetic (Farm Animal Welfare Council 2011). However, it is important to note that smaller and free range farms are by no means free of exploitation. Many processes that cause great emotional or physical distress, such as the removal of suckling calves from their mothers in the milk industry, are standard industry practice (RSPCA, 2018). All animals farmed for their flesh, milk or eggs live a fraction of their natural life span (Four Paws 2018) and reproductive violation is foundational to an industry whose profit relies on the creation and destruction of life (Davis 2017).

The visual representations of other animals are as complex and as contradictory as the belief structures humans hold of them; there are certainly more unsettling examples of how we represent animals. See for example Playboar (Adams 1990, 65) and “Suicide Food” (Grossblatt 2011, http://suicidefood.blogspot.co.uk). However, perhaps because of children’s books’ formative value—picture books may provide the very first model of a conflicting belief system towards animals—there is something especially objectionable about the profoundly misleading way in which “the farm” is presented. Children’s books are more than mere stories—they introduce children to important elements of adult life and to ideas of morality.

Romanticization

In children’s books, farms are usually set in a pre-industrialized idyllic landscape of countryside, rolling hills and valleys drawn in bright, lush greens. The farmer has a handful of animals and lives alongside them; the animals are free to do as they please. Whilst farms used to be small and family-run, the majority of modern farms have changed completely, but children’s books have not. Environmental writer George Monbiot (2015) writes that even the grim realities of industrial farming cannot displace the storybook images from our minds. At a deep, subconscious level, the farm remains a place of harmony and kindness—and this suits us very well if we want to keep eating meat”.

The pastoral—a class of literature and art which romanticizes the countryside and a “golden age” of country life—portrays humans as “shepherds” to both the land and to other animals. Cultural analysist Raymond Williams theorized that “the country” in pastoral literature has strong cultural ties to “a natural way of life: of peace, innocence and simple virtue” (Williams 1973, 80). Children’s books about farms often epitomize this romantic and simple depiction of the countryside—animals are situated in verdant, “natural” environments. Sociologists Cole and Stewart (2014), whose research explores the representations of other animals to children, suggest that the effect of this is “to conjure a traditional image of farming and thereby to construct farming itself as a traditional social action” (139). Children’s farm books, in a similar way to pastoral literature, provide their readers with a “myth, functioning as a memory” (Williams 1973, 43).

The illustrations in A Tale of City Sue (Willis 2015) feature rich green fields, rustic-looking sheds and limitless countryside, blending seamlessly from farm to horizon. In the story, Sue, a “city cow,” comes to “Fairy Meadow” farm where she doesn’t like the outdoors—“put me in a shed”; “fresh air, pooh! I hate it” (Willis 2015). The other cows cannot understand this, being “happy cows” who are “free to roam.”

The rhyming pattern provides a familiar and reassuring singsong lilt. The words describe a nauseatingly sweet scene of contentedness and harmony:

“Down in Fairy Meadow

on Finn O’Leary’s farm

there lived a little dairy herd

full of Irish charm.

This friendly, Friesian family

were free to roam and browse

and eat the freshest, greenest grass

which made them happy cows.” (Willis, 2015)

 

The words and images create a quaint image of farming Farmer Finn is depicted with ginger hair and ruddy cheeks, and wears a flat cap and waistcoat. The language in the book also labors the apparent closeness between the farmer and his animals: in one scene the herd protect Farmer Finn when City Sue refuses to be milked and kicks over the bucket. Apparently without irony, the victim is not the cow, but Farmer Finnthe other cows are angry at Sue for “treating darling Farmer Finn in such a dreadful way” (Willis 2015).

The book, which was commissioned by Kerrygold Butter, commandeers the familiar imagery of the farm myth to promote an image of high welfare farming. Though the Kerrygold logo is described by Willis to be “clearly” displayed (Willis, cited in Monbiot 2015), George Monbiot describes that it was only after he had read it to his son that he realized “it wasn’t a book at all, but an extended advertisement for Kerrygold butter.” All farm books inadvertently benefit the meat, egg and dairy industries by providing a myth that screens reality; however, this book is an exceptionally flagrant example that exploits the farm myth for profit. Although the idea that Kerrygold farms are small enough that farmers know the animals is repetitively impressed upon the reader in the book—Farmer Finn “calls [the cows] by their names” (Willis 2015)—the reality is that farms are moving even further from this so-called golden age. As the Former Irish Farmers’ Association chair has admitted, “the dairy farm of the future is going to have to be bigger” (Clinton, cited in McCabe 2015). The website of the parent company Adams Foods describes that “many of our farms are small and family run” (www.adamsfoods.com, emphasis added); as Monbiot points out, it does not say “all” or even “most” (Monbiot 2015).

The familiar imagery of the happy farm is so firmly embedded in Western society that even in adulthood it continues to comfort the collective conscience. Farm imagery is iconic and universally recognisable as “a farm,” even while the majority of modern farms have ceased to resemble it, and it persists in imagery aimed at adults: logos, packaging, and other images bear the rolling hills and happy faces of animals. Monbiot writes that “subliminal persuasion of this kind (‘the cows are happy’) can be more insidious than overt marketing (‘buy our butter’)”. A good example of the farm myth used in advertising for adults is the “Red Tractor,” a quality mark in the UK licensed by Assured Food Standards, whose logo epitomizes the visual legacy of the farm myth. The effect is to “reassure customers in a vague (…) way while holding producers to standards that scarcely rise above the legal minimum” (Monbiot 2015).  So familiar and comforting are images of farms from children’s books that they can be used as placement images for the real farms. That companies can achieve this is due in no small part to the invisibility of the animal agriculture industry and of the animals themselves.

Absence

The reality of animal suffering is either partially or wholly invisible to most humans. Slaughterhouses and farms are far removed from the end product in supermarkets: psychologist Melanie Joy describes that “the ideology itself is invisible and so are its victims (Joy 2015). Kate Stewart and Matthew Cole also note that “the history of intensive animal farming has led to a progressive removal of animals from public view” (Stewart and Cole 2009).

Cole and Stewart (2009) identify that in society “all animals are defined according to their relative utility to humans” (16). For example, “farmed animals” are perceived as being for “food production” while “zoo animals” are for “entertainment” (16). Figure 1 compares these different “categories” of animals and their relative visibility to humans. Human animals are viewed as autonomous subjects2, “pets” are granted quasi-subject status, and “vermin” are viewed as objects. Farmed animals appear in the bottom right region where they are both non-visible and highly objectified. Meanwhile the representations of animal “characters”—a category which includes illustrated characters in children’s books—are placed with very high sensibility, equal even to that of humans (Cole and Stewart 2014). Not only do we have far more contact with representations of farmed animals than the animals themselves, but it also appears that humans have more empathy with the representations than with a real and living animal. In the absence of visible farmed animals, it is easy to see how animals are conveniently placed to be used as neutral vehicles: props for fiction.

Fig. 1 From Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Relations in Childhood, Cole and Stewart, 2014

Part of the reason we empathize more strongly with these characters than their living counterparts may be due to the cute style they are often depicted in, a bright, cartoon and often infantilizing style. In their chapter about the characterization of animals as “cute,” Cole and Stewart (2014) describe that these representations “allow children to construct imaginary, but nonetheless powerfully affective relationships with animal characters” (89). While these images “might engender emotional attachment to specific categories of other animals,” ultimately “they may themselves be understood as instrumental in the continuance of exploitation, rather than offering any challenge to it, despite superficial appearances to the contrary” (110).

A gaping absence in most farm books is any mention of the farmed animals’ deaths. The illustrators of farm books seldom choose to depict any of the machinery or tools that are an essential part of even a small operating farm, such as the machinery used on animals in their last moments, or day-to-day equipment, such as “cattle crushes,” used to restrain animals. There is certainly no reference to the animals’ inevitable end at the slaughterhouse. Excluding Ruby Roth’s book, the closest any of the examples come to discussing slaughter or industrialized animal agriculture comes from Look Inside A Farm (Daynes 2013). The text describes that “the farmer…keeps hens…for their eggs and meat,” and the illustrator has depicted a highly sanitized and stylized chicken shed: “some farms keep lots of hens in one building”. However, even these have bent the truth substantially: the hens in the supposed factory farm are pictured with hay in their nest boxes and to be healthy looking hens. In reality, a chicken in an intensive farm may have only 67 square inches of cage space and are invariably miserable creatures with missing feathers (Humane Society 2018), while broiler chickens have been selectively bred to put on weight so quickly that they become disabled by respiratory, heart and mobility issues (Knowles et al. 2008).

The books’ distinct absence of tools and violence adds to a culture of silence and invisibility around the exploitation suffered by all farmed animals. As Nick Fiddes (1991), author of the book Meat: A Cultural Symbol, points out, “that animals are killed for meat is obvious to the point of banality. However, the inherent conquest is rarely discussed” (44). Meat “cannot be procured without violence” (Joy 2015), and violence always needs implements (Arendt, 1970). Carol J. Adams (1990), whose work explores the cultural and oppressive power of meat, elaborates that “without implemental violence humans could not eat meat” and that “violence is central to the act of slaughtering”; she goes on to describe that “for farm slaughter some of the implements required include: hog scraper, iron hog and calf gambrel, stunning instrument, large cleaver, small cleaver, (….)” (77). Stewart and Cole (2014) describe this phenomenon as “meat without death” and reject this denial of responsibility or reality as “the fulfilment of the fantasy of this dreadful system” (Stewart & Cole, 2014). Should a real farm be modeled upon the farms we teach children about, there would be no meat. Clearly knives, weapons, and slaughter are not appropriate imagery for a children’s book. But if the topic is too brutal to be presentable to a young audience in a truthful capacity, it remains a wonder why the farm is so universally used as a topic for bedtime stories.

Fig. 2 That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, Ruby Roth, 2009

In farm illustrations there is also an absence of the enclosures, crates, bars, and electric and barbed fences that confine real farmed animals. In Big Red Barn (Brown 1989), for example, the farm is an open field extending to the horizon. Cole and Stewart (2014) comment with cynicism on a farm game with a similar lack of confines that “despite this apparent freedom, they never choose to leave [the farm]” (140). This lack of physical boundaries, taken with the smiling faces of the farmed animals, gives the illusion that farmed animals live there by choice. Human characters are also absent from the story of Big Red Barn apart from indexical traces (the barn, a scarecrow, the cultivation of crops) and a mention of human children in the text: “in this story the children are away, only the animals are here today” (Brown 1989). A chicken lays “a clutch of eggs”, and the hen and rooster are depicted as a family unit. There is no suggestion that the eggs will be removed for human consumption. Brown (1989) and Roth (2013) both avoid human characters; in Big Red Barn this serves to censor the human exploitation of individuals, families, and reproduction. Conversely in Roth (2013), the absence of humans creates a “nonhuman utopia free of human exploitation” (Cole and Stewart 2014, 154), a world which imagines animals’ lives after animal farming ceases to exist.

Myth

In his seminal Mythologies, Barthes explored the potent power of myth. He described that “myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system” (Barthes 1972, 131). In 1990, Naomi Wolf coined the term “the beauty myth” to describe the oppressive and conflicting expectations around women’s appearances, and described that “the beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power”(13). Just as “images of beauty are used against women” in the beauty myth in a way that fortifies patriarchal power, so images of farm serenity are used against animals in a way that benefits human interests and reinforces human supremecy. The culture of the farm myth provides adults as well as children with an alternate reality: a fairy tale to live in. As Jack Zipes (1994) points out in his study of fairy tales, “we refer to myths and fairy tales as lies by saying ‘oh, that’s just a fairy tale’…but these lies are often the lies that govern our lives” (4).

Maire Davies (1997), who studies children’s interpretations of reality, describes that children’s media is “so familiar, domesticated, and naturalized as to appear more like life than like art,” it becomes vital that “any assessment of children’s media literacy has to be concerned with their understandings of the relationship between the real and the representational” (5). The presentation of children’s books as educational can be misleading: Look Inside a Farm is described as “perfect for…inquisitive minds” (Daynes 2013). The flap-lifting element of Look Inside a Farm suggests an element of revealing and informative discovery; and when the suggestion is that these books are educational, one would hope that the information would be accurate and informative.

Given that young children are often unable to distinguish between a serious tone and a linguistic device such as irony or sarcasm (Davies 1997), and given the previously discussed absence of information about real farms in society, it is unlikely that they would be able to determine alone that the make-believe farms from books are not reflective of real farming practices. While other children’s books certainly explore the realms of fantasy with such characters as mermaids, fairies, and superheroes, these are usually kept distinct from practical learning. For example, a book about the job of a mechanic or a description of a boat is unlikely to be conflated with fiction or fantasy; and if it were to be, it would be the minority. Meanwhile, the majority of books about farms are cocooned in fantasy.

Psychologist Melanie Joy (2009) asserts that “how we feel about an animal and how we treat it [sic]…has much less to do with what kind of animal it is than about what our perception of it is” (16). Farmed animals are repetitively presented as a particular set of species (cows, pigs, chickens) who are always depicted on the farm. This reinforces that these animals “belong” there or that this is their purpose; for example, it is surprising to many people that the natural habitat of a domesticated chicken is a rainforest. In Big Red Barn, the characters—who are comprised of dogs, cats, chickens, cows, pigs, geese, goats, and horses—live “all together in the big red barn” (Brown 1989). In reality, modern farms are extremely species-specific; different species are unlikely to even be farmed on the same site or even by the same farmer (Clothier et al. 2008). Representations of farmed animals are objectifying: they reflect and solidify perceptions of the animals’ “place” on the farm and “emphasise to children that the food functions of the animals are ‘what they’re for’” (Cole and Stewart 2014, 124).

It is also the norm to present farmed animals as a “herd,” or a group of characters who, rather than acting as individuals, function as a single voice. In A Tale of City Sue (2015), the cows unanimously take against City Sue the cow; in Big Red Barn (1989), all of the animals do the same activities, even in sleep. Stewart and Cole (2009) write that “herbivorous animals…are typically shown as an undifferentiated mass, without autonomy…and without distinguishing individual features”. These characters are either bland mascots for the farmyard or ascribed individuality only through their anthropomorphism when they are made into characters. Neither of these acknowledges individuals’ membership to particular species or acknowledges that their real animal counterparts are capable of emotionality and individuality. Joy (2015) writes that “carnism teaches us to see farm animals as abstractions; as lacking individuality or personality of their own; a pig is a pig and all pigs are the same” (119), and that de-individualization of a group makes it easier to accept their exploitation and violent treatment. Ruby Roth’s book stands in contrast to the other books discussed. Roth (2009) discusses and draws the individual species of farmed animals separately from each other. She describes that “herds behave like big families”, reconfiguring herds as comprised of individuals. A passage reads that “birds raised for meat…are just like the birds we see outside our windows”, in a way that “explicitly breaks the barrier” between the constructed categories of species (Cole and Stewart 2014, 154). She educates children about animals’ emotional capacity and individuality through encouraging the reader to resonate with them (see Daston and Mitman 2005, 10). Children learn that cows “have many moods”, that “proud cows show off”, and that “pigs are some of the smartest…most sensitive animals” (Roth 2009). The book inspires a wonder in the reader and encourages children to “take lasting pleasure in the living beauty of other animals, rather than the ephemeral pleasures of ingesting their (misrecognized) dismembered corpses” (Cole and Stewart 2014, 154).

Feminist discourse has revealed how fairytales uphold myths about gender because they “conceal reality and give children a false impression” of sexist gender roles and that “the emphasis on closure, harmony, happy end and a well-ordered world remains the governing principle” (Zipes 1994, 147). There is a similarly soporific, harmonious ending to The Big Red Barn in which the animals fall asleep together: “there they were all night long, sound asleep in the big red barn” (Brown, 1989).  That night, while factory farmed animals are packed onto trucks destined for slaughterhouses, a child falls asleep thinking of farms as a place of peace and justice.

Conclusion

The misrepresentation of farms in children’s books is far more insidious than being merely outdated or sanitized; they present a fantasy version of farming which is awash with impossibilities and inaccuracies. The legacy of children’s books acts for many people, with the help of targeted advertising, as a shield from the ugly truth of animal agriculture, and in particular the notion of “humane” meat.

For humans to recognize farmed animals as individuals with interests in their lives requires an upheaval of the systems of anthropocentrism and speciesism. It is not to suggest that children’s book illustration about farms has caused, or could singlehandedly change, the physical, cognitive, and power systems that objectify and incarcerate farmed animals. However, visual culture that recapitulates dogmatic views of animals without truthful education maintains the status quo: most people do not have the information necessary to make more compassionate choices. It is especially important that the younger generation—in whose future food choices rests the fates of millions of individuals—are shown the reality of how animal products arrive at their plates. Publishers, as well as illustrators and authors, must recognize their responsibility to be truthful about the real lives of the characters they create—or at the very least to commit to an end to the dishonest romanticization of a deeply cruel, damaging, and unnecessary industry.

Even in the face of the rigidity of anthropocentrism there are many, many stories of children who choose not to eat meat, and who are defiant in their refusal to eat animals. Imagine if, as a society, we no longer fed children with flesh and lies, but allowed ourselves to learn from children’s startling capacity for boundless compassion.

Notes

1 Use of “farmed animals” rather than “farm animals” acknowledges that domestication and exploitation are delibrate and violent acts and challenges the idea that the farm is these animals’ natural environment.

2 Stewart and Cole recognize that this is not true that humans of all races, genders and abilities, for example, enjoy the same access to being recognised as a subject, and that the category “humans” is subdivided, “not least through the ‘downgrading’ of certain humans by association with nonhuman animals” (Stewart and Cole 2009).

 

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