The mythology of the Australian farmer and urban Australia

By Mary Winter / 10 September 2019

I have worked in qualitative research and strategy for 25 years listening to Australian people from all walks of life tell me about many things from packaging and products through to communication and social issues. Many overarching truths have emerged over and above the granular issues of the day. Big themes have surfaced consistently cross many areas of life from relationships, family, friends, money and so on. There is an Australian ‘collective unconscious’. In that collective unconscious is a deep relationship to the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit it. The big, natural geographic space of Australia may be real or imagined, but it looms large in the Australian psyche as a key part of who ‘we’ are. The psychological and emotional relationship we have with the vast, sparsely inhabited world beyond our cities is profound, even if you never go there.

In this geography the farmer is a national hero. If farmers have been mentioned across my research projects as a side issue (say appearing in ad testing), they attract attention, sympathy and admiration. There is a strong tendency for the city dweller to champion the farmer. For example, in terms of charitable donations, farm causes are always worthy (like supporting drought affected farmers). Consumers believe that it is a good idea to spend money on infrastructure (like water pipes) for the farmer. They believe the farmer’s mental health deserves extra support.

I also have a personal interest in the mythology of the Australian farmer. I own a farm in Tasmania. I know farmers from my local area. I am of course, just a hobbyist; an urbanite who is tree changing part-time; not a true farmer at all. Still I have 60 acres and I call it a ‘farm’ and secretly admire the real farmers around me.

So what are the dimensions of the mythological Australian farmer?

The battler

Australia has long since had a relationship with a mythic character called the ‘battler’. Its origins go back to white colonisation and our convict past. Conquering the land with few resources produced a class of resourceful people who had very little. The term ‘stringy barks’ was used to describe people who could quickly build a house out of bark without using nails. The new colonists were quick to abandon the British class system that oppressed them and define their worth, not by status, but the degree to which they could be useful in a world that called for hard work and toughness. The Aussie battler has become a key, if sometimes clichéd, part of our national identity. It expresses itself through respect for the small businessperson and the tradesman who are seen to be noble for taking risks and being independent. We admire small business above large business. In my experience the mythologised Australian farmer is seen to be a small or family operated business. Urban people tend to see the smaller operator as part of the legend, not the corporate investor or the giant international conglomerate.

The farmer is at the whim of the diverse weather events we experience in a vast land that can experience droughts, floods, snow and heatwaves sometimes at the same time. Weather events feature on Australia’s evening news with regularity. We are a nation of geographic and weather extremes. Natural events are something that the farmer is seen to have no control over. At the same time, he is dependent on the weather to support his crops and livestock. He is therefore at the whim of fortune, always battling what comes his way.

At the same time, farmers are seen to be geographically isolated, unable to easily find work elsewhere or move to an easier place. It is also believed that farming is a profession that is passed down through the generations, from father to son. City people do not conceive of ‘farming apprenticeships’ as a rule. Farmers are usually born into farming and know nothing else. They are not skilled to do anything else if the farm fails. The mythological farmer is therefore the ultimate battler; doing it tough in a landscape and a profession they cannot escape.

The caring hero

The Australian farmer grows our food. Australians imagine fresh food to be very local. We are perceived to have easy and affordable access to the best fresh food in the world. In a world where we have lost the skills to produce our own food and the origins of packaged food is obscure, the grower of FRESH and REAL food for US is a hero. He (the traditional myth tends to be male) is nurturing our bodies and providing for the people. He is a paternal figure. The word ‘hero’ comes from the Greek word ‘heros’ which means to sacrifice for others. Our sporting heroes do this: they go forth and win, not for themselves but for the team and the fans. Farmers are battling not just for themselves but for the good of the country. They put food on the table and care for us like our national providers. In a focus group once someone said to me, “Farmers grow our food, we would die without the farmers.”

Connected to the earth

City dwellers remain disconnected from nature. City people do not really know what happens on a farm. The legendary figure of the farmer however, remains grafted onto the natural world. This is both frightening and aspirational for the urban person. To be amid the natural world is to be aspirationally brave, resilient and free. Fleeing the city is a common fantasy. The legendary countryside is free of modern pressures and has a timeless quality where change is slow. Magazines about country lifestyles and interiors are big sellers. Country interior style is a common decorating code. People aspire to simpler lives and tree changing is appealing. It is status to live in the city and have a country house as well for the weekend. Far from being left behind in the country, the farmer is perceived to have made it to an aspirational place. The farmer is outside of corporate conventions. As a small businessman whose office is a paddock, the only boss he has is the land. The mythic farmer is a combination of opposites; on one hand he is battling the constraints of nature, but on the other hand he is a free spirit.

The modern breakaway

The farmer is a strong part of our symbolic national identity. He has endured over time. Skippy and Countdown have receded into retro-cool icons, but the farmer maintains modern relevance. His image has changed from a convict bachelor to a modern, multi-dimensional character. The mythology of the farmer is so relevant it is becoming nuanced. The farmer today is not always a traditional macho-man akin to Crocodile Dundee. Emerging stories are coming through of challengers who are adopting unconventional practices like championing animal rights, abandoning mulesing and chemicals. Farmers can be biodynamic, organic and embrace permaculture. These are the breakaways.

The farmer can also have a ‘hipster’ or ‘foodie’ quality, experimenting in boutique crops or wine. They are experimentalists breaking new ground. He can be progressive and be part of a leading edge, innovative Australia. These farmers are part of the new farmer phenomenon of first-generation farmers who have tree-changed from the city. They embrace a type of modern pioneering spirit, opening up the land, not literally but ideologically.

TV shows like ‘Gourmet Farmer’ and ‘River Cottage Australia’ have fulfilled an urban fantasy of subsistence living that includes the cultural capital of gourmet food cooked from scratch. It is not new to view the countryside as a way to escape the limitations of urban life. In the 70’s the hippies swarmed to the countryside with a view of autonomy, simplicity and artisanal creativity. Many failed and the movement died away when the hardships were faced. Nevertheless this freedom fantasy lives on in a modern way.

Woolworths currently has a marketing campaign called, “Meet the Grower” where real farmers stories are connected at point of sale to their actual product, bringing the consumer and the farmer closer. Amazingly there is even a woman farmer mentioned here! She is also a beef farmer! It seems that the male farmer stereotype has even taken a blow. The farmer has typically been a physically robust persona that was exclusively male (who employed the odd Jillaroo). Seems the farmer mythology is so strong it must move with the times and embrace a mix of genders.

The farmer’s image is highly positive but not unaccountable in the modern era. Farmers are loved which means they can disappoint if they do not live up to social standards and essentially return the respect. They can be fiercely criticised for poor farming practices or animal cruelty, especially among youth. As our national heroes they must conform to the norms of the current society. Farmers who profit from caged hens produce anger and they are not to take the land for granted. They are custodians of our natural assets.

Woolworths has brought the farmer closer to their business with the ‘Meet the Grower’ campaign. McDonalds has also used farmers in advertising. They have realised that our national identity includes a character that exudes authenticity, realness and honesty. The earthy, unpretentious farmer brings urbanites closer to the earth from which they are disconnected and promises quality, purity and freshness. He can also be a link to what we consume in an era where we are desperately seeking a sense of origins in what we buy.

People in the city often have no idea what happens on a farm. I have a number of city friends who I believe would feel quite uncomfortable on my farm. The space would be intimidating and the isolation from neighbours confronting, especially at night. I have a farmer friend who says, when children from the city visit his farm they are scared of the tractor even if it is switched off. No wonder we place great emphasis on the farmer. His mythical strength and freedom might be our own if we were more confident in space and nature.
So why am I writing this article? Because the mythology of the farmer says so much about us: our modern condition; what we yearn for and what frustrates us. It is through understanding the mythological farmer that we can learn much about urban Australians; their need for the authentic, grounded and natural; how they yearn for freedom from the constraints of the corporate world and how they identify as a unique nation of hard working, risk taking people. This in turn can inspire brands to develop stories that have power through deeper meaning.

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