Suddenly, we dig farming

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Farming, which many city folk once associated primarily with children’s books and distinctive if not entirely flattering tan lines, is suddenly in vogue. Never mind that most of the food we eat comes not from cozy acreages reminiscent of the setting of “Charlotte’s Web” but from big corporate operations. Never mind that census data tell us that fewer than half of family-run farms show a positive net income (in other words, most farmers need day jobs). Even though farming no longer quite makes it as “a way of life,” it’s somehow become the next best thing (or maybe an even better thing): a lifestyle.

Perhaps it started with last year’s reality dating show, “Farmer Wants a Wife,” which spent eight weeks assaulting viewers with footage of low-rent Carrie Bradshaws chasing chickens in an attempt to win the heart of an improbably chiseled Missouri farmer. That show didn’t exactly achieve “Bachelor”-level ratings, but a few weeks ago, when the Huffington Post featured a photo gallery of “hot organic farmers,” the response was so overwhelming that it did yet another spread. From a pallid hipster growing organic vegetables on a Brooklyn rooftop to a strapping Californian whose specialty lettuce crops are bathed in golden sunlight, the photos suggest that running a farm -- at least the kind that appears far removed from pesticides, corporate contracts and furtive meth-cooking in abandoned barns -- is very similar to modeling for the Sundance catalog.

“We think organic farmers are rock stars and heroes,” the site says. “And nothing is sexier than someone who likes to get dirty and supports the great food revolution.”


Readers are encouraged to vote on their favorite farmer. The front-runner as of this writing: a sweet-looking young Vermont woman leaning over a produce-filled truck bed in very short shorts and a tank top that might reveal more of her anatomy than she perhaps intended. Forget rock star: Farmers are so hot they could date rock stars.

But no reality show or Internet photo gallery can compare with the most unexpected Internet craze in recent memory: FarmVille. Launched on Facebook last June by the video-game developer Zynga, the social game now has nearly 60 million users, making it the most popular game on Facebook and, according to Zynga, the fastest-growing social game of all time.

Internet social games are well known to be habit-forming, but a recent spate of news coverage has suggested that FarmVille is roughly as enslaving as heroin. Users report missing work, abandoning friends and setting their alarms to wake up several times during the night so they can make the moves necessary to advance in the game.

And what particular thrills do those moves generate? Harvesting crops, of course! And buying seed and livestock and trees and buildings with virtual coins (extra coins can be purchased with real-life credit cards). And helping neighboring farmers with chores. And getting really excited because a cow wandered onto your farm. Is your blood racing yet?

After creating an avatar, a player is given six plots of land and the opportunity to cultivate various food products, some of which grow in a matter of hours and will wilt if not harvested on time (thus the need to get up in the middle of the night). Roaming animals such as a pink cow that produces strawberry milk and an ugly duckling that turns into a swan can be adopted and cultivated for profit (in a loving, free-range sort of way). Ribbons are awarded for such achievements as adding neighbors to your farm, putting decorations up on your farm and fertilizing your neighbors’ crops. You know, just like in real farming.

There is, to put it mildly, a curious dichotomy in the fact that tens of millions of people are losing sleep over virtual crop rotation while the refrain about Americans’ growing waistlines and junky diet grows louder by the day.


Are we to infer from the FarmVille phenomenon that people are finally switching their allegiances from Swiss rolls by Little Debbie to Swiss chard by Mother Earth? Or does FarmVille simply represent a subculture of Internet-savvy hipsters who, like the agri-hotties on the Huffington Post, say less about what is actually happening than about what some people think is cool at this particular moment?

Michelle Obama’s organic garden may generate photo-ops, and in L.A., community gardening and gleaners harvesting your fallen apricots may be all the rage, but it’s hard to imagine that an organic vegetable patch in every yard will become the Obama administration’s version of “a chicken in every pot.” (By the way, Herbert Hoover never actually used that slogan. It was drummed up by advertisers to sell the idea of prosperity.)

As refreshing as it is to see farmers glamorized in the media instead of, say, strippers, it’s worth asking if games like FarmVille bode well for the future of the American diet or inadvertently contribute to its demise. After all, nothing goes better with Internet games than prepackaged food that doesn’t require stepping away from the computer. Meanwhile, a whole generation just might grow up believing that strawberry milk comes from pink cows. Hey, maybe agribusiness should start working on that.