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Plains Folk

Farmer is the Man

Oh the farmer comes to town with his wagon broken down But the farmer is the man who feeds them all If you’ll only look and see, then I think you will agree That the farmer is the man who feeds them all


Well, yes, we do have to agree that the farmer is the man who feeds them all. Because given what we have learned about the capacity of indigenous peoples to manage landscapes for food production, there is no clear line between farming and hunting and gathering.


So, the farmer feeds them all, but who would sing a song like the one I just quoted the first stanza of? This is an old folksong that still has some currency. I know it appears annually in the summer camp songbook of the Farmers Union of North Dakota; I have students at North Dakota State University who learned the song at camp.


On the other hand, people like me, who took a some ag econ in college, are a little sheepish about “The Farmer Is the Man.” We were taught that this sentiment is called “farm fundamentalism.” That it represents an old-fashioned attitude which gets in the way of efficiency and enterprise. Farmers should forget about being “the man” and just be regular business people.


I have sung “The Farmer Is the Man” over the years without knowing its certain origins. I have said, this is an old traditional song popular in the days of the Farmers Alliance and the People’s Party of the 1890s. It had a resurgence in currency during the agricultural discontent of the 1930s. Other than that, origins and history of the song were fuzzy.


No longer. Having done some deep searching, I can say without doubt that the song, “The Farmer Is the Man,” was presented to the public precisely on January 14, 1874. Its author was a man named Knowles Shaw.


Knowles Shaw, born in Ohio, was an old-time evangelist who preached across the midwest until eventually making his way to Kansas. He is best remembered as a hymn writer, the composer of the gospel standard, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” and in his time was known as “the singing evangelist.”


On arriving in Kansas he found an eruption of farm fundamentalism in progress. Farmers, discontented with prices, credit, and transportation,  were organizing in local associations called “granges.” The granges affiliated to form the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, its members known as “Grangers.” 


Shaw must have liked the evangelical fervor of the organized farmers, because under his name, in the Osage Mission Journal (Osage Mission, Kansas) of January 14, 1874, appeared a poem entitled, “The Farmer is the Man that Feeds Us All.” Given Shaw’s propensity for singing, I am certain he sang this poem.


As did, soon after, multitudes of Grangers attending Grange rallies, and other newspapers reprinted the song for their convenience. The Granger movement faded, but during the 1890s, the Populists spread the song from Georgia to North Dakota and all places agricultural.


Shaw’s song differs a bit from the version we know today, the first two lines have more feet in them, but Shaw’s is unmistakably the original version of the popular folksong, informing us across the centuries,


We may say what e’er we can Yet, the farmer is the man Yes, the farmer is the man that feeds us all


-Tom Isern

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