What Else Is Misleading about LEGO Farm?
In LEGO Farm, environmentally destructive farming practices are minimized or simply do not exist. These LEGO farmers are not bent on exploiting animals by raising them in grotesque living conditions. They are not focused on destroying the soil to make a profit now, at the expense of future agricultural productivity.
Similarly, LEGO Farm does not accurately convey the economic issues associated with farming. While there is some reference to food markets within the theme, the stress of agricultural work in the United States is not properly conveyed. Paying loans on tractors, buying seed and fertilizer, and paying the mortgage on the farm are anxious moments not fully embodied by LEGO Farm. Although parents may play with LEGO Farm with kids to help them learn the names of animals, it is unlikely that impoverished immigrant farmworkers are part of LEGO playtime.
Another real-world farm issue left out of the LEGO Farm theme is that size really does matter. Small is good. But when farms are too small, they can lose environmental friendliness. This happens because small farms might use a single pick-up truck to make ten deliveries to the market instead of one large truck.4 Or the small farm may have one hundred customers drive out to a farm individually, instead of having one large farm truck deliver community-supported agriculture boxes to one location in the city.
The LEGO Farm theme doesn’t even engage with the idea of food waste. One-third of all the food grown and raised in the world will end up in the trash.5 There are various reasons for this. One is that food is a product for farmers to sell. If the food does not meet a certain standard, it is not worth the farmer’s time to attempt to sell it on the market, even when that food is still edible. Leaving food in the field to rot is cheaper than donating it to a food pantry. Philip Ackerman- Leist writes that the United States is one of the biggest food wasters in the world, sending 40 percent of its food to the trash. Many farmers don’t have enough money to give food away, so they save money by leaving food in their fields to rot while people around the world go hungry. But this lesson of basic farm economics is not part of LEGO Farm. That’s probably not a fun conversation for parents to have with their kids. Nor is it a pleasant reality for farmers to deal with. Farmers aren’t evil, but many of them just don’t have enough money to give unsellable food away.
None of this means LEGO Farm is bad. These issues are a reflection of the larger conversations about where food comes from. Most people don’t know where their food originates, or if they do know, they say something like: “My food comes from the grocery store.” Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan advocate that people should know the source of their food, and how it is being grown or raised. None of this is LEGO’s fault. LEGO, in this instance, is reflecting reality: People either don’t know where their food comes from, or people don’t really want to know.
Kids playing with LEGO Farm sets know they are growing food. However, LEGO Farm sets don’t make the connection from farm to fork, meaning these sets miss a critical link in the chain of events that happens to many farm animals. This is actually a teachable moment for the proactive parent, not a moment to avoid the messy details of the food system.
LEGO did produce a collectible minifigure called Butcher, but there is no butcher shop set. The Butcher is advertised as knowing a lot about meat, but answering the question of where meat comes from is left vague.6 The closest LEGO sets come to admitting that meat comes from animals is the retired LEGO Thanksgiving Feast (set #40056), which features a turkey on the dinner table. In addition, LEGO Heartland Food Market (set #41108) has a small sticker of a cow, but the food items included for sale in this set are bread, vegetables, and fruits.
So where does meat come from? It’s difficult to make the farm-to- table connection using LEGO Farm. For example, there is no way to fully connect LEGO Pig Farm and Tractor (set #7684) to where the pigs go after they are fully grown. Perhaps questions about cows can be deflected as being raised for milk, and sheep for wool. But pigs? Pigs aren’t raised for eggs, milk, or wool. This type of food connection could be made by enterprising individuals who create their own MOC cities, but it is absent in the small-scale individual LEGO Farm sets that most children play with. LEGO Pig Farm and Tractor comes with a tractor, a wagon, one male and one female minifigure, as well as a pig pen with water trough. There is plenty of room for the pigs to move around. The pigs and their environment are very clean. This is different from the grotesque environment in which many pigs have been raised where they stand ankle-deep in their own feces with very little room to maneuver.7 The absence of the negative aspects of the reality of farming in the LEGO Farm theme is so prevalent, that it’s unlikely to be accidental. What are the pigs for in this farm set? It’s unlikely the pigs are merely pets.
So what message is LEGO Farm sending?