The Populist Farmer, Revisited

by Russell Arben Fox on March 27, 2009 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Region & Place

Via John Schwenkler, I see that Norman Borlaug has just celebrated his 95th birthday. Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is one of the primary architects of modern global agriculture, one of the father’s of the “Green Revolution” which dramatically increased crop yields throughout much of the Third World during the 1950s and 60s, arguably saving many millions of lives. Localists and agrarians of all sorts detest the man, or at least are highly ambivalent about his achievement, of course.

John’s post provides some good linkage: you can get into Ronald Bailey’s technolibertarian celebration of the man and the work he has done (Borlaug’s view that the “explosively pervading but well-camouflaged bureaucracy” which is threatening the safety of the world is “environmental activists and their allies in international agencies” is, at the least, a fairly unique take on reality), and you can get into Kevin Carson’s take-no-prisoners attack on the science and economics which supported Borlaug’s Green Revolution (some of which I think is dubious, but his observation that the Green Revolution depended upon not so much “high-yield” seeds as seeds that were “highly responsive to expensive irrigation and chemical fertilizer inputs,” and thus that it essentially favored the development of large-scale corporate irrigated farms over labor-intensive small farms which did not receive foreign investment, is pretty damning). Overall though, I commend you to John’s own take on the whole question of organic vs. biotech/local vs. industrial farming: “[N]o reasonable person wants to remake the world or do away with modern agricultural technologies all together. The best solutions will come through honest, case-by-case engagement with the subtle demands of specific situations. As the UC Berkeley agroecologist Miguel Altieri puts it, a sound approach to agriculture ‘does not seek to formulate solutions that will be valid for everyone but encourages people to choose the technologies best suited to the requirements of each particular situation, without imposing them.’”

John’s post also give me occasion to resurrect an old post of mine, something I’ve been thinking about doing in light of the many fine discussions about the actual, practical possibility of farming on Front Porch Republic lately. The post I want to revisit was titled “The Populist Farmer” and was one of my first big “rethinking conservatism” posts, back in 2005. I won’t repost the whole thing here; just a few excerpts, which are relevant to issues coming to light as more and more people think in a broad, serious ways about localist and agrarian reforms of agriculture. As an example of such, consider some highlights from this recent Mother Jones article:

Matt Liebman, a polyculture expert at Iowa State University, says a reintegrated model [in which small polycultural farms utilize crop rotation and animal husbandry to achieve the sort of crop yields that otherwise require artificial fertilizers] can require almost twice the labor hours of a conventional agribusiness one. This is a critical point: The industrial agribusiness model of simplified monoculture became dominant not only because it gave us cheap food, but because it reflected a society that was becoming more urban. Scaling up [such] a model…and re-creating a nation of small farmers might have appeal, particularly in the current labor market, but making it happen—that is, reversing the century-long shift away from farm labor—presents serious policy hurdles….

The reality of 21st-century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas. What open land remains around cities is so expensive that it either is out of reach for farmers or requires that farmers focus on high-end, high-margin products with little utility as mainstream foods. Thus, although there is great potential to increase urban agriculture…urbanites will always depend on rural areas for some of their food—especially given that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in or near cities.

Conversely, rural areas with good farm potential will always be able to outproduce local or even regional demand, and will remain dependent on other markets. “One farmer in Oregon with a few hundred acres can grow more pears than the entire state of Oregon eats,” says Scott Exo, executive director of the Portland-based Food Alliance and an expert in the business challenges of sustainability. “Attention to the geographical origins of food is great, but you have to understand its economic limits.”

I know–that talk about “economic limits” bugs me too. This is, perhaps, why Caleb Stegall and those like him are, to me anyway, the most important–if not necessarily the most persuasive–of all the localists and agrarians out there: they are entirely willing to contemplate doing without the liberal bargain of modernity entirely, and revert to a much different–possibly more virtuous, certainly more communal, probably less healthy, definitely less secure–way of life. I’m not; I’m a man trying to find some way to bring elements of their outlook to life through a more populist and/or socialist version of that bargain with modern life. And that means I have to find some way to address those “economic limits” (the facts of industrialization and urbanity, for one; the appeal of bourgeois virtues and freedoms, for another) in a different way. Hence, my speculations about the “populist farmer.” Anyway, here’s the post, or parts of it anyway. Enjoy.

*****

Farming is an economy of limits, and teaches one an ethic of limits. You cannot retool a plot of land the way you can a factory; you cannot redesign or alter a crop the way you can a production line or menu or novel or any other material thing that someone might produce through their labor. Of course, over time–through working with the land, judging the seasons, experimenting with different hybrids, developing new planting and harvesting procedures–the sort of agriculture any given person or community is involved with can change; and by the same token, it’s not as though any non-agricultural business or practice can just turn on a dime: there are machines and investments that need tending to, there is training that has to take place, etc. Still, broadly speaking, the essential distinction between an act of creative labor that involves oneself, or an organization, or a factory, and the labor which involves the land, holds firm: farming is–must be–careful, slow, patient, conservative work. In short, working on a farm teaches you about time, teaches you your own limits and thus turns you to others, teaches you value, as Wendell Berry put it in his essay “Going to Work,” “the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory”….

Today in the U.S., 90% of farms are still technically family-owned and “small”–but they account for only a tiny percentage of total farm production. Over one-third of all agricultural output in the U.S. is now determined by explicit corporate contracts, and two-thirds of American farms are obliged to specialize in only one or two commodities. The raw number of farms in the U.S. have been falling for decades; but what is far most worrisome, I think, is the collapse of the mid-sized farm economy, the “agriculture of the middle,” as one report puts it. Small farm operations, especially those nearby urban markets, can often deliver their goods directly to consumers and stores, especially as the interest in organic food and farmers’ markets has grown. Huge corporate farm operations, of course, dominate the agricultural scene (helped along enormously by subsidies which are tied entirely to sustaining price despite overproduction). The farmers who are falling through the cracks are the ones who are working perhaps 200, perhaps 500, perhaps 1000 acres, who still sell their crops on the open market and still make decisions about what to plant and how to manage the soil and when to harvest themselves, who still can manage the land and pass down that knowledge directly, frequently within their families. This is a grave concern: while the major agricultural conglomerates (some scholars suggest that we will soon see economic pressures and incentives force or lure most non-boutique farmers into joining massive, 225,000-acre industrial farm complexes) will always be able to produce food, it is these mid-sized farms which are most able to produce unique, highly differentiated commodities in sufficient quantities to be able to participate in economies of scale; they are polycultural operations that can actually survive in a modern capitalist market. Moreover, it is farms like these that are at the outside edge of the sort of consciousness of limits, and the virtues which follow from the same, that farming at its best represents. If we lose them, then farming’s connection with Jeffersonian hopes, with a model of populist empowerment and discipline so important if we wish to prevent the free market from descending into pure anarcho-capitalism, will mostly disappear. Fortunately, things may be turning slowly around.

My family owns a farm–in two parcels, one 400 acres and the other 1400 acres, of which about 1100 acres are tillable–in the Kootenai River valley in northern Idaho. (See here for some more personal information and reflections on our farm.) We grow mostly wheat, with the occasional excursions into lentils or barley. We’re lucky in a lot of ways: our land is tended for us by a family of Mennonite farmers, the Amoths, that have been associates of the Fox family for going on four generations now. Moreover, the arable land in our part of the Inland Empire is some of the finest wheat-growing land in America, with no need for irrigation and a climate well-suited for a variety of strains (we grow both soft white and hard red varieties, including the comparatively rare and valuable dark northern spring). And wheat itself is a fairly high-demand and stable crop. Still, it isn’t at all impossible to imagine losing our toe-hold in the market, especially when confronted with the huge subsidies and contracts pulled in by the major operations out there. Fortunately, there are programs which have been designed to help, in particular the Conservation Security Program. This program, which has only recently become available in the Kootenai River watershed area, is a quantum leap forward in the relationship between the federal government and farmers. Rather than simply paying them the difference between their costs and the market price of their goods (thereby warping the latter), or paying them to destroy their goods outright so to keep them off the market, it treats farmers as stewards, subsidizing them in their efforts to transform–and, thereby, limit–their land in accordance with good environmental principles. Individual plans are developed in consultation with those who actually work the farm, and the result in a more natural farm, but one that is still productive, still producing marketable goods, and still ultimately in the hands of their knowledgeable, local owners and operators. As my father put it, “someone in Washington finally figured out that people who spend their lives on the land are better environmentalists than those who visit it for a weekend.” This sort of trust–call it populist empowerment–strengthens the mid-sized farm and those who, in their own independent way, make the land and their work upon it part of the American scene, thereby making it and them that much more like to endure in a world characterized by the colliding demands of environmentalism, efficiency, and economic centralization.

The CSP is just one program, and it alone can’t make much difference across the country; but then, it is just an example of some of the ways in which farming’s contribution to the fabric (as well as the feeding) of America can nonetheless still be drawn out. The legacy of the New Deal–which always was far more about building economic security and solidarity than simply cutting welfare checks–included several programs that built upon the expected ability (and obligation!) of farmers to make wise use of their land, assuming the market would pay for and respect the kind of limited, disciplined work they were doing. The Burley Tobacco Program is a good example of such; this is how one farmer and writer described the effects of that program (which Wendell Berry has also praised):

The Burley Tobacco program, for example, has sustained more small- and moderate-sized family farmers than has any other agricultural program in any other state in the US. When I was raising 3-4 acres of tobacco on my 155-acre dairy farm in Kentucky in the 1970s, I was making enough money from tobacco to take care of my mortgage and loan payments on the whole farm. I never got a subsidy check. The companies were required to pay a fair price, or they didn’t get the tobacco. Tens of thousands of small farmers making a living meant that church and school events were always packed with people. There was a healthy, lively rural economy and social fabric….Some of my economist friends didn’t like the tobacco program because they said it “retarded efficiency.” They explained to me that tobacco-farming methods were antiquated, that more tobacco could be produced more cheaply if the production weren’t required to be disbursed among so many “inefficient” little farms. They were right, of course, but when farm leaders talked to me about the importance of the program, the never talked solely about efficiency—they always talked about the really good farmers whose income from tobacco enabled them to be livestock and grass farmers, thereby stewarding the land. They also always talked about how many kids were sent to college with tobacco checks. This was a stark example to me of two different paradigms about economic systems. One considers financial efficiency primary and all other goals derivative. The other considers social and environmental goals as important as financial ones.

I neither smoke nor care much for people who do, and I’m anything but a fan of the tobacco industry. But you have to recognize and applaud sincere efforts, wherever you may find them, to make farming work in today’s open-ended social and economic environment in the egalitarian and empowering way that agrarians from Jefferson on down have insisted that it can and should. The American government spends billions of dollars on agriculture, flooding world markets while protecting our own, propping up bloated agribusinesses that soak up the corporate welfare and use their wealth to patent crops and micromanage farming like any profit-minded corporation would, and all the while fails to do the basic things which France–which is hardly free of such abuses themselves–has successfully done with far less overall spending: identify limited niche markets where agricultural commodities, produced in conservative and limited–and therefore all the more personalized and enriching–ways continue to shape an overall way of life.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Brett Beemer March 27, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Russell,

Thank you for increasing my knowledge. An excellent post.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Brett,

You’re welcome. I think this is actually one of the better posts I’ve ever written, and it holds up pretty well, despite being nearly four years old. You might be interested in reading the whole thing on my blog.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 27, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Wow….1800 acres of the Palouse. in order to be geologically complete in your new Agrarian Republic, might I suggest that you drive that southern border right down to the Edge of the Great Basin and I’ll manage the look out on Steens mountain, as long as I can haul my parched consternation up to the north when I need some water and baked goods. Oh hell, lets just take the Great Basin too….but leave Vegas to the scavengers. That car ride from the Idaho Mountains down to and across the Palouse and then down the Columbia to the Pacific …in less than a day if you don’t dawdle tells a magnificent story in tones of burny yellow , brown and blue. It’s one of the best drives in a country of still great drives.

A cultural terrified of dirt thinks Terroir means Terror. What we need then, are a few Terroiristas to disabuse them of their unnatural fear of a single vowel called “i”. I shall smoke on it Russell, but never, never inhale.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Not in the Palouse; the panhandle of Idaho. More pine trees, mountains and lakes than southeastern Washington, but some beautiful, well-watered flatlands as well. Not quite as amazingly productive in terms of wheat farming, but pretty damn good dirt all the same.

avatar Kevin Carson March 28, 2009 at 1:20 am

Thanks, Russell. Actually, I’m fairly pragmatic myself. I don’t see much harm in using synthetic fertilizers on a supplemental basis, so long as it’s not on a scale that affects soil osmosis or supplants organic fertilizers as the primary broad-spectrum source of nutrients. And I use blossom set spray quite a bit, although purists don’t consider it organic.

avatar polistra March 29, 2009 at 4:06 pm

?The legacy of the New Deal–which always was far more about building economic security and solidarity than simply cutting welfare checks–included several programs that built upon the expected ability (and obligation!) of farmers to make wise use of their land, assuming the market would pay for and respect the kind of limited, disciplined work they were doing.”

Powerful and important point. Unfortunately, the talking points of both parties today can’t tolerate it. Both sides are determined to characterize the New Deal as a pure welfare program. One side hates it, the other side loves it.

However, simple experience shows your point to be true. When was the American family strongest, when was it most possible for an ordinary man to support a family with his own labor? From 1945 to 1970. In other words, after FDR sustained the family, and before LBJ and later presidents turned the paradigm inside-out. Before welfare ruined the poor and “economic efficiency” ruined the middle class.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 30, 2009 at 6:23 am

Kevin, thanks for the comment, and for your small but necessary cheer for pragmatism when thinking about farming and agriculture. Defending the yeoman or organic farmer ideal is all well and good, but it’s just as important to be able to think practically about what sort of limited compromises will do the most real-world good to enable as many of us as possible to approach that ideal. For us, at least, about to begin our third year gardening our small plot, some fertilizer to supplement our compost pile still makes good sense.

Polistra,

When was the American family strongest, when was it most possible for an ordinary man to support a family with his own labor? From 1945 to 1970. In other words, after FDR sustained the family, and before LBJ and later presidents turned the paradigm inside-out. Before welfare ruined the poor and “economic efficiency” ruined the middle class.

Very well said. Of course, there were models of the “American family” which arguably were even stronger back in the 19th century, or earlier, but I sincerely doubt many of the people reading this site would genuinely want to live in a world where patriarchal authority was no unquestioned, where educational opportunities were so limited, etc. So the best way to put the question, I think anyway, is: “when was it most possible for an ordinary man to support a bourgeois or middle-class family with his own labor?” And, of course, you answered it: the twenty years or so after WWII, the hey-day of unions, the high-point of “buy American,” when welfare policies were, for the most part, strictly about supporting the economic life of families in the places they were, rather than breaking up those places (through trade, through busing, through ever-increasing suburbanization) in the name of greater growth or greater (ofttimes superficial) equality. Not that equality isn’t an important thing, but American welfare in the 60s and 70s was implicitly aligned with the rootless meritocratic ideal, rather than aligned with keeping families stable and wealthy and intact.

avatar Caleb Stegall March 30, 2009 at 8:52 am

Response here.

avatar polistra April 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

The Voice of America’s Youtube channel has just added a really fine
feature on Borlaug’s 95th birthday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bF5PF-rri4

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