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Young farmers: Anybody want to be a serf?

Young Farmers

More and more of today's unemployed college grads would like to become farmers. But if they can't get their own land, could they wind up at the bottom of a new family feudalism? Photo: Teddy Ruxpin2.

“I don’t know a single person under 30 who doesn’t want to own a farm,” wrote Fran Korten in an issue of YES! Magazine devoted to jobs and alternative careers. “A growing segment of people don’t want to just buy organic, healthy food. They want to grow it. This new lust to farm seems to cross class, race, and politics.”

This farm-lust probably doesn’t feature the ambition to become a penniless laborer bound to some rich guy’s estate. But the nation’s leading advocate for young farmers thinks that something like serfdom could be in the future of young people who are leaving the city to till the soil, if they’re not careful.

Greenhorns or neo-peasants

A couple weeks back my wife Lindsay and I ran into filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming. After three years in production, she just put out a documentary called The Greenhorns, which she jokingly refers to as propaganda for her non-profit organization of the same name, dedicated to helping a new generation of back-to-the-landers find land to go back to and then work it successfully once they get there.

Her latest concern?

That wealthy people are busy buying up farmland to provide them with food after the peak-ocalpypse and that they’re trying to recruit young people to work these new feudal estates as low-paid hired hands.

Von Tscharner Fleming herself farms land that she rents in the Hudson Valley.

We met the farmer-filmmaker as she was tearing down her booth at the Heritage Harvest Festival, a local food- and gardening-palooza held this September for the fifth year in a row on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s estate in central Virginia, Monticello.

We introduced ourselves, telling her that we ran Transition Voice and that our local Transition group, about an hour’s drive from Jefferson’s home, had recently shown her film.

She recognized Transition as a movement for peak oilers.

Then, she told us that she had met hedge fund managers in New York who were so worried about peak oil that they were trying to turn their paper wealth into rural real estate that could stand them well if the economy collapses in the near future and takes the industrial food system down with it.

They seem to imagine that, like feudal lords of old, they’ll be able to feed their families and produce food to support a community of retainers.

And those neo-feudal estates would require young farmers with empty pockets and strong backs, the same promising young people that von Tscharner Fleming is trying to empower with their own land and independence from today’s terrible job market as well as the uncertainties of tomorrow.

To prevent the resurgence of sharecropping, serfdom and other regressive traditions of binding people without wealth to the landed estates of the rich, von Tscharner Fleming is planning a new film. She told us that her research would include a talk with Monticello Director of Gardens Peter Hatch to learn about how workers on Jefferson’s estate fared.

Most of Jefferson’s field hands, of course, were slaves.

Friendly feudalism

If you want to make something un-capitalistic sound scary, of course, just call it socialism. Or, if it’s vaguely old timey, dub it feudalism, giving it that particularly menacing touch.

Especially to the modern American mind, nothing as much as feudalism reeks of the Old World constraints that our ancestors left behind when they landed as huddled masses at Ellis Island, gazing up longingly at the Statue of Liberty, yearning to breathe free.

“Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So, with his latest book The Wealth of Nature, in steps John Michael Greer with a bit of heresy: feudalism might not have been so bad.

When feudalism came along in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was certainly an improvement over the 24/7 loot-and-pillage party of life under marauding Vandal and Visigoth horsemen. But feudalism was also a step up from the corrupt crony economy of late Rome.

In its heyday, Rome enjoyed an economy based on sustainable village agriculture and sound money made from precious metals. But as the republic gave way to empire and empire expanded on the back of conquest and looting of subject peoples, growth bred greed. In the countryside, wealthy nobles bought up small farms and consolidated them into huge latifundiae — the large industrial farms of their day. The new owners became absentee landlords who milked these estates as cash cows.

The primary economy cracked as topsoil loss caused Roman agriculture to fail; attempts by emperors to remedy the situation failed in turn, and the Roman government was reduced to debasing the coinage in an attempt to meet a rising spiral of military costs driven by civil wars and barbarian invasions.

It’s impossible to miss the parallel here with today’s industrial agriculture, mining the land for a quick buck at the expense of topsoil and other natural values, as well as today’s American Empire in time of recession, military overreach and a growing gap between the rich and the rest. With high unemployment, home foreclosures and levels of financial inequity not seen since the late 1920s, the money economy is becoming increasingly corrupt and unworkable for anyone but the very wealthy.

When people lost faith in debased money at the time of Rome’s twilight, they turned to the things that had obvious value as the basis for a new and improved economy: land and labor. Land became the source of power and labor became the medium of exchange, from the peasant who worked a few weeks of the year for his landlord as rent on a small plot, to the landlord himself who gained control over his estate by fighting in his own overlord’s army.

And voilá, you had feudalism. As Greer writes:

It’s common in contemporary economic history to see this as a giant step backward, but there’s good reason to think it was nothing of the kind. The tertiary economy [money] of the late Roman world had become a corrupt, metastatic mess; the new economy of feudal Europe responded to this by erasing the tertiary economy as completely as possible, banishing economic abstractions and producing a stable and resilient system that was very hard to game — deliberately failing to meet one’s feudal obligations was the one unforgivable crime in medieval society…

As our own money economy, with Wall Street abstractions like credit-default swaps that would have made the most creative Roman money-lender’s head spin, starts to collapse under the weight of its own deep corruption and maddening complexity, simpler and more honest ways of doing business will inevitably arise to take the place of money and markets.

With less money (or less money that we can trust if there’s inflation), in the future we’ll all be doing a lot more bartering, exchanging more favors and gifts and making more of our stuff at home than we do today.

So, as things change in the decades ahead, we need to keep vigilant in making sure that our new arrangements protect the civil rights and freedoms that our ancestors fought so hard to gain over two centuries of modernity, from women’s rights to racial equality. And we need to rejuvenate the venerable tradition of one-person-one-vote, watered down in today’s era of plutocratic control over government.

At the same time, we need to open our minds to old ideas that might be much better suited to a low-money, low-energy future than the complicated, wasteful ways of the market era that’s now closing fast.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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