The following excerpt is from Michael Foley’s book Farming for the Long Haul: Resilience and the Lost Art of Agricultural Inventiveness (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
A Limited Politics for Today and Tomorrow
Our hope today, it appears, has to be local and focused on self-help, as Wendell Berry suggests. It will have to come from the sort of self-help organizations that the Grange and Farmers’ Alliance tried unsuccessfully to create and that advocates like Callicrate and the Colorado Farmers Union are creating today. But such efforts are more locally focused than the nineteenth-century organizations, which were oriented always to a national market. Today many of us have the option of the local market, thanks in part to growing consumer sensibility about the foods we eat, and to the vacuum opened up by giant retail outlets sourcing internationally. That window, however, is a small one for the same reason: Those giants can offer food for all seasons virtually all the time, often at prices lower than we can meet.
The local food movement thus fights an uphill battle that will have to be bolstered with more and better farmer and consumer economic organization. Farmer-controlled food hubs promoting expanded market access is one hopeful sign. So is the growing urban farming movement. Finding ways to make farmers markets more inclusive of the whole population, from so-called market match programs for food stamp customers to concerted efforts to serve African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American farmers and buyers, should be on the agenda. So should local food-buying clubs and continued pressure on restaurants and grocers to buy local. We should also be supporting farmer education and internships, creating tool-sharing schemes, cooperative farm credit and crop insurance programs, cooperative storage facilities, and better ways to take care of one another and our families cooperatively.
Not that political advocacy is not still necessary. The regulatory state has grown increasingly demanding of farmers and food producers over the last decades. Though sometimes pursuing important aims, the new regulatory environment poses special challenges to small farmers, because legislators and bureaucrats alike prefer one-size-fits-all policies, however complex they might otherwise be. And lobbyists for agribusiness, corporate food handlers and processors, and the retail giants generally support that effort, while seeing to it that new regulations are ones they can afford. The result is that many of them are regulations small producers cannot afford. Older schemes for protecting farmers, like production quotas and price supports, have no hearing in Washington, thanks to the corporate lobbyists.1 We need farmer- controlled advocacy organizations that are constantly alert to our particular needs as small farmers, engaged in creative adaptation to a changing agricultural reality.
We have few such organizations today in the United States. Most advocacy work on behalf of small farmers is in the hands of nonprofits, whose work may be well intentioned but is often ill informed and certainly not under the control of farmers themselves. And the same is true of many of the services that have been developed to provide for the economic interests of farmers, from farmers markets to lending agencies. As the federal government’s largesse for funding such efforts fades, we will have to create our own institutions under our own control, as the Mexicans and our forebears in the Populist movement did.
And that is just as well, because the well-intentioned advocates, while doing the best they can for small farmers and local agriculture by their own lights, often end up as enablers for government programs that do not serve us well. Food safety is a case in point. Spurred on by neglect or malfeasance on the part of a few large packinghouses and processors, Congress passed sweeping new legislation in 2011 to regulate farm-level practices. Many states and localities also chimed in, as did corporate buyers. The result is a patchwork of regulations imposing often onerous burdens on farmers and small packing operations to regulate the tiny risk of contamination of food at the farm level. Two newcomers to the field, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Farmers Market Coalition, contributed more to mobilizing farmers around the issue than any of the bigger, older farmers’ groups. But some of the advocacy organizations, having won some and lost some in their battles for the best regulatory package available, have turned to educating farmers on food safety best practices. Sensible advice is mixed with the hysterical, and farmers are left to wonder when the first lawsuit or FDA SWAT team will attack their farm for some putative breach of protocol.
Genuine farmers’ organizations, organized with grassroots participation at the forefront, might avoid some of the regulatory and educational excesses. They might provide the constant vigilance that we need to exercise in the current environment. Older farmers’ organizations are rooted in a federated structure that enables superordinate organizations to meddle in local affairs, sometimes destroying the work of inspired local leaders. Even Oliver Kelley, founder of the Grange, ran afoul of the National Grange over cooperative buying and selling and political involvement. A recent ugly struggle between the California State Grange and the national organization bitterly divided local organizations and discouraged many young farmers from deeper involvement. The Farm Bureaus are embedded in the American Farm Bureau Federation, created by bureaucrats at the USDA in 1919 to further the work of cooperative extension agents and promote “progressive” farming. Though local Farm Bureaus may mainly represent the interests of local farmers, state and national agendas are set at those levels and have routinely represented the interests of the largest farmers.
A few exemplary organizations exist today, like Oregon’s Friends of Family Farmers, whose board and staff are dominated by working farmers. Through farmer-rancher listening sessions, they develop a legislative agenda and the support needed to back it. Their Oregon Pasture Network supports pasture-fed livestock production through networking and promotion. The sort of robust economic organization that underlies the Colorado Farmers Union is missing here. But the organization has an impact both on the legislative level and in promoting small farm products around the state. We will need to build on these and other models and experiences as we revitalize older organizations or create new ones crafted to our needs.
Small Hopes and the Bigger Picture
Politics counts. Like the natural disasters that hit parts of the United States in the fall of 2017, it can sweep us away or alter drastically the terms on which we live. Governments and the social and economic forces they represent can make bad stewards of the land out of good farmers. They can drive us to marginal land or embroil us in debt, leaving us a stark choice between going under or abusing the land on which we rely. There aren’t many things we can do about this, the perennial dream of a farmer-citizen republic notwithstanding. That’s why the subsistence-first strategy is so important. To the extent we can provide for ourselves and our families, we become that much less vulnerable to the forces that would make us bad stewards of our land, or exiles from it. But for that we also need one another. We need community, and we need strong farmers’ organizations.
The smaller, everyday political battles remain important. The growing demands of the bureaucratic state raise our expenses on a yearly basis. They make it more and more difficult just to farm as we struggle with compliance over bogus food safety measures or certifications or water management requirements. The propensity of regulators to create one-size-fits-all rules, plus the design of regulations to manage (and appease) the biggest operators, make regulations all the more questionable for small farmers and food producers. The tensions the regulatory regimes create are all the more difficult to manage because some of these requirements are reasonable, while others are clearly over the top or a waste of time. How do we oppose regulations that answer some real social need, even if badly, when many of our customers and neighbors assume that the state is just trying to help? How do we mount a real opposition when most producers have already given up hope of influencing these decisions, which they resignedly treat as just another cost of doing business?
In the long term we may not have to face these questions. The next financial collapse, or the next, may end what little we have of the nanny state, leaving only the police state. And that is already notably weak when it comes to the reach of regulatory enforcement. Last I heard, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) dairy enforcement division for Northern California, located in Oakland, had just four inspectors and a secretary. After a brief flurry of raids on illegal backyard dairies throughout the state a few years ago, provoking widespread public outrage, and efforts at reform blocked by big dairy, CDFA backed off in an ignominious retreat. No dairy laws were changed, but a measure of tolerance was achieved. Let us hope that such ephemeral struggles are the worst we can expect in coming years.
In the long haul, though, history offers greater comforts. Sociologist Barrington Moore ends his study of “lord and peasant in the making of the modern world” with the observation that “the process of modernization begins with peasant revolutions that fail. It culminates during the twentieth century with peasant revolutions that succeed. No longer is it possible to take seriously the view that the peasant is an ‘object of history,’ a form of social life over which historical changes pass but which contributes nothing to the impetus of these changes. For those who savor historical irony it is indeed curious that the peasant in the modern era has been as much an agent of revolution as the machine, that he has come into his own as an effective historical actor along with the conquests of the machine.” Though Moore shares the pessimistic appraisal of the outcome of these revolutions that we read earlier in the words of James Scott, he goes on to credit “the village” with “those half-conscious standards by which men have judged and condemned modern industrial civilization, the background from which they have formed their conceptions of justice and injustice.” And he argues that “the wellsprings of human freedom lie not only where Marx saw them, in the aspirations of classes about to take power, but perhaps even more in the dying wail of a class over whom the wave of progress is about to roll”—that is, the peasantry.2 As it turns out, however, the peasantry, and the small farmer generally, may have been rolled over, but they have scarcely died out.
The depressing portrait of defeat even in victory that students of peasant rebellion have painted, from Moore to Scott, comes up short of the truth. In the former Soviet Union, Stalin replaced a mainly peasant agriculture with massive state and collective farms built on “modern” lines in a campaign that cost as many as six million peasant lives. Yet by the 1980s, between a fourth and half of all food on Soviet tables was being produced on small plots averaging half an acre, and these household plots and small farms persist as major producers today.3
Similarly, in China the peasant household reemerged as the dominant unit of production in the wake of economic reforms under Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. Writing in 1987, Elisabeth Croll notes that “ten years ago any analysis of the rural production system would have focused on the commune, the production brigade and production teams and would only have touched on the peasant household. Now . . . an analysis of the new rural production system is centered on an understanding of the peasant household economy and its significance as an important socio- political unit.” From a system in which “production was planned and managed by the production team which decided the crops, timetabled the production process, allocated production tasks to its members and disposed of the product,” China has returned to the ancient system in which the household handles all these tasks. More impressive still, the countryside led the wave of prosperity that followed Deng’s reforms. Fifteen years later another analyst notes the concern among Chinese officials about how to integrate peasants into a thriving internal economy, commenting that, “The peasant question continually returns no matter how many times state authorities and intellectuals declare that it has been definitively resolved.”4
The “end of the peasantry” has been announced repeatedly and was and is, indeed, an article of faith for liberal scholars, American policy makers, Marxists, conservative political scientists, and radical sociologists alike. “Modernization,” it was thought, would put an end to traditional agriculture with its basis in strategies of subsistence first, diversified farming, and rural community. That way of life was, at any rate, nasty, brutish, and short, advocates of modernity have insisted, and best exchanged for a good job in the city, or, better yet, in the agriculture department of a major university. Alas, neither the expectation nor its portrait of rural life have proven sustainable.
Traditional agriculture—inventive, artful, endlessly experimental, if also doggedly persistent, hardscrabble, family- and community-bound—is here to stay. It will outlast the industrial alternative, as it has outperformed it in both Russia and China. And it will sustain humanity, provided we take its many lessons to heart, through whatever trials our civilization faces in the years to come.
- See Wendell Berry’s recent defense of the principles that lay behind one such scheme, the New Deal–born Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association, and the current indifference to any such solution among the nation’s politicians, academics, and public officials, in “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” in The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 44–50.
- Barrington Moore Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 453, 496–97, 505.
- Stefan Hedlund, Private Agriculture in the Soviet Union (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 25–28.
- Elisabeth Croll, “Some Implications of the Rural Economic Reforms for the Chinese Peasant Household,” in Ashwani Saith, editor, The Re-emergence of the Chinese Peasantry: Aspects of Rural Decollectivisation (London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987), 105; and Alexander F. Day, The Peasant in Postsocialist China: History, Politics, and Capitalism (New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 2.