In the face of modern agriculture’s major crises, movements worldwide have called for a reemergence of smallholder peasant farms. Never in the history of the United States have peasants been the base unit of society's agriculture. Are we ready for it now?
by H. Peter Fink |
May 19, 2022
In Notes on Virginia, founding father to the United States, and ardent advocate for “agrarian democracy,” Thomas Jefferson
an “agrarian democracy” which sought to put power back into the hands of small holder farmers, was doomed from the start. But nearly 250 years after the corruption of the idyllic agrarian democracy began, are we ready to embrace a peasant-oriented society in the United States?
While its a worrying thought, a look at today’s system of agriculture in the United States will tell you that we are vastly unprepared to orient our society around the peasant farm. For one, it would be truly unprecedented. Unlike many nations of Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America, the U.S. has no history of pre-capitalist peasant identity to harken back to with romantic fervor. As a settler colonial nation, the United States worked from its conceptions to supplant the varied traditions of hunter gatherer and agriculturalist Indigenous societies that it encountered. In its place—from remote settler homesteads to massive slave plantations to the yeomen and sharecroppers in-between—the socio-agrarian history of the United States has been one of exploitation and appropriation, as cultivators seek survival within a uniquely capitalist system.
Yet despite these challenges, and as peasant movements under the banner of La Via Campesina worldwide call for the
aggression, activists and farmers in the United States must work to orient our society around the fundamental agroeconomic unit of the small farm, prioritizing agricultural education, land redistribution, and economic reorganization before the woes of the current system catch up to us.
Those woes are daunting. Most of us are familiar with some of the major issues presented by our current industrial agricultural system. These issues are pervasive and extend into all directions of our economy and society: a rapidly changing climate onset by rampant fossil fuel use; industrial pollution; soil degradation; displacement of human labor and livelihoods by AI and the automation of industry; persistent malnutrition and food insecurity despite unprecedented production; decreasing land availability; growing economic and wealth inequalities; exploitation of (migrant) workers; unjust distribution of land and; the loss of small businesses to increasingly consolidated, centralized, and monopolistic corporate control of the economy and food sector.
In the face of these crises, many of us have become involved with the numerous alternatives seeking to present a way out: “alternative agriculture,” “regenerative ag.”, agroecology, food sovereignty, degrowth, farmer cooperatives, price parity, and the list should grow on! But what would society need to look like in order to facilitate these adoptions, and work towards a more nutritive, just, and empowering food system?
Like a farmer collecting berries in a thrush of raspberry canes, Chris Smaje, has masterfully worked through the fray of solutions, creating a promising prescription for broader society. Smaje’s 2021 book:
talks of reorienting agriculture systems around small farms and reaping the many efficiencies of production they present. Small and diversified; relying on few to no inputs nor soil disturbance; intercropped and poly-cultured: these agroecological systems are able to maximize solar efficiency by utilizing the full range of spatial dimensions through multi-strata cropping, and year-round coverage. As
: an almost 55:1 ($135,000 to $2,500) ratio of productivity per acre when compared with the conventional industrial corn operation. Yet ultimately, it is only because of the glut of human labor which must be invested into small farms that they come to represent such an incredible economic asset.
if (and an important “if” indeed) economies are able to invest large amounts of labor into cultivating plots, the payoff is astronomical: an almost 55:1 ($135,000 to $2,500) ratio of productivity per acre when compared with the conventional industrial corn operation.
But with this heavy demand for labor comes perhaps another opportunity. The
, continued industrialized production will bring some of the worst consequences of our climate catastrophe. Producers are complaining and contemplating how they might continue large-scale agricultural production without the glut of highly subsidized fossil fuels which a
on other tasks the store wouldn’t have been able to afford before (while also easing customer’s frustrations with being yelled at to “PLACE ITEMS IN THE BAGGING AREA”). In other words, technology can be used to augment human labor and reduce strain on individuals. So, the dichotomy between machines and humans is a bit misleading. Rather, a more valuable suggestion argues for replacing industrial-oriented systems with systems designed around the capacities which human labor and earth systems have to offer. In a system oriented towards valuing human labor, I'd argue innovative technology actually might be much more important but used in entirely different ways.
Rainier cherries overlook the Columbia River in the Dalles, OR—credit: H. Peter Fink
This debate is emerging about tree fruits like apples and cherries which are major crops of production where I live in the section of the Columbia River Basin straddling the Cascades. In my home region, some
in Washington State alone. Despite having the reputation as one of the easier and better paying tree fruits to work, harvesting cherries can often reflect the brutal stereotypes which many Americans have of farming today. Go to our cherry orchards in July and you’ll see mostly Latinx workers laboring under hot sun and heavy loads. At the orchard I worked in, workers might only stop for 10 minutes of lunch in a 10hr workday.
; specially engineered cherry varieties, or even chemical looseners which could reduce the need for a million nimble fingers each season. I always lament when hearing these sorts of discourses that we seem to be turning further towards dependence on fossil fuels or chemical manufacturers: which seems like the exact wrong direction to be headed. Of course, there are very valid reasons why this is the case, (not even mentioning the
that in order to match the work offered by a $100 barrel of oil you would need 8.6 years of labor! When gas is only (yes only) $5/gallon, it’s significantly cheaper and more efficient to run a harvesting machine than employ hundreds of workers. Again, part of this inefficiency is due to the fact that our current industrial systems treat human workers as essentially highly-dexterous machines. In fact, the estimation from above is based on the example of a human pedaling a stationary bike to generate electricity: when’s the last time you’ve met someone with that job? Once you start to get realistic about valuing the unique ways humans can work and
, suddenly the playing field is little more level... and productive.
This human touch—skills or characteristics that no machine can replace (at least for the time being)—are what economist Larry Katz thinks will save the middle class laborer from techno-erasure. Katz envisions an ‘Artisanal Economy’ emerging from the ruins of our post-neoliberal, gig economy and its
in recent years. In an Artisan Economy, workers are skilled tradespeople, offering skills like creativity, artisanal expression, and human empathy (give that one a try Roomba). Katz gives the example of a
. They would be the first to admit that their products will never outcompete the might of industrial paraffin or detergent soap manufacturers, but that misses the point. There is a living to be made in artisanal small-scale markets; appreciating the beauty and craftsmanship of our fellow worker. Indeed, “artisanal economy” conjures up the image of the village square with artisans, peasants and merchants selling their wares. In medieval Europe it was feudal peasants which kept society fed and the economy running. So what place do farmers occupy in Katz’ artisanal economy?
Achalm Hill, Reutlingen—Hans F. Fink, oil and canvas Courtesy of H. Peter Fink
, Smaje is careful to note the romanticism of invoking the peasant societies of the past. He acknowledges that the term peasant is one used with highly varied context and unique definitions to those who use it. Nevertheless I agree with him that it is an important concept given its popularity today with movements like La Via Campesina. The peasant, or family farm, Smaje talks of, is a holding of land, in which families invest often unwaged labor, in order to help feed themselves and secure their “patrimonial” holdings through income. And, as was briefly mentioned at the start, economist like Studwell have shown that it is these farms which feed societies and
, the promise of food security in a system lacking industrial assumptions offers promise.
To offer us his vision of a “small farm future” Smaje works hard to counter some of the pervasive misconceptions about the viability of peasant farming for modern agriculture. In order to avoid summarizing the whole book, I recommend reading it for a comprehensive run-down which explains why we really would be able to continue feeding our society without tanking the economy. But Smaje is writing from his small farm in England, home to a storied tradition of peasant society. As an example, Part II of the book opens with a 19th century English land reform song:
If all the land in England was divided up quite fair/ There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share/ Well some would have thousand-acre farms which they have got somehow/ But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow
As Smaje makes clear, a future of small farms would be a politically radical option even for the U.K.
So, how could the United States—home to the Iowa corn farmer —realize an agroecological peasant society?
The peasantry in practice
Just a few miles from the cherries orchards pictured above, my next-door neighbor has a front yard with a half dozen stone fruit trees. Here, there are multiple species of crops and flowers thriving underneath a canopy of nectarines, cherries and apples. My neighbor and her husband are no longer farmworkers. Having retired, they are now homeowners. Their small front garden is tended in their free time and produces more fruit than they are able to harvest. As summer roles around on my street corner, branches laden with sweet fruit droop over a fence onto the sidewalk. Here neighbors are welcome to pick fruit to fill their picnic baskets. Here, neighbors look out their windows to see the growth from blossom to fruit. It is familiar. And because they don’t use fertilizer or herbicides, neighbors don’t get sick.
While backyard gardens are a more familiar concept for urban and rural alike, they are just one of eight examples of peasant producers which Smaje describes in a
, community plots have grown to provide millions of pounds of food each season and offer communities the opportunity to get involved with more culturally relevant food production. And with improving legislation it is
that split the difference, allocating land for agriculture that its ecologically regenerative offers to bridge the urban-rural divide while also restoring potential habitats destroyed by the endless lawns and cul-de-sacs.
for why such large scale change in agrological systems over short periods is a markedly bad idea, a smarter approach might consider building up peasant farms until they overtake industrial farms. While potentially taking a longer-scale approach, this may allow an opportunity to consider justice. Social transformations have often failed to incorporate justice, and while choosing “no transformation” will have even more horrendous consequences, ensuring that no one is left behind is critical to preventing backlash.
One of the most prominent critics of the “American peasant” has been Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst. In a
titled ‘American farmers as peasants? Really?’ Hurst quips that the prescriptions made by “journalists and nutritionists” of the likes of Michael Pollan suggesting for American farmers to, ‘become an agricultural peasantry,’ is aristocratic: like “when the master tours his holdings. Hurst’s indictment of agroecological romanticism plays on misinformed tropes of Iowa corn feeding the world, but point out the growing divide of farmers who fear being economically sacrificed in the name of policies dreamed up by the coastal intelligentsia. If we dismiss an entre section of society’s current source of economic livelihood, we should expect pitchforks, so to speak.
Amid this, a handful of columnists have argued that in actuality, the peasant-aristocratic divide has
. These viewpoints highlight the major gaps and some of the major priorities for making a more agroecological agronomic society feasible. Given some of the major barriers, I’ve outlined three glaring priorities for further research and discussion which must first be addressed: education, land redistribution, and economic reorientation.
Education: Strawberry is a flavor; vegetable is a pizza topping?
At the upper-middle class neighborhood elementary school I went to, we had a school garden. The veggies from the “
In third grade, we 9-year-olds were tasked with tending a vegetable plot. For some, it was their first time to marvel at the wonders of worms!, compost!, and carrots as big as your arm! Looking back I can probably thank the Garden of Wonders for inspiring my fifth-grade tomato business, selling Beefsteaks and Purple Krim to doting neighbors who were happy to augment my allowance for an heirloom tomato half the supermarket price. The Garden of Wonders was instrumental in developing the sort of familiarity with food production that is needed for a small farms future.
Nationwide, however, programs like the Garden of Wonders are few and far between. The Slow Food Network has
or a fifth of the minimum nutrition and dietary instruction time need to cement healthy behaviors and food literacy. This number has actually dropped by nearly 14% between 2000 and 2014 despite some of the nutritional awareness programs introduced by former first lady
. Forget sex-ed! Our nation has failed to educate, much less acknowledge an activity we do three times a day! Not only does this skills gap jeopardize an urban and small-scale future and detrude our social values, it has brought serious consequences for public health.
Meanwhile, in rural communities, numerous groups like Future Farmers of America or 4-H are fighting to keep skills like farm economics and animal husbandry alive. But while these skills are a vital component, a peasant economy will require holistic education. Katz has argued that
education in particular will be necessary to empower workers to explore trades while retaining the skills used to thrive in an Artisanal Economy. However, modern rural America is facing major educational inequities caused in part by
allocated to urban areas. The exact sort of breading grounds for a culture of resentment.
We seem to have two education failures. The first: a failure to incorporate food systems education into urban settings and destigmatize farming. Second, a failure in farming country to explore and destigmatize a plurality of diverse thought. As a result, smallholder farming isn’t seen as a viable future profession, and our workforce lacks the skills on whole to enter the field—literally.
To address this, a critical first step is childhood food systems education. In addition to garden programs in schools and nutrition curricula for families, groups like
have sought to bridge the urban issues-rural issues divide at the same time. By inviting socially conscious urbanites motivated by injustices in their communities into the spaces of rural agriculturalists with experience in producing crops, CURC works to build food sovereignty networks, provide labor for cash-strapped farmers, and develop knowledge around agroecological practices using work-parties and educational workshops. It is through a mix of early childhood education and raising awareness in society that our social gaps inhibiting agricultural reform can be tackled. Further work must be done on improving education disparities and rural-urban knowledge transfer.
Land redistribution: Land—the original sin
So you want to be a farmer? You’re going to need some land! No small feat, and a growing challenge. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Survey (NASS), agricultural land increased in price by
Yet, the issue of land availability is a small component of much larger dynamics of wealth inequality and power disparities in our nation. Of course distribution of any resource is a hot topic, but issues around land take the cake. Land was, and continues to be one of the most important theaters of injustice,
and reckon with the violence of colonialism is crucial. Land Back advocates for the return of ancestral territories back to its stewards, and recognizes that any so called “private property” exists on stolen land. While calls for the return of lands now designated as
. While recognizing that land is stolen, land redistribution argues for more equitable distribution of existing landholdings as a mechanism of distributing wealth and power. It is an approach which understands that reform is a more politically and logistically feasible option that exists today and which (if approached carefully and with consideration) may facilitate a path towards full restitution later.
Such reforms have the opportunity to empower millions around the world.
Land Redistributions has also been explored as a means of reparations. A century and a half before Ta-Nehisi Coates made the
were made to redistribute land to formerly enslaved Black Americans. Yet the legacies of slavery remained in power, and instead of reparations, racist exclusion and exploitation further entrenched itself. The effects can be starkly seen today. As Hannah Kass writes in the
about $14 billion. Farmers of color are much more likely to be tenant farmers, who are much less likely to generate wealth from their farm work. In terms of acreage, people of color who are non-operating landowners own 4 million acres, which is a stark contrast to the 187 million acres owned by white Americans.
Similar racial disparities exist in farmland operation. Owner-operators of color own 53 million acres compared to white owner-operators’ 775 million acres. Tenant farmers of color stewarded 7 million acres, yet white tenant farmers stewarded 80 million acres. Only 7.4 percent of farming businesses operated 41 percent of the farmland in 2012. Those businesses had sales of at least $500,000 each on average, which is 80 percent of American farm sales. 80 percent of American farms sell, on average, less than $100,000 annually, often losing money and requiring the supplementing of income with an off-farm job.
, are helping “envision an America where the institutional injustices concerning Land, Race and Money, that are rooted in a history of extraction and exploitation, both spiritually and materially transform toward justice, equity and repair.” These farmers are helping us imagine a future where the most disenfranchised wrest control from corporations and reestablish the base of small-holder farmers as the fundamental basis of power and agricultural production in society.
In the last few decades various movements have sought also to bring people “back to the land” to live simply and produce for themselves. In the 1970s a mantra of “
or simply working towards self-sufficiency through repair, food production and craft to act as a more independent and closed-circle production-consumption unit. These trends and terms are complex and have storied pasts “Homesteading” refers back to the Homestead Act the 1860s which granted U.S. citizens (and in particular,
, and escaping the exploitation of the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras for a life of self sufficiency, it was also a time of extreme violence against the Native communities whose lands were overtaken as they were displaced. So revitalizing a movement of going back to the land, and encouraging more self-sufficient, empowering household based production, must also consider the implications, the inequities and the assumptions of these movements. Indeed, the romantic fervor of “back to the land” brush past the question of whose land are people “going back” to?
As the United States comes to grapple with our colonial roots and history of
building a movement to address systemic injustices in the distribution of land, while recognizing the communities who have been robbed of ownership through ongoing land grabs and historical colonization, presents a way out for ensuring a future built around small farms.
A small land holding in Pinar del Río province, Cuba—Image Credit: H. Peter Fink
Economic reorientation: The power of price
The food system is the sector which every single living person relies on to stay living: a truly common denominator we cannot ignore. And yet, in our society, food is highly undervalued. Most farmers struggle to make any profit or work on slim margins, relying on subsidies for inputs from the government, or affluent urban consumers willing to pay for quality produce. Even after the spike in fuel prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a
, with the majority of every dollar spent going to marketing, advertising, and dining/retail. It has not always been this way. The USDA estimates that, “between 1960 and 2000, the average share of Americans’ disposable personal income (DPI) spent on food fell from
. Today, food has virtually no value, and farmers aren’t cultivating a living out of farming.
If agriculture—the sector of society which fundamentally every human depends on for survival and nourishment—isn’t economically sound, then something is clearly wrong with either our food system. Or our economic values. Or both.
With the excesses and failures of the capitalist free market in mind, the two most commonly presented alternatives are
. Long term, we must transform away from an economy built on endless growth and capital accumulation to avoid the ills of overproduction and under-compensation. But short-term we need a bridge that corrects “
,” and makes farming an economically respectable profession. So while others await a socialist revolution, price parity offers to set us down the right track.
Long term, we must transform away from an economy built on endless growth and capital accumulation to avoid the ills of overproduction and under-compensation. But short-term we need a bridge that corrects “market failures,” and makes farming an economically respectable profession. So while others await a socialist revolution, price parity offers to set us down the right track.
through the U.S. Farm Bill once offered to guarantee farmers minimum prices for the food they produced, working to ensure economic viability and ecological protection. Like any economic concept, price parity can be a bit difficult to wrap ones head around. George Naylor describes it well, but let us continue with using the example of cherries. If one year, it costs me $100 (to pay workers, to pay for my basic living expenses, farm insurance, taxes, etc.) in order to produce 40lbs cherries, than when I go to market, I should expect to sell my 40lbs of cherries for $100. If the next year because of inflation, it now costs me $102 to produce my $40lbs, then I should expect them to sell at a price of $102. This would mean a parity ratio of 100%: what is generally considered fair. However, today that ratio is
, meaning that even if it cost me $100 to produce, I would only end up with $31 for my 40lbs of cherries. What a bad deal!
What explains a ratio of 31%? Why wouldn’t farmers think to sell their produce for a price above their costs? In short, lower price is usually a result of overproduction: in part a result of the Green Revolution. Farming has unique difficulty navigating in response to “market signals” because once a crop is planted, the only way production can be reduced is to simply not harvest at the end of a season—letting food rot in the fields, and losing the sunk costs with it. But, under the “free market” logic of neoliberalism, if the price parity ratio was less than 100% for a crop, a smart, free-market farmer would in theory catch on, cut their losses and try a different crop the next year; thus reducing supply and normalizing the price the next year.
became so popular. As a result, the government has been canceling out the “market signals” telling farms to stop overproducing and instead, essentially subsidizing the price of animal feed by leaving grains and pulses cheap. As a result, companies are consolidating the market by racing to the bottom and buying out competition, while the
. With the 2023 Farm Bill fast approaching, many have argued for a return of price parity policy to secure better terms of trade for farmers, counter the pseudo-subsidization of industrial animal agriculture, and facilitate an economy friendly to small farmers.
If we intend for the American population to take up farming, subvert corporate power and have any chance of sustaining their operations, society must give farming the value and respect it deserves by guaranteeing a price that is dignified.
Peasant farms to peasant forks
What I’ve been describing is a radical departure from today’s system of agriculture. Instead of farms producing for consistency farms produce during the season. Instead of relying on artificially cheap fossil fuels, peasant farms rely on the expert labor of well paid humans and respected animals. This labor allows farms to maximize the sunlight captured by plants, keep fertility in the soil, and create a space which provides habitat for beneficial animals like insects and predators to thrive in competition, preventing the need for more acreage, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. This labor is respected, given the economic value its due by society and is not subjugated by land holders or farm owners. Farms are small dispersed and found throughout the nation, in rural and urban areas alike. Practices are transparent and communities are invited to participate and learn. Instead of food being caloric, and wasted, food is produced to nourish.
In the path to this small farm future that Smaje offers, stand three large hurdles which will take years to smooth over. But we can start right away . Education policy can change conditions within a budget year but changes in social values and societal knowledge can take decades. Land redistribution is politically difficult but land grabs can be halted to prevent more land consolidation from occurring while we empower people to take up farming and find a space to farm. Our capitalist system is likely to stick around for a while, but mechanisms to address market failures can be made more just through policies like price parity as soon as the 2023 Farm Bill.
In short, we need a society where farming has been destigmatized and young people are educated with agriculture skills; where anyone can access land and wealth inequities are redressed: a society which respects agriculturalists by treating food with value.
And yet, the largest challenge of them all will be thinking to the broader food system. As much as agriculture in our nation can change, if we don’t consider the food system which moves, processes, and consumes that agricultural produce, we wont be ready for a small farms future.
This is Part I of II in a series on transforming our food system. Part II will be released May 26 and cover the broader transformations needed in the food system.
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