Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Populist Farmer (Conservatism, Part 2)

Let me pick up on a point Lee made in the first of these Verbum Ipsum posts I mentioned, where he reflects upon the arguments of one of my favorite thinkers, Christopher Lasch:

Lasch favored what he called 'populism'....Lasch's populism valorizes what he considered to be lower-middle-class or 'petit bourgeois' values of local community, solidarity, dedication to craft, loyalty and self-denial. In essence, it is an ethic of limits that doesn't expect ever-expanding wealth and opportunity, but finds satisfaction in concrete attachments to family, neighborhood, honest work, and civic participation. Lasch's vision combined a desire for a certain level of economic egalitarianism with a distrust of the state and a commitment to what we might call "traditional values." But it's not entirely clear that such a state of affairs is possible (assuming that it's desirable). Is it possible to ensure a measure of economic independence for working people without an expansive welfare state? Is it, as some have suggested, that it's the state that makes the concentration of wealth possible through the various subsidies and supports it provides to big business? Is a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism/populism feasible in the 21st century, or is that just nostalgia?

Lee--and Lasch, for that matter--aren't really explicitly talking about farmers here; their invocation of agrarian populism has more to do with the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy of small property owners, of producers and workers that can stand independent of large commercial machines, than with an actual celebration of farm life. Still, Lee's comment got me thinking about farming, partly because my family is involved in it, but even more because through that involvement, I think I can grasp some of the practical problems and possibilities that might go into answering Lee's question, and thus make for a better conservatism than what passes for such today.

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." (This is in contrast, according to Berry, to "much modern work" which takes place in "academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures," and thus encourages a "separation between the workers and the effects of their work...permit[ting] the workers to think that they are working nowhere or anywhere.")

So there is a reason why Lasch--who once wrote that it was simply "common sense" that (here he quotes Raymond Williams) in the future, "work on the land will have to become more rather than less important and central"--focused on farming along with so many other lower-middle-class or "petit bourgeois" forms of work as the key to his conservative but also egalitarian, humble but also hopeful world. But does any of this have any connection to farming today? Setting aside the full-bore agrarian vision, and assuming that every person will just have to find, if we so choose, a way to recover a little bit of Jeffersonian social and economic independence (an independence which exists in the context of a defined community, not an open and uncaring market) in whatever vocation or lifestyle we live, can contemporary agriculture offer anything from which we can learn?

I think so, though perceiving it isn't easy. The terrible burden of farming in America today, and for several decades now, is that of bigness--between the technology of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, and the machinations of political and corporate leaders in the 1970s, the principle of limits, while still an undeniable aspect of farming, was officially denigrated: the goal of every farmer was to increase yields, to "get big or get out," to plant, as Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it, "fence row to fence row" (and, of course, that meant trying to get more land within those fence rows as well). Of course, this didn't happen over night; in many ways, due to the enormous amount of arable land available in the United States, combined with a free-market ideology that has always encouraged farmers to think about growth rather than conservation, the lure of limitlessness has long been with us. Today, corn is so overproduced in the U.S. that massive subsidies--more than twice as much as any other crop receives--are necessary to keep it profitable, with the result that the corn economy spills over into such ridiculous and environmentally destructive endeavors as ethanol, corn-fed beef, and--worst of all in our household--the omnipresence of corn syrup as a sweetener. But to a degree this is simply a replay of the 19th century, when the overproduction of corn made possible the near-universal consumption of cheap corn whiskey and rampant alcoholism. Wise farmers and managers of farms have long been sensitive to the lure of bigness, and the crises it can cause; but such wisdom is difficult to hold onto when agriculture has become captive to obsession with growth and "feeding the world." (As Amartya Sen demonstrated years ago, famines are rarely caused by a lack of food, but rather by poorly developed or managed local economies that prevent people from finding the kind of work and wealth needed so that they can afford food.)

Today in the U.S., 90% of farms are still technically family-owned and "small"--but they account for an increasingly small percentage of total farm production. Over one-third of all agricultural output in the U.S. is now determined by 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 more worrisome 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, increasing 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 (though whether it's good to eat or not is a different story...), 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. More relevant to this discussion, 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.

I don't imagine that the majority of the Illinois corn fields surrounding our house will be transformed into numerous small or mid-sized, locally productive and managed farms anytime soon. Still, one can hope: hope that the CSP and programs like it receives more funding and is extended to more areas of the country, hope that more people will key into the way in which farming can help to sustain a populist public good. The state must play an important role here: not simply as a provider of welfare per se, but because--absent, as I said above, a complete agrarian revolution--it alone has the democratic power to structure and thus shape the way in which modern technologies and markets interact with farmers and farming communities. Without such structuring, the best--most communitarian, most Laschian, most egalitarian, most local, most conservative--aspects of American farm work will be hard-pressed to survive. But if they do survive, or even flourish, farmers like the Amoths might well endure to be popular examples of the kind of good life which workers the country over might someday be clamoring to conserve.


Rob Jubb said...


I was wondering what the relationship between the kind of Jeffersonian property-owning democracy that you discuss here and the property-owning democracy that Rawls claimed was one of the regimes which would satisfy his theory of justice. Not for any particular reason: just wondering.



Posted by Rob

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob, that's a really interesting observation, not one that I've thought about at all. I'll have to read up on it some. Off the top of my head, it seems to me that Rawls wouldn't claim that property ownership would have any intrinsic  relationship to how rational people would conceive of justice; that is, ownership would be one way to satisfy the rational determinations that follow from the original position, but it would still be a choice taken up by individuals coming out of such a position. Whereas Jeffersonians would argue that property ownership, and other similarly populist arrangements, would need to constitute the original position. But here I'm probably confusing a philosophical argument with one of social justice. Simple answer: I don't know; it's a good question. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox