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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Populist Farmer, Revisited

[Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic]

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.


Roberto said...

The localism of FPR and company brings to mind what Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution said about villages and those who love them: "The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic . . . What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?”

Ambedkar said this not so much because he was a modern liberal cosmopolitan, although he was, but because he was an untouchable. He knew that that for himself and half of India the alternative to liberalism wasn't some prelapsarian utopia but cruelty and oppression. (In fact, the preferred term for untouchable, "Dalit" means "opressed.")

It's times like these that John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" seems like the minimal definition of a decent society. I can't imagine that people would seriously pass on liberalism if they thought there was a real chance of winding up on the bottom rung.

Russell Arben Fox said...

It's times like these that John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" seems like the minimal definition of a decent society. I can't imagine that people would seriously pass on liberalism if they thought there was a real chance of winding up on the bottom rung.

Another great comment, Roberto. Overall, I'm not sure that Rawls's veil actually gives us a "minimum definition of a decent society," but it does give us a handy (if somewhat jury-riggged) way for thinking in a more egalitarian way about what we would expect of a decent society. If we could authentically extract ourselves from who we are and ask ourselves how we would distribute opportunity/rights/property/whatever, if those choices were truly open, you're right that at the least, no rational or humane person would choose to condemn themselves or their children to a life of discrimination or want.