Thursday, September 4, 2014

History at the edges of the conversation

A couple of high-profile entries in the civic conversation about the politics of small-scale farming--one in the New York Times and a response on Huff Post's Green blog--show some heartening, if also still small-scale, historical perspectives on the odds of making it as a farmer in the U.S.

Bren Smith's much-discussed piece in the Times, "Don't let your children grow up to be farmers" (August 9, 2014), noted how farmers' long-standing problems of debt, access to land, and competition are playing out within today's food movement.  He points to the proliferation of CSAs, hobby farms, and non-profit farm projects as a new pressure within the marketplace, and notes that like most farmers, he's had to supplement his income with other kinds of work in order to keep his farm going.

Interestingly, he also looks to earlier "food movements" of the late nineteenth century, the Depression era, and the 1970s as models for the kind of direct political action and advocacy that he thinks today's small-scale farmers need to embrace more seriously.
  "[H]ighly organized farmers' organizations--like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers' National Alliance...went toe to toe with Big Ag:  crashing shareholder meetings;  building co-ops and political parties;  and lobbying for price stabilization," he writes. 

This is exactly the kind of "movement consciousness" that I've been arguing has been missing in most of the food activism in the present, and it would be great to see it expanding (and also to see it considering more carefully what it would take to mobilize farmers in this way again, now that they constitute such a smaller percentage of the overall American population).

The Huff Post rejoinder to Smith's piece, co-authored by several farmers and "co-producers," also draws on history, but in a somewhat more nuanced way.  It emphasizes the centrality of good business planning in running a viable farm operation, but points out that "economic viability" may not always look exactly like the conventional model of a full-time farm family making a steady living from farming alone. 

In fact, the piece challenges how "conventional" that model actually is.  "Historically," the authors note, "'part-time farming' has been the reality for much of American agriculture for generations."  And they see wisdom in this:  "While some may decry the notion that farming as a full-time occupation often is not enough to pay the bills, in this economy there's something to be said--economically and socially--for households that have a measure of diversity in their income stream." 

History is a small piece of these two articles, but an important one.  In both cases, it helps nudge us toward new questions (what happened to the gains made by those earlier farmers' movements?  how might we build on those gains but hang onto them this time around?  did small-scale farming ever really look like the idealized model of the self-sufficient yeoman that we've inherited from collective memory?).  I'm happy to see it working its way more fully into discussions as the "food movement" continues to mature and (contrary to Bren Smith's pessimistic predictions) expand.

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