The Agrarian Vision

February 7, 2010

Arguably, American agriculture is caught between two competing ideals or “visions”. One derives from the rough consensus on the industrial economy that emerged over the 20th century: Productive sectors of the economy should use the most efficient technical means to produce their respective commodity goods, but should internalize external costs and treat workers fairly. Throughout other sectors of the economy, this consensus has led to debates over the tension between jobs and growth, on the one hand, and environmental quality, on the other. When applied to agriculture, however, this particular tension has been muted. On the one hand, no one thinks that industrialization in agriculture creates more jobs. On the other hand, farmers are thought to be owner operators who take the normal risks of business operators. So according to this vision, farmers are businessmen who should be efficient, but they should not be polluters. If they go broke, it’s their tough luck. We might call this the industrial vision of agriculture: agriculture is just another sector of the industrial economy, and should play by the same rules as energy, manufacturing, materials and transportation. Much of what drives The Green Economy issues out of this vision, and it is driving us to safer, healthier food and fair wages at the same time it drives us to GMOs and biofuels.

The alternative vision harks back to agriculture’s past. The idea that agriculture has a symbolic, cultural and moral function can be thought of as the agrarian vision. It holds that agriculture is unique among trades in its capacity to co-produce a wide variety of social goods while also supplying food and fiber needs. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is remembered for claiming that “farmers make the best citizens” though the meaning of his statement is seldom examined. He was not praising farmers’ virtue idly. His words have to be understood in the context of colonies fighting for a tenuous independence from England. Quite realistically, Jefferson understood that traders and manufacturers could move their portable assets somewhere else if things started looking bad for the new nation. He saw it happening in his lifetime, as many abandoned the American cause and beat a path to Canada or Caribbean colonies. Farmers, however, could not move their assets. They were stuck with the new nation, and were forced to figure out how to make it work. This is why they made “the best citizens”.

Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy became evident when he became the 3rd President of the United States. Alexander Hamilton had been arguing that the U.S. needed a manufacturing base in New Jersey. Jefferson spent the money on the Louisiana Purchase instead. Then he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Purchase and determine the suitability of lands for farming. Jefferson was investing in agriculture rather than factories. Both meant “jobs” (the refrain we always here from politicians nowadays), but farming was a public investment that would yield more than jobs and farm commodities: it would yield good citizens, as well.

Jefferson clearly needs to be updated, and I think that CSAs like Thornapple are a way to do it. I’m not sure about Jeffersonian citizenship, but I still think that farming can tie us to environmental virtues such as stewardship and sustainability. The practice of eating in season, knowing your farmer and getting out to the farm once in a while counters the vice that Aldo Leopold noted: Thinking that food comes from the grocery store. All of us need a practical and material demonstration of our dependence on the land. We need to be reminded of how tenuous, experimental and adaptive good farming has to be. Those who want to “reconnect Americans with their food” are right, because doing so will revitalize metaphors that still have cogency in American culture, and that can become a source of inspiration and meaning for sustainability.

With luck and a bit more work, there can be some real community building, too. That probably takes more than just paying your money and picking up your food share. Community is another virtue that can be supported through the right kind of agriculture. In rural towns of times past, it came naturally, as combination between relative isolation and the need for solidarity created interdependencies that forced people together. There was a dark side to this old style community, too, and it was not many generations ago that lots of people fled the farm looking for a more tolerant and open form of community in the cities. Frankly, I think that the community part of Community Supported Agriculture is still very much a work in progress, not only for us in Thornapple but in most CSAs. It will take some effort to get to know one another, to do some things together and to build a space in which we can explore our commonalities while respecting and celebrating our differences. Personally, I like the idea of community, but I’m not at all sure what it will take of me to achieve it, nor am I confident planned activities of “community building” will really work. Community may require a kind of spontaneity, a kind of luck that dooms intentional efforts to build community to failure. Alternatively, it may need the kind of necessity that grew out of rural isolation in the past.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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