Monday, September 6, 2021

The Small Family Farm is a Colonial Concept

The title of this post rankles me, because I grew up on a small family farm. My father was the fourth generation of the family farming the same land. He told me often as I was growing up about the importance of the family farm, and compared the industrialized corporate farm system it's a hell of a lot better on the land and livestock. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not advocating against small family farms, and wouldn't consider supporting any proposal that would involve the forced transfer of private land in favor of a different system. That said, a recent podcast series and some additional reading has got me considering other systems that could be more just, regenerative, and sustainable than either small, private farms or corporate farming.

In the aforementioned series, which I include here below and can easily be found on Spotify, a Scottish man and his wife talk about the experience of returning to the family farm in the north of Scotland. He went into it with the zeal of a convert, believing in the ideal of the family farm and simply assuming it was the way things have always been. When he mentioned 'colonialism' with regard to his farm and the others in his area I thought he was off his rocker. Then he explained. 

In times past the land in northern Scotland was held as a sort of commons. A time came when enslavement of African people in the British territories was banned, and the government paid huge sums of money to enslavers as 'compensation' for their 'loss.' No regard for the human beings who were enslaved, of course. The Gaelic-speaking Scots were forced off their land as it was acquired with the wealth former enslavers had received, and many of those Scots made their way to the Americas, where they in turn homesteaded on lands that had belonged to indigenous peoples. 

It's ugly, isn't it? White supremacy and base greed is the soup we've all been cooked in. Few hands are clean, and those that are belong to the people most exploited and oppressed of all. 

Sarah Taber explained it well in a 2019 article for New York Magazine:

It’s easy to see how Anglo-Americans could mistake it for normal. Our cultural heritage is one of the few places where this fluke of a farming practice has made multiple appearances. Family farming was a key part of the political economy in ancient Rome, late medieval England, and colonial America. But we keep forgetting something very important about those golden ages of family farming. They all happened after, and only after, horrific depopulation events.

Rome emptied newly conquered lands by selling the original inhabitants into slavery. In England, the Black Death killed so many nobles and serfs that surviving peasants seized their own land and became yeomen — free small farmers who neither answered to a master nor commanded their own servants. Colonial Americans, seeking to recreate English yeoman farming, began a campaign of genocide against indigenous people that has lasted for centuries, and created one of the greatest transfers of land and wealth in history.

In 2019 Chris Newman, a Virginia farmer, wrote a Medium article about his experience farming and dealing with farmers markets. Far from being an idyllic life involving easy sales through such markets, it is in truth a matter of long hours, great sacrifice, and significant cost to participate in farmers markets. He argues that it would be more affordable for him and the other participants in farmers markets to collaborate in setting up their own brick-and-mortar stores. From their, he moves into making a case for cooperative farming. 

Imagine all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically. The results would be astonishing:
    • Costs of production would decrease significantly. Orders of seed, feed, equipment, and supplies would no longer just be in bulk, they’d be at a regional scale. Labor hours would be reduced as dozens of farmers are no longer replicating the same tasks (e.g. purchasing, bookkeeping, inventory, etc.)
    • Marketshare would swell. Owing to lower prices, larger quantities, and more accessible markets, we’d be able to service a much larger segment of the market. Increases in volume would reduce overhead costs, more than offsetting the reduction in each unit’s top-line. (e.g. — we net more money selling 100 chickens to a single restaurant at a 30 percent discount than we do to 100 individuals because that bulk order means we’re not paying for individual storage, transport, potential spoilage, transaction fees, the cost at the point of sale, etc.)
    • Wages and quality of life for farmers would rise in real terms. The confluence of reduced production costs, cooperative labor, and increased market share will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more. We’d actually be able to enjoy creature comforts of other industries like evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement.
    • The barriers to entry for new farmers would be much lower. New farmers would not have to learn to be entrepreneurs, marketers, agritourism experts, and social media mavens in order to make it work. A farmer could actually make a living as a trade journeyman, just like any other trade, and brand new farmers could be trained by the co-op itself. On a related note…
    • Sustainable farming could be de-gentrified since it would no longer be a “labor of love” only available to people that can afford to work for free or next to nothing (i.e. afford to be exploited, which is a bad thing even if they don’t seem to mind very much). Everyone — people of color in particular — would be able to look at farming as a viable career choice.
    • Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying. The co-op has producers of livestock, produce, fruit, mushrooms, grain, dairy, flowers, etc. Ecological diversity is managed at the co-op/landscape level rather than the level of the individual producer, so the latter can focus on what they do best, still make a living, and still operate within an ecologically restorative framework.
    • Farmers could operate at the scale they choose. If someone just wants to grow microgreens in their basement and sell them into the co-op’s single-payer market, so be it. If they want to range a cattle herd followed by sheep and chickens across a few hundred acres leased or owned by the co-op, go for it. The only constraint is that the producer must follow the co-op’s production standards.
The point is, these farmers would no longer be alone. We’d present a united farmer-owned — this is key — interface to the rest of the world — suppliers, customers, landlords, regulators, media, etc. — that, at present, each farmer is left alone to handle. It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition.

We have to evolve if we’re going to survive.

The only kind of contemporary farming I hold we'd be better of without is corporate agriculture. My chief concerns are providing a sustainable supply chain of food to support 7+ billion people on this planet, and doing it justly with regard to people and the land. No model may be perfect, but the best should be sought out. Private family farms, co-ops...whatever works to reach toward fulfilling those goals. 

Here's the podcast series I mentioned above. I very highly recommend it.