American farmers as peasants? Really?

By Blake Hurst

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peas·ant

/ˈpez(ə)nt/

noun

a poor farmer of low social status who owns or rents a small piece of land for cultivation (chiefly in historical use or with reference to subsistence farming in poorer countries).
Synonyms: agricultural worker, small farmer, rustic, villein, serf, campesino
Informal: an ignorant, rude, or unsophisticated person; a person of low social status.

Lets Talk Food In his recent declaration of war on my farm and thousands like it, and yes, those were his words, New York Times recipe-trader-in-chief and food columnist Mark Bittman contrasted the kind of “industrial” agriculture practiced in the U.S. with peasant agriculture in the rest of the world, and found the kind of farming we do wanting. 

Mr. Bittman was speaking at The New York Times Food for Tomorrow event, and, according to him, farming done by peasants is much to be preferred to the kind of farming I do.  He says that peasants produce 70 percent of the world's food while only using 30 percent of the resources used by farmers worldwide.  I would presume he's talking about off-farm inputs here, since the only resource that matters in Bittman's world is oil, failing to take into account the land use and the labor of those noble peasants.

We can argue about how agriculture should be constituted, and we clearly will, but I thought more interesting was Bittman's choice of the word “peasant.”  He could have talked about traditional agriculture, he could have extolled the virtues of small holdings, he could have explained how farmers in the third world have adapted their methods to the resources at hand.  Nope - he chose to use the word “peasant,' and as a person whose speaking and writing fees depend upon his ability to use a word that exactly says what he means to say, I'm going to pay him the respect of believing that he said exactly what he meant.  Farmers should be peasants, with all that implies.

I've been around farm organizations my whole professional career, which spans more decades than I'd like to admit, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we want to portray ourselves to those we wish to influence.  I wear overalls on the farm.  They're perfect for their hammer loops, their plier pockets, their bib pockets where I keep my phone and pen and electric meter and, well, whatever else I might need during my daily rounds.  I've had my picture taken in those overalls, and heard from friends and colleagues who think I'm sending the wrong message about my profession.  I've been at events in a suit and tie where I was on the program, and been approached by people who don't think I'm a “real” farmer, whatever that is. Perhaps the best solution is one a friend of mine chose on a trip to Washington D.C. -- dark sportcoat, white shirt, tie and new black overalls.

People are conflicted in their views of farmers.  They want us to be close to the land, but they poke fun at our provincialism.  They want us to be a family business, with emphasis on the family and not the business.  They are afraid we're corporate and worry when our businesses grow, but they surely want us to be proficient at our trade, sophisticated in the care we take of the land and animals in our charge.  But almost nobody, outside of the leaders of the “food movement” want us to be peasants.

It would be convenient, for the Bittmans of the world, if we were peasants.  Instead of tugging our forelocks when the master tours his holdings, we could plant and harvest in ways that meet the approval of Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle.  Instead of bowing to an aristocracy based on inherited titles, we'll have to pay obeisance to experts from Harvard and the Hamptons.  

A national food policy would be nice, and as we go about the business of planting “real” food instead of corn and soybeans, we could take our marching orders from our betters in the coastal headquarters of the food movement.  Peasants by their nature don't make a lot of money and that will help keep food prices low if we're required to increase the number of farmers because we're replacing technology with stoop labor. 

“Industrial” farmers have the nasty habit of adapting tools to replace hand weeding and the like.  Peasants don't expect to better their working lives, and that will be a good thing when agriculture takes the forms that meet the approval of The New York Times.  Perhaps we can get a pat on the back when we have a particularly good beet or quinoa crop.  We couldn't expect to send our kids to college on peasant-like earnings, but college will just make farmers uppity, and we can't have that.  We'll have the satisfaction of knowing that we're raising things in the way the rest of the world does, and that will be enough.

There is a certain elitism to this whole exercise.

Attendees at the Food for Tomorrow event paid $1400 per ticket, and a main sponsor for the event was Porsche.  Somehow, I don't imagine too many farmers are tooling around in Porsche SUVs, and most of the people who buy what we produce can't afford them either.  

People on a budget are always absent.  Not only at the New York Times event, but in any discussion of how we should change agriculture.  It is a given in any of these discussions that food is too cheap, and that we must pay more.  Easy to say if you if you are able to spend a month's salary on a two-day meeting.  Not so easy if you are a single mom with three kids.  

At the beginning of the Food for Tomorrow Conference, the editor in charge of the event announced that the U.S. and the rest of the developed world are on the cusp of a huge change in how we produce food.  According to him, he anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union, and commissioned articles predicting that historic change.  That journalistic premonition, that ability to see the future in the way that no one else can, has told him industrial agriculture is as outdated as payphones. 

To this farmer, as I sat in the audience, it was a moment I'll never forget. 

Hundreds of people gathered to plan the future at my expense.  And after attempting to start several conversations with the arbiters of my future, I realized that the attendees had very little interest in my views on the future of food production.  The experience and knowledge of present-day farmers are seen as compromised by our allegiance to modern technology and outdated ideas of productivity and efficiency.  We've screwed up the world in ways that will be difficult or impossible to fix.  It's time to put journalists and nutritionists in charge of the most productive agriculture in the world.   

All the panels at the Food for Tomorrow event, except the one sponsored by the USFRA, agreed on one thing:  modern industrial agriculture is a fragile system and not the least bit sustainable.  I guess that's why we spend so much money on transportation here in the U.S.  When our system breaks down, it will be necessary to have the ability to import food from Haiti and Africa to feed the U.S.   You know, like the last time there was a food crisis, and Iowa had to import food from the rest of the world.   I know a few Iowa farmers, and in order to get the “right” kind of food system, it may be necessary to import a few million peasants as well.  

Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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