When I first began researching U.S. agriculture, I focused on family farming in isolation: the passing on of land from parent to son or daughter, the continuous strand of family that meant the land would not be lost to development or waste. But the more I researched, read, and talked to farmers, the more I realized that the family is just one form of membership, and all forms are deeply integral to human flourishing—including the flourishing of the farm.
The farmer needs neighbors. The farmer needs the church. The farmer needs associations, societies, and boards. The farmer needs mentors and mentees. When a farm community is working, it is neighborly and multigenerational: made up of farmers who are training the next generation, be they sons and daughters or completely unrelated young people with a thirst for the land. A farming community is a membership that preserves culture in place: remembering the past and carrying it forward into the future. It is a membership in which conservation is linked to innovation, in which we preserve and protect even as we create.
For decades, however, the farm lobby and the USDA have emphasized the picture of the nuclear family, the independent farm owner, and the private nature of farm production—with no mention of the communities that also ought to undergird them. Many of the problems we’re seeing in rural America today stem not just from the struggles of individual farmers but from the collapse of the larger ecosystems that once nourished them.
Our Atomized Family Farms
Robert Nisbet predicted in Quest for Community that when local and associative forms of society are lost, society will become “an aggregate of atoms held rigidly together by the sovereign will of the State alone.” And there’s not a much better description of today’s system of nuclear farm families and their dependence on the federal government for survival. According to crop scientist Dr. Sarah Taber, our American fixation on the family farm ignores the support structures that make diverse, sustainable agriculture work (and hides the brokenness and bigness of our current system). As she wrote in 2019 for New York magazine:
Family farming isn’t just difficult. It’s so brittle that it only makes a viable livelihood for farmers when land is nearly valueless for sheer lack of people. In areas where family farming has persisted . . . it’s largely thanks to extensive, modern technocratic government interventions like grants, guaranteed loans, subsidized crop insurance, free training, tax breaks, suppression of farmworker wages, and more. Family farms’ dependence on the state is well understood within the industry, but it’s heresy to talk about it openly lest taxpayers catch on. I think it’s time to open up, because I don’t think a practice that needs that much life support can truly be considered “sustainable.”
From its very beginning, the American farm has never been reliant on family bonds alone: it has demanded a village. Farmers need more than private free enterprise; they need a collaborative, supportive system that helps with input, infrastructure, and maintenance costs, serves to promote and support diversification, and provides the cultural and communal support farms need on a spiritual, social basis. We see these sorts of collaborative farming groups pop up in response to religious belief systems such as the Hutterites and the Amish. Emmett, meanwhile, was forced to forge some of these tight-knit, collaborative bonds because of the demands of irrigation.
That isn’t to say that irrigation in this valley was or is perfect: there’s still much work that could be done to make the system more sustainable, both for the farmers and for the wildlife that depend on it. But as an instance of private-public collectivization, as well as communal (rather than atomistic) thinking, it serves as an interesting and important example. Early technologies encouraged communal rhythms, which helped in the creation of farm villages. The cost and risk involved in farming traditionally urged farmers to rely on one another. Industry clusters, such as the agribusinesses that once existed in Emmett, fostered collective work and profit.
To bring back health, therefore, we need systemic change of the sort that will enable us to fight harmful monopolies, strengthen local economic sovereignty, and foster the health of rural com- munities once more.
The Consequences of Broken Communities
Despite all the money that flows to “Big Ag” in the United States, the Farm Belt continues to struggle. In recent years, American farmers have borne slumping prices for corn, wheat, and other commodities caused by a glut of grain worldwide. The Wall Street Journal warned in early 2017 that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.” In 2019, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue insisted that U.S. agriculture should depend on global trade—even though trade renegotiations with Canada and Mexico, as well as a crippling trade war with China, pushed many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy and even suicide.
As communal threads wear away, I fear that only the siren call of individualism (and its resultant isolation) will be left. And that lonely individualism is far more dangerous than you might think. In 2019, the American Farm Bureau Federation reported that 91 percent of farmers and farmworkers were experiencing financial issues that affected their mental health, and 87 percent feared losing their farms. In recent years, farmer suicides and depression have escalated to alarming rates. The consequences of policies that emphasize individualism and isolation are not just visible in economic difficulty. Because the farm transcends economics, and touches on the entirety of one’s life—culture, ecology, lifestyle, and health—the downfall of the farm often also has emotional, communal, and even spiritual consequences for its owners. This is a problem that cannot be fixed with money alone: a profitable farm, if it is a lonely endeavor, can still foment anxiety and stress, and isolation.
Perhaps even more than current economic difficulties, these emotional and mental crises reveal the cost of broken farm communities as well as our desperate need for more sustainable forms of agriculture. The federal government continues to emphasize specialization and exponential growth, and the “get big or get out” orthodoxy still reigns supreme. But there is very little resilience or diversity left in many farm communities. Farmers’ share of the food dollar keeps trending toward zero. Our government and society have both emphasized profit, the discrete individual, absentee ownership, and placelessness to the detriment of farm communities everywhere.
These policies will continue to hurt farmers nationwide until something changes. Over the past century, they have led us to where we are now: to a nation of aging, isolated, and dwindling farmers; a generation of young people who don’t want to farm; and a history of minority farmers either being prevented from farm ownership or being robbed of their land. Agribusiness has monopolized and consolidated power to such a degree that farmer choice and sustainability are increasingly constrained and put under pressure.
From “Handouts” to Real Reform
When I first started writing about the struggles of family farmers, a fellow conservative journalist asked me warily whether my finished project would advocate for government handouts to small farms.
“No, absolutely not,” I assured him. At that point, I was still deeply attached to the lessons I had been taught in college about free-market capitalism and limited government—and blissfully ignorant of the control and influence the federal government and big business already had on these farms.
But now, I believe the dichotomy represented in the journalist’s comments—either “hand out” money to these folks or leave their fate to the whims of global trade and big business—is a rather poor illustration of our choices. As a reminder, we already give handouts to farms, but we generally give them to the nation’s largest farms. Most folks agree that this is a messed-up system. But they aren’t sure how best to change it. Should we just stop giving subsidies to the nation’s large farms, and leave it at that? Should we use the funds freed up by that switch to nurture the small and midsize farms we’ve disincentivized and weakened for generations now?
The problem with pure passivity going forward—removing subsidies and then waiting to see what happens—is that it suggests our rural ecosystems will naturally restore themselves without stewardship or care. And while it might be true that nature would heal much of its own ground if we were to just wait long enough, I wonder whether we have enough time to try that method. Extraction of local resources has left an incredible dearth of health in our own time—and as we are confronting the magnitude of climate change, it seems only wise to assist in the work of building back health and restoring what’s broken.
I am not at all opposed to the government using some of the funds traditionally given to the nation’s largest farms in order to rectify some of the hollowing out we are seeing in our farm towns. Attempts by the USDA to get a younger, more diverse, and more sustainable population onto the land—especially after more than a century of efforts that were purposefully designed to cultivate the opposite—seems, at the very least, like a more equitable use of public funds.
But it can’t stop there—because the problem with the whole idea of “handouts” to individual farm families is that it focuses on propping up a broken system. It emphasizes individual farming families without looking at their larger context and communities. Author and professor Patrick Deneen has suggested that we should instead use public funds and efforts to undergird civil associations: investing not just in individuals, but also in the groups and networks that support them. And I wonder whether that might, in fact, be a way to staunch and heal some of the losses farm towns like Emmett have experienced over the past several decades. Such efforts could involve preserving and protecting farmland via agricultural easements, providing “land links” that help pass land down from one generation of farmers to the next, connecting Future Farmers of America participants with local farmers, helping revitalize downtowns, investing in their farmers’ market and CSA programs, and more.
Reform could also happen through efforts aimed at investing capital in stewardship and long-term care, rather than in temporary profit: an effort on the part of the USDA, for instance, to in- vest the majority of its funds in regenerative programs rather than in cash crop subsidies. Such an effort would make a massive statement about our priorities as a country: whether we want to encourage short-term profit or long-term fidelity and health. It would require people to stay in place and cultivate something for the long haul. It could also turn our gaze again from the focus on profit, which so often creates boomers and destroys roots, to the focus on virtues that increase the health and vitality of our places.
Health and Community over Profit and Autonomy
Free-market capitalism and liberalism in the United States often encourage us to put profit and autonomy above all else. But when we turn individualism and profit into virtues, there are consequences. Since our founding, the idea of agricultural autonomy has encouraged a reductive thinking that breaks down the farm’s purpose to fit solely profit-focused ends—and has served as a threat to healthy, whole farm communities. America’s founding farmers talked about virtue and freedom, all the while allowing slavery to flourish on southern plantations—often on their own land. In our own time, the lack of equitable pay and treatment offered to many farmhands, the unjust treatment of minority farmers, the poor health of our water and soil, and the inhumane handling of farm animals suggest that the same reductive demeanor plagues U.S. agriculture today. Profit and efficiency fail as teleological ends. They do not always—or often—encourage health.
Many libertarians I’ve debated with in the past do not care if farm consolidation leaves us with ten megafarms in the entire United States, operating with robotics and drones while their owners live in private New York City suites. It would be more efficient, after all, and take out the potential for human error (debatable, in my mind, but this is how the argument generally goes). Many of these folks don’t care, either, if we end up importing all our food from other countries, where it’s produced more cheaply and efficiently. Once again, they urge: let the free market do its thing.
I think these attitudes often arise from a lack of presence in or knowledge of farm communities—of the vast swaths of countryside that are rural, farm-centric, and filled with people who love their homeland (and want it to thrive again). That is one of the reasons I have written my recent book: to help people in more urban areas see what they’ve missed, perhaps, when they fly over rural areas and gaze down on an empty patchwork of fields. It’s easy to look at that patchwork and not see the life below you. But as this book has hopefully made clear, that world is (or at least should be) overflowing with life: soil, seeds, fruit, animals, people, and more. As Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, “A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes—or makes itself harmoniously a part of—its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and nonhuman.”
To cultivate health once more, we must restrengthen that household and all who live in it. This is not to say that farming’s future cannot or should not include new technologies—but that the best technologies will support this household, rather than undermine it. Even if robotics and drones are useful tools for farmers going forward, they neither can nor should replace human presence in the landscape. Ultimately, farming is not done in a factory, a lab, or a brick-and-mortar store. It takes place in the living earth: in a complex, beautiful ecosystem of soil, seed, water, animal, and humanity— of which we are a part. Thus, we must be active, present stewards of the ecosystem we rely on for sustenance, safety, and community.
Health is cultivated through presence, connection, and commitment. Unlike profit, health takes into account the well-being of all the human and nonhuman creatures who rely on our food system. The farmer committed to health might have to take a hit one year if it means his farm will be healthier the next—many farmers who are transitioning to organic are well aware of this cost. But in the long term, the soil and all the life-forms that rely upon it will be better for his work. And that is what we want, ultimately.
That is the end we should be reaching for.
This essay is excerpted from Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, with permission from Penguin Random House Books. Text copyright © 2021 Grace Olmstead.