The Divides that Bind: How Farmers are Indelibly Linked to the Cause of Civil Rights

This fall will mark 10 years since I began maintaining this blog. The year 2010 was a poignant one for farmers anticipating the potentially negative effects of new federal food safety legislation, and I began blogging with an assertion that it was no longer sufficient for farmers to merely work hard and continue pumping out the good food we all need to stay nourished and healthy. I supposed that farmers must also be productive in another sense, that they should be ready to tell their stories, making the case in written form and other creative ways for a return to agricultural values across the full spectrum of our society, including the stubborn divides that helped to drive food safety and security debates at the time.

I feel the same a decade later, but now understand there is much more at stake than I had previously imagined. In 2010 we were still anticipating that many aspects of life would improve by the year 2020, which turns out to have been wishful thinking at best (see my previous blog post). Today our society is beset by a host of afflictions that may seem coincidental but are actually reflections of each other. Whether talking about the current pandemic, climate change, economic disparities, rampant chronic disease or the political strife now filling our airwaves and social media, these are really all different aspects of the same dysfunctional human condition, and the sooner farmers recognize and understand their critical role in this drama, the better.

Public speaking is one of my favorite things to do, though I fret and suffer physically in preparation for such opportunities. For several years now I’ve made the case to various audiences that our food system is disadvantaged by its colonial roots and an assumption of the essentially free land and free labor that had been taken from other peoples along the way. I am not the first speaker to make this case, nor hardly the best or most qualified to do so. As time goes by I notice that audiences are more receptive to this message, but confess my own avoidance of the topic in front of audiences that include conventional farmers.  My fear has been that many farmers would fail to get beyond a misinterpretation that I am accusing them of somehow stealing land and labor for their own benefit. But that was never the point, and the time for such reticence on my part has passed.

The key is to understand the systemic nature of the problems we face in procuring food for a growing world population, and to remember how abusive systems often perpetuate more abuse through several generations, which I believe is exactly what’s at work in our food system today. I’m a big fan of such writers as Jack Weatherford (Native Roots, Indian Givers) and Charles C. Mann (1491, 1493) who have detailed how indigenous food systems in the Americas not only flourished before colonization, but helped to “feed the world” afterward. The latter achievement came despite the utter brutality and genocide wrought by the march of European colonists across both continents, matched in its tragic severity by the flow of slave labor across the Atlantic Ocean to accommodate our hunger for both food and profit in the New World. Simply put, no claim to greatness for our modern food system can be made without referencing the violent circumstances from whence it came.

This brings me to the point of this essay, which is that the unfortunate foundations of our current food system persist today in ways that all farmers – at least the vast majority of them – should recognize and abhor. Any farmer who has ever failed to account for his/her own labor in figuring cost of production or resulting profits, or experienced the extreme expense of maintaining land properly, especially with environmental regeneration in mind, should know exactly what I’m saying. Any municipality or school system that has depended on property taxes from farms without a corresponding effort to support those farmers, at very least by purchasing food from local farms for cafeterias whenever possible, should sit up and take notice of the implications of those systemic policy failures. Indeed, any citizen with an overt intention to support food that is both produced and consumed within one’s local community or broader region should fully understand that a devaluation of the land and labor involved is at the heart of their flagging hopes for success in the face of an increasingly globalized food system.

I often wonder how many commercial developers have looked out at productive farmland with the nagging thought that “there’s nothing there” and wondered how they could take advantage. Maybe we all do that to some extent, even farmers who hope to sprout a new crop of suburban housing on their land as a retirement plan. We are similarly apt to take for granted the labor involved in producing our food, which helps to explain the abuses that sometimes occur on large industrial farms or other food system facilities, especially those heavily dependent on migrant labor. I often talk about how the current system of procuring labor must look to some captains of industry as an improvement on slavery, since most workers are eventually sent away and likely will never gain the benefits of citizenship in our country. What are the true costs to our society of devaluing both land and labor in such insidious ways?

Farmers of all sizes and stripes need to understand their place in an abusive system that both victimizes them and sometimes propels them to more abusive behavior, whether involving the land, their workers, or the communities in which they are situated. Consumers, communities, schools, and other institutions need to learn this lesson as well. When people take to the streets to support the cause of Black Lives Matter, indigenous land claims or immigration reform, they are in part fighting for rights to a better food system and healthier life for us all.

Farmers are among those who stand to benefit the most by recognizing and accepting their direct and indelible relationship to fellow citizens fighting for the cause of fair and equal treatment. Perhaps they will soon fully understand that it is indeed time to jump in with both feet to support the well-being of all who demand enhanced access to healthy food as well as the economic and social justice that has always been the most important crop, and greatest calling, on any farm.