Monday, September 2, 2013

Why be agrarian?

I promised I'd write this post, and then I got too obsessed with daydreaming about haymaking.  And browsing Craigslist for Shetland sheep.  That kind of thing.

However, my obsession with farming is not the reason I'm an agrarian, or why I plan to homestead.  It goes way deeper than that.  I've wanted to homestead since before I knew what it was.

When I was a kid, we would often go to my great-grandpa's house.  He was wiry and mostly deaf, with a shock of white hair and a house that smelled like fish.  He lived off the land, which when you live on a single suburban acre is pretty impressive.  And my mom told me the story of how he used to be a used-car salesman.  When the Great Depression hit, no one wanted to buy cars anymore.  Things looked hopeless.  So he packed up his family and went into the wilderness.  They lived in a cabin and ate deer, fish, berries, whatever they could rustle up.  Back in the cities, people were living on sugar cubes and ketchup packets in restaurants, or deciding whether food or heat was more important.  Meanwhile farmers dumped crops and killed livestock because no one could afford to buy them.  The cash economy that everyone put their hopes in failed.  Only those, like my great-grandfather, who could truly support themselves were unscathed.

It was then that I realized: if you have land, and you know how to farm it, no one can take that away from you.  No stock market crash, no layoff, no runaway inflation, no breakdown of transportation.

I grew up not terribly poor, but poor enough that the really good fresh food was always rationed out.  One fruit per day, or we'd eat our parents out of house and home.  But every August, the blackberries would get ripe and we could eat as much as we wanted.  The luxury, the bliss of eating blackberries till you don't want any more blackberries, the knowledge that when we'd eaten all we had we could go out along the road and pick more ... it was a level of freedom I didn't usually experience.  Nowadays, when I pinch every penny at the grocery store, when I carefully calculate how many pounds of meat and gallons of milk will last us till the next store day, harvesting my garden gives me that same sense of freedom.  To say, "I have too many tomatoes to eat," is, in my book, as good as saying "I have more money than I could ever spend."  It's wealth.  It's safety.  It's knowing you won't go hungry.

Why be agrarian?  Because you have a deep conviction that the land is real, that it's safe, that it's lasting.  Our industrial economy is shakier than it looks.  On an average day, it plugs along fine: this person makes a million dollars, that person loses their job, but for 99% of us nothing much happens, and we can go to the store and buy food without giving it a whole lot of thought.

But let the stock market -- a purely imaginary concept -- crash, or the roads flood, or a sunspot wipe everyone's hard drive, or the price of petroleum shoot up, or the dollar lose value, or civil unrest break out, and disaster is at everyone's door.  Stacked up on each other in the cities, we have no backup plan.  Hurricane Sandy brought that reality home to a lot of people.

The industrial economy is a new invention; what it will come to in a century is anyone's guess.  Before 1800, when there was unrest somewhere or when political lines were redrawn, the great mass of people kept doing exactly what their fathers did.  There was no guesswork necessary; you simply had to follow the rules that had held true for generations.  Today, we have no idea if what we do will end up as the rule for our descendents, as a cautionary tale, or as completely useless background for some further change.

But there is one thing all our ancestors knew: land can be counted on.  If you have land, you can live.  Everything we need and use all comes, somewhere, from the earth.  If you own a place where you can access the earth -- where you have direct contact with creation -- you are safe.  You may never be rich, but you will be able to eat.

If you give up the land -- and so many people have, whether from crippling debt or from a real desire to do something else -- you will always be reliant on other people for your survival.  You will have to be able to convince someone else to hire you, and to pay you a living wage.  If you want to go in business for yourself, you will still have to convince people to buy your product.  If, through some catastrophe, people can't or won't pay you money anymore, you could starve.

Farming is like breastfeeding.  Bear with me.  Mother's milk is free; it comes, in a certain sense, straight from God, directly to the baby that needs it.  Formula costs money.  There are always those voices (in wealthy countries) declaring, "But not everyone wants to breastfeed.  We can afford not to.  We will be fine if we don't, because modern medicine can treat any problems that arise."  And for them, this is true.

But women in poorer countries see this and get sold a different line: "Women in rich countries don't breastfeed, they use this superior product from a store.  Why would they do it if it weren't better?  They have more freedom, now they can leave their baby with someone else and get a job if they want to."  So poor women accept the formula sample.

But where is the freedom they expected?  Suddenly they're paying so much money for formula that they have no choice but to leave the baby -- probably with a six-year-old sibling or an ailing grandmother -- and go to work.  And somehow that job isn't so freeing; it pays pennies a day.  And the baby keeps getting diarrhea because the water isn't really clean.  But it's too late to go back -- the mother's milk is gone.

In the same way, subsistence farmers are lured off their land with all kinds of promises.  There will be jobs in the city.  They will get to have the lifestyle that rich people have, because they'll have the cash to buy everything they want.  They won't have to work all day long in the hot sun.

What they don't realize is that the people who sell them this line want their land.  They see its value.  That, or they want cheap labor.  They're not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.  So the farmer sells his farm, takes the cash, heads to the city to look for a job.  And maybe they even get one -- one that involves 14-hour days in a factory or sweatshop, but a job nonetheless.  However, everything in the city costs so much more that the proceeds from selling the farm are soon gone.  It's impossible to go back.  And then rich people overseas say things like, "Well, not everyone wants to farm," or, "They're better off making a dollar a day than nothing," or, "Development is good because now these people have jobs."  It makes me want to spit.  Many of these people had independence, security, and plenty of healthy food.  Now they're eating ramen noodles and going to work injured because they can't afford a day off.

I live in a much richer country, so you'd think all this wouldn't apply to me.  But America's wealth isn't guaranteed.  Prosperity comes and goes, but land remains.  I want to know that if John's job vanishes, if more work can't be found, we will eat.

Even here in America, there's a constant struggle.  Lately some of my friends have been debating the problem of living wages.  McDonalds hires unskilled employees for minimum wage, which, without benefits, is not enough to live on in most places.  There are three answers usually given: Those jobs aren't worth more than $7 an hour, so the market shouldn't give more than that -- if people don't like it, they should try to get a better job.  Or, raise minimum wage so they can get more -- but this would shift through the system, we'd all need a wage increase, and pretty soon prices would rise and we'd be back where we started.  Or, replace those jobs with robots and those people can get different jobs.

I just don't have trust that there could always be 100% employment.  Surely once all the really useful jobs are taken by robots, we'll run out of jobs in other sectors because there's only so much creative work that needs to be done.  The question just seems to come from the wrong direction.  I am not concerned that we will run out of work for people to do.  I am concerned that all the wealth is held by a few, and that the rest of us live by convincing those few to share their wealth with us in exchange for something they need from us -- our labor.  But once the richest people own everything they want, and robots to take care of their whims, it seems to me that they will stop sharing their wealth with us as much as possible.  In any event I have no confidence in the capitalist dream that there will always be work and pay for everyone.  What if it turns out to be wrong?  Give me five arable acres, and I won't have to worry.

This post has gone on long enough and I'm only at reason #1.  Part 2 will follow... at some point.


Enbrethiliel said...


What you believe about homesteading, Filipinos believe about education. The problem is that "education" can mean anything these days, though owning your own land seems as reliable as the value of gold. Still, you should see their faces when I argue in favour of homeschooling! =P

Now, work we will always have with us; but it's true that some work is more freeing than others. I know of many city-based entrepreneurs who recommend buying and fixing up old buildings, then renting the units out to tenants. To them, the income which comes out of that is almost as reliable as food you grow yourself. I know a lot of people who wouldn't want to be landlords, but I can see how this work would be more freeing than a more creative career as a wage slave.

PS -- You might have heard that China has big plans to relocate 250 million rural people to the cities. Even if it has yet to build enough cities for them all. What could possibly go wrong???

Sheila said...

Here we are experiencing an "education crash," if you could call it that. Lots of people who went deeply into debt to purchase a college education now can't get a job.

My theory is that being college-educated is more of a class marker than anything else. Poor people who saw college kids getting the good jobs wanted to go to college so they could get good jobs too .... only to find that now the value of education has been inflated. People with no degree are seen as probably stupid and unmotivated, people with a degree are average and of no particular value, and only those who have gone to an Ivy League school are worth anything. So no one's got ahead; the only difference is that now we're all in a boatload of debt.

I don't regret my college education, but I don't plan on sending my kids unless they have an actual career plan -- and some idea of how to pay for it.

Re: that China scheme -- oh, dear. I wonder why. Maybe someone wants their farms? I want to write a review soon of this book about land grabs and peasant relocations that I read. If anyone is even reading this blog besides you and me, it will blow a lot of minds.

Enbrethiliel said...


The Chinese government wants their farms. I just don't know whether the corporate farming model will be part of a socialist system or be outsourced to a private contractor. Either way, ominous music has just been cued.

We're also experiencing degree inflation in the Philippines, which is partly why my family sent me to a university in a whole other country. It increased my marketability. =P What we don't seem to have, though, is a lot of debt. This is partly because most tertiary institutions cannot afford to give out so many loans, and partly because tuition fees are still seen as something parents should pay for. So there's no pressure on the student to try to find another way to pay for his degree--and no pressure on the schools to offer loans just so students keep enrolling.

I probably will send my children to a university, but I admit that this is a class thing. If everyone in the neighbourhood has perfectly straight teeth, you don't want to be the only one whose children have slightly crooked smiles. =/

By the way, if you ever decide to host a readalong of an agrarian book, I will totally join in! (Of course, this will depend on the availability of the title where I live; but my point is that I like discussing these ideas with you.)

Sheila said...

And that's why I got braces! ;)

The government underwrites student loans in some complicated way. I can't quite figure it out, but Americans somehow seem to be able to borrow money, not only that they can't pay back, but that doesn't actually exist. At least that's how it seems.

I don't think I'd have time to post a readalong -- especially since I get all my books from the library and I'm only allowed to keep them for two weeks -- but I'll keep reviewing books as I can. So far the best book I could recommend to you is The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, if you can get your hands on it. I'll try to build up an extensive reading list .... at some point. Someone sent me a big batch of books on agrarianism last week, so there is a lot more to do!

Belfry Bat said...

Now-a-days, all money that exists is borrowed, from private banks (who never really had it in the first place). Even British Pounds. Among the bloggers I read, Paul Stilwell has riffed on this insanity more than anyone; it's also one of the things I was arguing against way back when, if you recall, I suggested currency should be issued at hospitals, and taxes should be collected mostly from miners (... and such farmers as don't take good care of their soil).

Sheila said...

The tax thing makes sense. I consider property tax to be the most just kind of tax, if you consider it like a feudal rent. However, if a person uses their property to extract non-replaceable resources, they are taking that from the whole nation's future; and if they use it to make it even richer, they invest in everyone. So perhaps the tax code should reflect that.

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