Farming has almost always existed on a larger social scale—very extended families up to whole villages. We tend to think of medieval peasants as forebears of today’s family farms, but they’re not. Medieval villages worked much more like a single unit with little truly private infrastructure—draft animals, plows, and even land were operated at the community level.Put another way, plagues or conquest or perhaps the application of knowledge that served as a military force multiplier (phalanxes or firearms) combined to provide an opportunity for the family farm to emerge as a trade-tested betterment. Or perhaps not: Ms Taber notes that family farmers can rent-seek (or serve as the mascots for Big Agriculture doing the rent-seeking) with the best of them.
Family farming as we know it— nuclear families that own their land, pass it on to heirs, raise some or all of their food, and produce some cash crops—is vanishingly rare in human history.
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 areas where family farming has persisted for more than a couple generations 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.” After seeing what I’ve seen from 20 years in the industry, continuing to present it as such feels to me like a type of con game — because there is a better way.That might be reason for government to go away, although Ms Taber doesn't want to roll that way.
America’s history is filled with examples of collaborative farming. It’s just less publicized than single-family homesteading. African-American farmers have a long and determined history of collaborative farming, a brace against the viciousness of slavery and Jim Crow. Native peoples that farmed usually did so as a whole community rather than on a single-family basis. In the early days of the reservation system, some reservations grew their food on one large farm run by the entire nation or tribe. These were so successful that colonial governments panicked, broke them up, and forced indigenous farmers to farm as individual single-family homesteads. This was done with the express goal of impoverishing them — which says a lot about the realities of family farming, security, and financial independence. It also says a lot about how long those grim realities have been understood. Indigenous groups today run modern, innovative, community-level land operations, including over half the farms in Arizona Tanka’s work restoring prairies, bison, and traditional foodways in the Dakotas as the settler-built wheat economy dries up.Put another way, there is no one model of agriculture for a Farm Czar or the Great White Father or some other Wise Expert to dictate. Perhaps the best thing for the government to do is to go away. (Not to mention that one way to do right by Native Americans might be for the government agencies managing tribal affairs to encourage those farms, again, rather than focusing on casinos and associated hotels.)
One collaborative tradition that’s been very public about how their community-size farms function is the Hutterites, a religious group of about 460 communities in the U.S. and Canada numbering 75-150 people apiece. Despite the harsh prairies where they live, and farming about half as many acres per capita as neighboring family farmers, Hutterites are thriving and expanding when neighboring family farms are throwing in the towel.
Their approach — essentially farming as a large employee-owned company with diverse crops and livestock — has valuable lessons.
Outsiders often chalk up the success of the Hutterites, who forgo most private property, to “free labor” or “not having to pay taxes.” Neither of these are accurate. Hutterite farms thrive due to farming as a larger community rather than as individual families. Family farms can achieve economies of scale by specializing in one thing, like expanding a dairy herd or crop acreage. But with only one or two family members running a farm, there simply isn’t enough bandwidth to run more than one or two operations, no matter how much labor-saving technology is involved. The community at a Hutterite farm allows them to actually pull off what sustainability advocates talk about, but family farms consistently struggle with: diversifying.
America’s farmland is filled with opportunities to sustainably grow more food from the same acres and earn extra cash, thwarted by the limited attention solo operations can give. We treat this plight as natural and inevitable. We treat it as something to solve by collective action on a national level — government policies that help family farms. We don’t talk about how readily these things can be solved by collective action at the local level.Yes, she uses a lot of buzz-words (collective, collaborative, decolonize) that smack of vanguardism. Her examples, however, are various and emergent.
Collaboration doesn’t just make better use of the land — it can also do a lot for farmers’ quality of life. Hutterites, thanks to farming on a community scale, get four weeks of vacation per year; new mothers get a few months’ maternity leave and a full-time helper of their choosing — something few American women in any vocation can do.
We don’t have to commit to the Hutterite lifestyle to benefit from the advantages of collaborative farming. Big, diverse, employee-owned farms work, and they can turn farming into a job that anyone can train for and get — you don’t have to be born into it.
Finally, and perhaps most important, collaborative farming can be a powerful tool for decolonization. Hutterite communities are powerhouses, raising most of the eggs, hogs, or turkeys in some states — and they’re also largely self-sufficient. This has allowed them to build their own culture to suit their own values. They have enough scale to build their own crop processing, so they can work directly with retailers and customers on their own terms instead of going through middlemen. They build their own knowledge instead of relying on “free” agribusiness advice as many family farms do. In other words, they’re powerful. Imagine what groups like this, with determined inclusivity from top leadership down through rank-and-file, could do to right the balance of power in the United States.It's probably nitpicking to point out that Hutterite marketing managers are doing the work of the middlemen by negotiating those contracts with retailers or customers. The organizational approach might look like voluntary combination into a collective farm, or an egg cooperative that doesn't break down in squabbles between Catholics and Lutherans. The important phrase there is voluntary combination, which is to say, betting on emergence. And there's a model for righting balances of power in the United States already: it's called limiting the power of the national government and allowing the states to function as their voters see fit.
Likewise, her concluding remark generalizes to other areas where One Best Way appears to hold sway.
Our culture puts so much emphasis on one “right” way of farming — solo family operations — that we ignore valuable lessons from people who’ve done it differently for hundreds or thousands of years. It’s time for us to open up and look at other ways of doing things.Is it "our culture" or is it "our political class" (for a variety of reasons) that is wedded to One Best Way?