Who Am I to Farm?: The Dream of the Suburbs
by Peter Bane
Today only 0.3% of Americans and 2.2% of Canadians derive their primary income from farming.(1) This is the smallest proportion of the population devoted to farming in the history of either nation or in the history of the world. No other societies have made our basic connection to the earth and the garnering of sustenance such a marginal specialty. Are we, as economists and prophets of progress proclaim, more evolved and more efficient, freeing up labor from the drudgery of farming to perform more complex and rewarding tasks in industry or the creative professions? Or have we so lost ourselves in thrall to the logic of the machine, that we will sacrifice everything to it, the quality of our food, our health, the land, even our very souls?
The dynamic of the modern economy, by which large-scale production became dominant through the subsidy of fossil energy, has indeed made farming a marginal occupation at the bottom fringe of the system—a dirty and dangerous primary industry, akin to mining, logging or fishing. The vast prairie expanses of the United States and Canada have lent themselves to mechanized farming so that only a few individuals are needed to manage holdings of hundreds or thousands of acres.
Of course the statistics about farming as an occupation mask many ways in which the work of millions of people is hidden, so the “efficiency” and “progress” of our high-tech societies may be seen as an artifact of ideology as much as a sign of social evolution. More and more food is imported to North America from elsewhere in the world, where it is grown by Asian, African, Latin American, Caribbean or European farmers, usually on smaller farms and with more labor input. Even within our borders, the real food grown here, that is, the nutrient-dense food that sustains our health, such as fruits and vegetables, is picked and processed by an immigrant labor force of Mexicans, Jamaicans, Salvadorans, Haitians and other dispossessed farmers from the South. Many of these are undocumented workers whose labor and whose lives don’t officially exist. Even in our wealthy societies, we have many millions more farmers today than we acknowledge.
But what about most North Americans? Are we happy to be eating industrial food? Are we flourishing in our post-agricultural careers? Do we gladly forsake the countryside for city culture?
North American suburbs occupy some very good agricultural land. The land is irrigated; labor and markets are near at hand.
Back to the land?
Certainly millions seem content or may never dream of asking these questions. But there is ample evidence that many of us have never completely relinquished our attachments to a more agrarian way of life. The American Frontier, and the opportunity for anyone to claim a piece of land from the government and homestead it, closed in 1890. Yet every wave of urbanization since World War I has been accompanied or followed by the resurgence of agrarian ideals. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the United States as a nation of yeoman farmers continues to echo down the ages. In the 1930s, M.G. Kains wrote a manual for erstwhile farmers, Five Acres and Independence. He introduced the book with a quotation from Henry Ford extolling the virtues of the land—which may be more than ironic.(2) Already by 1935, the manic ups and downs of the capitalist business cycle were familiar enough that “return to the land” was a recurrent and well-recognized impulse in society.
Even after microbiology and engineering made cities less acutely unhealthy, industrial production, with coal as a primary fuel, made them dirty and often noisome places from which the better heeled residents sought relief at summer resorts and in “garden suburbs” where the amenities of a quasi-rural settlement could be combined with the convenience of swift rail transit to the centers of commerce. Long before use-based zoning began to sort out industrial from residential sectors within the city, the dream of the suburbs had taken root.
An even more radical critique of industrial civilization arose from the lives and writing of Helen and Scott Nearing. Their 1954 book Living the Good Life and subsequent titles extolled the virtues of simple living close to the land. The Nearings not only turned away from the hubbub and clamor of city life but proposed an unconventional response to economics as well. After Scott, who was trained as an engineer and an economist, was blacklisted from academia after World War I for his socialist and antiwar views, the couple retired to the Vermont frontier, reduced their consumption of industrial goods, and adopted a vegetarian diet based on home-grown food. They built their own house from local materials and disciplined themselves to divide their days equally between “bread labor”—or work for sustenance, intellectual pursuits, and socializing. Working six weeks a year in the late winter to make maple syrup and sugar afforded them enough cash income to pay taxes and even to travel. Not only did their forest farming and designed approach to living inspire a whole generation in the 1970s seeking a way back to the land, but they appear to have lived healthy, principled, and successful lives without compromising their values. Scott lived to 100 years of age and ended his life by fasting in 1983, while Helen, a generation younger, survived him some 12 years in their second homestead on the Maine coast, surrounded by friends and admirers. Their legacy is perpetuated in part by their writings and in the dreams of millions of their readers, and also through the work of the Good Life Institute in Harborside, Maine. (3)
A pastoral ideal
While not agrarian by design, the post-World War II suburban boom appealed to the unrealized dreams of millions who left the countryside for war and better wages, but from whom the pull of a pastoral life had never entirely vanished. Men continued to enact, in mechanical and often neurotic ways, the rituals of making hay as they cut lawns into perfect green squares every weekend. Women organized ice cream socials and birthday parties like the collective celebrations of harvest that had ennobled the hard lives of their ancestors. Children were the real crop here. During the 1950s this patchwork of farm fields, forest remnants, and village-scale neighborhoods, peopled by the children and grandchildren of factory workers, immigrants, ex-farmers and other groups newly enriched by the war economy, became the dream landscape of the boomer generation, the largest in history. Small herds of children roamed this bucolic terrain, secure in the privilege their parents extracted as world conquerors until, of course, the next development took down a totemic patch of woods or replaced a mysterious meadow with a cul-de-sac of new houses. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that as it reached adulthood this age cohort sought meaning in nature amidst a world seemingly mad with the designs of human dominance: corporate conformity and mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons.
Well into the 1970s, when energy crises began to call into question the wisdom of a commuting way of life, the suburbs continued to afford a new generation of children the same glimpses of a comfortable life embedded in nature. But the suburbs were changing too, as they grew to become the dominant habitat for North American societies. (4) City centers and their surrounding neighborhoods, under assault by highway builders, redlining, and white flight born of racism, hollowed as their outer fringes spread.
The agrarian way of life found its greatest contemporary philosopher in Wendell Berry whose political views on farming, land use, and culture reshaped the national debate. If the Nearings had offered moral inspiration and economic guidance, Berry’s critique of urban civilization provided an intellectual foundation for the Vietnam-era pulse of return-to-the-land. Driven less by economics than it had been during the 1930s and more by cultural alienation from the turmoil of decaying cities and a general rejection of the values of industrial capitalism and war born of empire, this broad wave of hippie communes and homesteaders brought lifestyle issues into public consciousness. Vegetarianism and concern for wholesome food free of chemicals grew in direct proportion to the expansion of “get big or get out” agriculture with its emphasis on vast grain monocultures and the feedlot finishing of livestock.
Migrants harvest and process most of the real food eaten in the US and Canada.
A perfect storm
Economic opportunities in the countryside continued to be constrained, however. The agrarian ideal struggled against industrial consolidation. The US economy began its long-term contraction about 1973 following the peak of national oil extraction. Farmers continued to be squeezed by the relentless logic of the market—overproduction leading to large surpluses and low prices—while input costs rose with the inflationary price of oil, now set in the international markets and no longer by the Texas Railroad Commission. A second oil shock and double-digit inflation piled on top of too much farm debt led to a severe depression in rural America in the early 1980s. The traditional household pattern of life eroded as millions of women moved into the workforce in the 1970s and beyond, largely to compensate for falling incomes and inflating costs of living. While energy concerns and economic hardship during the 1970s put a temporary brake on the expansion of suburban housing, military Keynesianism under Reagan combined with loose banking laws led to a glut of suburban housing and office developments occupying the new niches created by the federally-funded interstate highway system. Flight from center cities, which had begun as a backlash against racial integration in the 1960s and 1970s, accelerated. A generation of sprawl had begun whose end we viewed in 2008 and 2009 as the so-called “sub-prime mortgage crisis.” In truth, the near collapse of the nation’s banking, automobile, and housing industries is tied directly to the energy excesses of the preceding 30 years.
The depression of the 21st century, outwardly visible from 2008 onward, has been the occasion of much writing on the link between energy supply, settlement patterns, and the shaky basis of the American economy. Social critic and geographer James Howard Kunstler has called the suburbs, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” (6) There can be little doubt that paving over much of the nation’s best agricultural land and cutting old growth forests to frame shoddily-built McMansions was a tragedy of epic proportions, but the question is not whom to hang but what can be done with it now? However disreputable its causes, the emptying out of many American cities and the spreading of the population over broad metropolitan regions marks a necessary and inevitable turn toward a state of lower social and technological complexity that will develop progressively as energy supplies decline.
Crisis is also opportunity to re-envision and give a new purpose to land and housing within and around our cities.
Creating a new yeomanry
The contraction of oil and other fossil fuel supplies must translate into a contraction of the economy and of industrial food production. We cannot expect to see a sustained increase in economic output ever again. Indeed, sustaining present levels of output may be barely possible with a full-scale national mobilization of resources to transform energy systems, transport, and other infrastructure. This is, frankly, unlikely to be achieved. Many workers in the developed world will become permanently unemployed as farmers in the developing world have been in the past generation with the growth of global trade; food prices will rise with transport and energy costs. The stage is set for a new Agrarian Revolution, though whether this turns into a fulfillment of Jefferson’s vision or a new feudalism depends on how we the people respond.
It turns out that land ownership patterns matter a great deal, not only to the structure of society, but to the economy’s ability to create wealth. The stars of the post-World War II economic boom were the east Asian Tigers: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Each of them either had land reform imposed upon it (in the case of Japan by the American occupying administration of General MacArthur), or adopted it early on in their rise to prosperity, and economists generally acknowledge that redistribution of land to many millions of farmers was essential in providing the broad-based access to wealth that sustained each nation’s rise to the first ranks of the international economy. (7)
A new vision is needed
The epic “misallocation of resources” created in North American suburbia a fabric of many small land holdings packed close around our centers of population. In a clumsy, expensive, and still incomplete way, we have created a pattern for a democratic yeomanry. Many potential garden farms are located on some very fine former farmland: northern New Jersey, northern Illinois, the south end of San Francisco Bay and the Lake Ontario lowlands. And even where the soil was not originally well developed, the land is usually flat to rolling. These territories have been supplied with extensive road and water networks, and both labor and a rich array of resources, biological and industrial, lie all around. The largish houses, especially those built after 1980, may be poorly configured at present, but they could accommodate the extended families and larger households that will be needed to grow food and manage land with lower energy resources and technologies.
The emergence of garden farms is at hand. Under the pressure of necessity as unemployment rippled through the economy, millions of North Americans turned to gardening or expanded their gardens in 2009 as evidenced by a 40% increase in vegetable seed sales. (8) Urban homesteading is spawning its own literature as energy descent forces more and more households to adapt in place. With income constrained and energy and materials shortages looming, the only resources capable of filling the gap in livelihood are imagination, information, and knowledge, in particular a deeper understanding of the material cycles and energy flows of nature. For that understanding, we look to permaculture, a language derived from the patterns of the world around us.
1. EPA [online] Citing 1997 USDA Census of Agriculture, “…less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms.” www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/demographics.html or www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/demographics.pdf. The U.S. had 2.2 million farms in 2007. Counting one principal operator per farm (and most did not make their principal living from farming) that constitutes about 0.7% of the US population. And also, www.statcan.gc.ca/ca-ra2011/index-eng.htm, “In 2006, Canada’s agriculture industry has (sic) 2.2% of Canada’s total population…,” both cited September 7, 2011.
2. M.G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence, 2d. ed. revised. Garden City, 1940. Kains quotes Henry Ford: “The land! That is where our roots are. There is the basis of our physical life. The farther we get away from the land, the greater our insecurity. ... It is there waiting to honor all the labor we are willing to invest in it, and able to tide us across any local dislocation of economic conditions. No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between man and a plot of land.”
3. Helen & Scott Nearing. Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely & Simply in a Troubled World. Schocken, 1954.
4. US Census 2000 Special Report. Demographic Trends of the 20th Century. November 2002. [online] www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf, cited August 29, 2011. Suburbs overtook central cities about 1965 at about 1/3 of total US population each. By 2000, suburbs held half the US population, center cities 30%. Throughout the century, rural areas both lost population through migration and were annexed or incorporated into metropolitan regions.
5. The New York Times [online] www.nytimes.com/1991/10/14/us/farmer-suicide-rate-swells-in-1980-s-study-says.html, cited September 6, 2011. More than 900 male farmers committed suicide in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana in the 1980s. The peak rate occurred in 1982. Seventy-one female farmers, 96 farm children, and 177 farm workers also committed suicide in this region between 1980 and 1988. Study by the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield, Wisc.
6. James Howard Kunstler. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophies of the 21st Century. Atlantic, 2005. Also [online] www.kunstler.com/spch_Vermont%20Oct%2005.htm, cited 9/6/11.
7. Re: Japan [online] www.ide.go.jp/English/Publish/Periodicals/De/pdf/65_04_06.pdf, cited Sept. 6, 2011. And also, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTARD/825826-1111148606850/20431879/Zimbabwe.pdf. Experts agree that land reforms in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have made a major contribution to overcoming the legacy of colonial (sic) development (King, 1973).
8. The Washington Post [online] www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/14/AR2009061402741.html, cited Sept. 7, 2011.
Peter Bane is the author of The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country, forthcoming from New Society Publishers in 2012, of which this essay is an excerpt. Used here with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Please contact us if you wish to reprint this article in any format, virtual or hardcopy.