- We may not need progressive policies. But we do need a humane scale for agriculture—and that means we will need, somehow, to grow the number of small, family farms in America. Tweet This
- If conservatives do not put forth policies that show they love the land and the men and women who cultivate it, then those needed citizens will find other champions. Tweet This
It is a truth widely acknowledged amongst the ancients that a society lacking in virtue is in want of many farmers. With apologies to Jane Austen, that is one of the first things that came to my mind while reading U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) recent policy proposals to help rescue American agriculture. Along with other proposed reforms, the presidential candidate plans to reverse major mergers amongst large agricultural companies, such as the recent Bayer-Monsanto merger, and to break up vertically integrated companies like Tyson. She also plans to rewrite certain regulations, so that farmers could, for example, repair their own equipment rather than being required to go through the manufacturer.
The ancient Greek Xenophon praised the generosity of farmers, likening them to artists, and noting that, unlike most artists, farmers are quite pleased to show another the secrets of their handicraft. The early protestant reformer Martin Bucer, who also mentored a young French pastor named John Calvin, wrote that farming is “the most Christian profession,” because it is “the most profitable to the neighbors and (causes) them the least trouble.”
The founders themselves were also clear as to the value of the agrarian life. In a 1794 letter, our nation’s second president, John Adams wrote, “I begin now to think all time lost that is not employed in farming.” It’s a sad thing that a class once so revered has now fallen into such disregard in the halls of power.
Given this rather remarkable litany of praise from the classic writers of the western world, including key figures in American history, one would expect the Republican party to be arrayed in support of today’s struggling family farmers.
And they are struggling. The costs of simply getting a crop in the ground for most farmers are staggering. Food prices are plummeting, which takes a direct cut out of the farm’s bottom line. The safety net for farmers, should something go wrong, is weak. The local support systems traditionally provided by small towns are disappearing as those towns disappear. And, unsurprisingly, all of this has led to a mental health crisis and rising suicide numbers, although the exact nature of the suicide problem among farmers is still contested.
So how is it that today’s farmers and farmworkers in America are dying—often quite literally of despair, if the number of farmer suicides is any indicator—and it is only progressive politicians, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who seem to recognize their plight?
The difficulty is hinted at in the Bucer quote. To the wise men of old, wealth was not predominantly identified with financial wealth. Certainly, financial wealth had some advantages in terms of how it allowed one to serve a neighbor. Indeed, some of Bucer’s successors would go so far as to argue that one should try to become rich so that one can then be more generous. Even so, the most basic form of wealth was believed to be life, and life was sustained first and foremost by the land. Thus, Bucer argued that it is farming and not finance that “brings most profit to neighbor.”
This is because wealth, for Bucer, was not chiefly a matter of finance, but of being materially sustained by the land in order to give oneself more completely to love of God and neighbor which is, after all, what man is made to do, according to these early modern reformers.
The point is not simply that good farming provides for our material sustenance, though it does that. It is that good farming underlies a more general relationship of mutual giving between humanity and nature, a relationship in which each says to the other “what do you need from me in order to thrive?” Such questions underlie the old agrarian virtues. They also go some way toward explaining why so many American founders were concerned with the work of farmers and the cultivation of the land.
Because most of America’s leaders have forgotten this ancient wisdom, they have forgotten the men and women who give their lives to the land. Ugly terms like “flyover country” are ubiquitous across the political spectrum at a time when very few things are. And, indeed, part of what makes Sen. Warren’s work so noteworthy is precisely its rarity even among Democrats. Yet Republicans must share in this blame too, and, in one sense, may perhaps need to bear the larger share of it.
Good farming underlies a more general relationship of mutual giving between humanity and nature, a relationship in which each says to the other “what do you need from me in order to thrive?”
It was, after all, a Republican secretary of agriculture, Nixon appointee, and Ford cabinet member, Earl Butz, who accelerated the death of family farms in America by telling farmers to “adapt or die,” and “get big or get out.” Moreover, the decline of America’s farms largely occurred under a Republican watch—one recalls the farming crisis of the 1980s at a time when most of the rest of America was booming under President Reagan.
Thankfully, the ideological descendants of pro-worker Democrats are beginning to see America’s farmers. That’s one thing that has become plain even this early in the presidential campaign season. Sen. Warren is championing a set of policies that would level the playing field for small family farms who currently are left with little recourse save to ask, “how high?” whenever Monsanto or Bayer or Tyson instruct them to jump. By breaking up dangerous mergers and vertically integrated companies, Warren is actually creating circumstances where agricultural markets can work as intended instead of simply becoming a tributary to agribusiness.
Warren’s plan has also inspired imitations from other Democrat contenders, including Bernie Sanders. This, of course, comes at the same time that many American farmers who have played the factory farm game, often out of necessity, have been badly hurt by President Trump’s trade policy.
But supporting America’s farmers does not require endorsing every policy proposed by Sen. Warren’s campaign or any other campaign. There may be other, more effective policy levers to pull to secure similar outcomes. There may be better ways of empowering local farmers to care for their land. Indeed, one would think the Republican bias toward federalism would serve well on precisely these questions. But so far, there are few signs that the GOP has even noticed the problems facing American farmers.
But shouldn’t it be a goal of any political movement that calls itself “conservative” to conserve the most basic resource given to us—the land. Doing that well will require those on the Right to realize a certain “eyes-to-acres” ratio, to borrow a term from Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry.
This should be common sense. We do not expect a single teacher to adequately educate 50 children in a single classroom. Nor should we expect a single farmer to adequately care for thousands of acres on a single farm. We may not need progressive policies. But we do need a humane scale for agriculture—and that means we will need, somehow, to grow the number of small, family farms in America.
Older forms of conservatives, who see their conservatism as being defined by a fidelity to what Russell Kirk called, “the permanent things,” should welcome these progressive allies whose pro-worker, egalitarian sensibilities have led them to champion the plight of farming families. Yet surely it is conservatives—who share a philological root term with the environmentalists we know as “conservationists,” after all—who have the better basis for this careful attentiveness to the lives of agrarian workers and the land on which they work?
If our nation’s leaders, on the Right or the Left, are to make such a stand in defense of our farmers, we must first recover a wisdom older than the folly of the Austrians or the wisdom of the pro-labor advocates. We must also recover a love of the permanent things, of the natural order, of growing things. And we need to learn to see the world as it is given and to love it.
This is unsurprising, of course. For politics is first and foremost about love—the love that exists between neighbors who are, likewise, devoted to a love of their home. Ultimately, it is about the establishment of common objects of love that unite a polity, to borrow a phrase from theologian Oliver O’Donovan. If conservatives do not put forth policies that show they love the land and the men and women who cultivate it, then those needed citizens will find other champions.
Indeed, they may already have.
Jake Meador is the author of the forthcoming In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (InterVarsity Press). He serves as the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He lives in Lincoln NE with his wife and three children. Follow him on Twitter @jake_meador.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.