Farming not the serene, simple life that most outsiders think
by Victor Davis Hanson
“He sees not that sea of trouble, of labour, and expense which have been lavished on this farm. He forgets the fortitude, and the regrets.”
-J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America
All this happened on a single day one week. I opened the mailbox and flipped to a random page of an advance copy of a book on farming to find: “The natural serenity of the farm ….” The phone rang and a kind voice said: “You farmers are the nicest bunch of people in this country.” An acquaintance from the campus greeted me: “You’re so lucky to live out there where everything is so simple.” On the television blared an empathetic head: “Will we still have food once our family farms are gone?” In a magazine a sensitive writer expounded: “Farming, the oldest and most timeless of man’s activities….”
Contrary to my inclination, but by necessity, I must define farmers as less admirable than the fantasies of nonfarmers listed above. Let me refute these five commonly held myths by suggesting how the image of a kind, simple, and gentle agriculturist is simply untrue.
Myth 1: Farming is “serene”
IN SO ME SENSE farming is peaceful — out here there are never traffic jams, few people, and not much noise in comparison to the city. Murder and rape are less frequent than in the country. And there is no X-rated theater, crack house, or all-night hotel outside my window. We hear the sirens from town, not vice-versa. Many of the greatest philosophers in the West have noted that rustic morality stems from the simple absence of temptation.
Yet Pax Agraria is a myth. The farm as a tranquil abode is the dividend of our romantic and pastoral traditions that date back to third-century B.C. Alexandria, where sophisticated and citified Greeklings dreamed that they were shepherds in Arcadia. Trapped in concrete, asphalt, and stucco, urban man idealizes — the academics would say “constructs” — what he does not know but wishes to be true, as either hope or penance for his own sometimes unsatisfying existence. So farms become “serene” and “peaceful” for those dreamers, who under no circumstances would live there. The idea of the calm north 40 is part of the same romance that explains why city folks buy enormous and awkward four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles for rush hour traffic, or wear heavy, uncomfortable, and treaded high-top work boots just to navigate over carpet and tile. Equipped with such appurtenances, they can travel anywhere and so go nowhere. I suppose Plato would say that their reason and appetites are not rural, but their suppresse d spirit is — the third great portion of our existence that longs for something primordial.
In reality, agriculture is frantic. It has cacophony and a frenzy as breakneck as any I have seen in town. Consider, for example, not the busy harvest or preharvest, but the month of February, Virgil’s purported dormant “off-season.” Then, farmers should be in by the fire, waiting idly for their vines to reawaken, quietly whittling to the hushed rhythm of a somnolent nature.
More likely the following is the winter vineyard scenario.
Pruning is now almost finished. But you can’t just tie the selected vine canes back on the wire. Why? Because the wire has been cut, the stake staples torn out, a few stakes crushed, even a few end posts (which anchor the wire) at row’s end broken through 365 days of use. Indeed, sometimes the wire of the whole row is on the ground. Pruners are paid by the vine, and so they do cut the wire in their haste to surpass the minimum wage. And they do pull grape stakes down as they yank recklessly on stubborn canes. For the prior 11 months tractors have hit posts, stakes, and vines — you now discover all this flotsam when the vine leaves and brush are gone and the year’s detritus of the vineyard becomes clear at last — and for a moment.
This wreckage has to be cleaned up before buds break out in a few weeks.
So immediately after the vine is pruned, you now madly begin to patch wire, replace stakes, end posts, staples — all in order to send men back through to tie vine canes on the wire. Remember that pruners have thrown their cut brush in every other vine row. But Hank Ortiz and his 30-year-old brush-shredder are nowhere to be found — his salary is to be made solely in the month of February, so he is custom-shredding 5,000 acres of vineyard too many. He promises only that he and his motor home will be in your yard at 2 AM and out by noon. No Hank Ortiz, no shredded brush. No shredded brush, no clear vine row; no clear vine row, no cultivation. No cultivation, no furrows. No furrows, no irrigation. No irrigation and the vines are naked to the frost. Frost and no grapes.
And it’s now but 20 days to bud break.
But you forget for a time about Hank Ortiz, because you also need your berms weeded; in a week or two broadleafs are up. The taller those weeds grow, the harder they are to kill. Either plow them out of the row or spray them. But you can do neither without the canes tied; otherwise they flap into the sprayer’s mist or the plow blade. So you fix your wire, stakes, posts, so you can tie your canes, so you can spray and cultivate and shred.
But it is now 10 days to bud break.
Forget about weeds and worry instead about fertilizing, so that nitrogen is in the ground and ready for the vines right after bud break. Yet to run the fertilizer rig, the vine rows should be weed-free — and the brush shredded and the canes tied. You intend your fertilizer rig to whiz down unobstructed vine vows, the dirt hard and clean for the shanks behind. Yet the fertilizer rig is rented out elsewhere. And the brush is not shredded. And the wire is not yet patched. And the canes are not yet tied.
And bud break is two weeks early this spring.
But stakes, wire, spray, fertilization, shredding of the vineyard are nothing to the orchard across the alleyway, which is now near blossom. Trees have a more complicated dormant sequence of pruning, shredding, fertilizing, spraying, and bees; once their cycle is disrupted by this Mr. Hank Ortiz and his now nonexistent shredding machine, everything for the next year goes wrong.
The problem? Irrigated Mediterranean agriculture, as the historian Fernand Braudel wrote, is always a race. In such temperate climates, the dormant season between leaf fall and bud break is only three months. All the orchard’s pruning, the vineyard’s tying, fertilization, dormant spraying, weed control, trellis maintenance, grafting, and replanting must be done in that tiny window of 90 days, when there are no leaves. In Mediterranean agriculture there is not much time to clean up the postharvest mess in time for bud break and the long year to begin anew.
Again, the rub? Many of these tasks are sequential and dependent on one another, and so cannot be accomplished out of synchronization and without the proper prerequisite job. Canes are tied only on wire that has been fixed; tractors drive only down vine rows that are free of brush; bees are put only in orchards that have not recently been sprayed for weeds; oil spray cannot go on popping buds or leaves.
Usually, these frantic steps could be accomplished if the farmer were on his own and in control. He is not — not ever. His autonomous world is not so autonomous, but rather predicated on shredders, beekeepers, pruners, tiers, sprayers, and a host of other free-lance workers whose success or failure depends solely on how many farms they can serve before their tardiness and missed appointments result in a confirmed reputation of unreliability and thus termination. The trick for the Hank Ortizes of the farming cosmos is to sign on for as much work as in theory might be done under perfect circumstances.
In winter, circumstances are never perfect. It is foggy here in the Valley in winter. Trucks get lost and are wrecked. It is rainy here. Fields get muddy and cannot be entered, by man or machine. It is sometimes hot in late February here, so vine and tree buds pop and swell weeks before they are supposed to. There are people who do not farm here. Thieves, neighbors, and others get in our way and we in theirs; permits, releases, and paperwork are not always easily obtained from those who are on another, a bureaucratic rather than natural, schedule. No, the farm, even in its quietest month, is not serene.
I will pass on the 90 days of “peaceful” dormancy needed to ready the other 27 tree and vine crops on this farm. And I will spare you, reader, a whine about the tractor engines to be rebuilt, the shed to be fixed, the pump to be pulled, and all the other tools and appurtenances that, like their natural counterparts, are but resting for 90 days for their needed maintenance and attention.
Farming is hectic, not peaceful at all. I have lived in Santa Cruz, New Haven, Palo Alto, and Athens. While it was loud and brutal in those cities, I sat rather slothful in my relatively quiet and comfortable apartments, always thinking of all the farmers back in Selma in their purportedly serene winter frenzy.
Myth 2: Farmers are “nice”
THIS IS THE OLD MYTH of the noble savage, which grew from the Romantic counterattack against the dry and artificial world of the European Enlightenment. To those in suits and ties, in office boxes and on smoggy freeways, farmers are to be aboriginal creatures whose muscles force the earth to give forth its bounty. Like the animals they live and work with, agrarians must be simple, hardworking brutes who, freed of urban stress and gratuitous insults and violence, are as one-dimensionally kind as their environment. The farmer, free of the city, reverts to a natural cycle, which returns him to his pre-state self. Thus he is purportedly “nice.” No wonder French farmers have it so good: They live in a culture that never really freed itself from the silly romance of Rousseau.
Hardworking? Yes, farmers are — almost all of them. Honest, dutiful, law-abiding, and moral? Yes, as a rule, they tend to be that as well. Eccentric, occasionally stubborn, sometimes adamant? That too is a fair generalization, and they can be near delusional as well, as the price of their isolation and solitary existence and their childish trust in the next year’s deliverance.
But nice or pleasant? Hardly at all. Even our first agrarian propagandist, Mr. Crevecoeur, came close to confessing the truth of the farmer: “If his manners are not refined, at least they are rendered simple and inoffensive by tilling the earth.” That is the circular mea culpa of everyone in this family: We as farmers are rude, but it is OK because we at least farm, which makes us rude.
In this age of therapeutics and victim-obsession, I could weave a long exegesis that the uncertainty of raising food, the duplicity involved in modern food distribution and sales, the antagonism of government and corporations, and a host of other -isms and -ologies all explain our rudeness and indifference to deportment. After all, in America it is hard now to work for 365 days on borrowed money in the hope that someone you have never met — someone cleaner, better dressed, better educated as well — will pay you money that is owed so you can pay back the bank. The job of farming made us unkind, I whine. But who cares about the cause? Farmers have always been impolite and not sweet.
A family member calls, then speaks in monosyllables, and abruptly hangs up. No hello, no goodbye. You object that this curtness is either a result of family intimacy or accepted casual telephone protocol. No. He and all the rest out here are that way to others and in person. A neighbor lady calls up later that evening, “Say, [no salutation] your pipeline is leaking onto my vineyard [in fact, her pipeline was leaking into her vineyard]. Just thought I’d let you know so you’ll fix it tomorrow [still no identification]. Good-bye now, this is Hilda Brightwell east of you.”
I once planted an orchard that grew no plums and a vineyard whose grapes always rotted. Add to that pears that burned up, quince that died, and nectarines that dried up from nematodes. The neighbors knew that circus better than I. And their response when they saw me in defeat at the property line or on the curbside? Polite indifference? Feigned ignorance? Sympathy? Never. “Well, I guess you boys planted about a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of trouble, now didn’t you.” Even the kindest commentary went like this: “There’s a lot like you who planted those no-good plums, and they got the same nothing as you did.”
Even agrarian death is not mourned for long, but is accepted and expected as the natural wage of farming. It is seen as a slight road bump in the way of next year’s harvest. Of a recently deceased neighbor of some 30 years, I have heard the following. “Well, that old bastard just plopped over out there in the field, he did. Kinda liked him too, even when he bragged more than he should. His boys will have a field day dividing up that mess, and his widow better watch out for the no-goods who might like to move into that big house with her. Bet the whole thing’s sold and they’re all in town and away in a year.” Requiescat in pace.
You object that these cuts and rebuffs simply illustrate the petty absence of manners. Policemen and stockbrokers do it too. No, again. The absence of affability is more widespread out here. We don’t have to be polite to some, rude to others, as the financial situation demands. Instead, we are generally quite fair and honest in being rude to all, we who are kings of our own eroding fiefdoms, blustering Frankish counts safe but surrounded in our castles of the Morea by hordes of Turks. We are not, then, by necessity uncivil to our inferiors and obsequious to our betters, as is the general creed in the corporation or government, as Isocrates said of the Persians. We can afford to be curt with all without prejudice or social bias, without worry about our own futures — with confidence (often misguided) that telling the truth does not harm us economically and brings with it moral reinforcement as well. A man who sees enemies of his plums and peaches on every horizon after a few years rarely smiles.
Yet unniceness at its core reveals a greater paradox in the life of the agrarian — the bitter wages of our bluntness. More than ever, the farmer at the millennium needs the cooperation of like kind to survive and battle the government and, increasingly now, corporate agribusiness. But the very regimen and semiautonomy of the family farmer’s daily existence make the rustic uniquely unsuited — though not in theory unwilling — to cooperate, share, and forge any alliance that might save him. Whatever his good intentions, he has not even the veneer of the conciliator. He cannot use diction, dress, or social protocol to mask intent, much less disguise disgust or mitigate the expression of anger. The failed history of American populism and agrarian activism bears that out.
You see, all communal activity is predicated on the currency of simple kindness and good manners. But those are the exact traits that are either unneeded in the farmer’s daily solitary existence or seen as liabilities ripe for exploitation by others — or sensed as a bad first step on a long road of monotony and sameness. We farmers apparently do not know how to be nice, even when we wish to be. When you work with dumb plants and animals, there is no reason to be either loquacious or affable. Most of the things we work with — vines, tractors, water, animals — do not have a rational mind. When it is a choice between brutal honesty and euphemism, we choose the former and are rewarded for our truth with oblivion.
I have tried in a small way to organize farmers, gone to cooperative meetings, been engaged in ad hoc and informal attempts to redress agrarian grievances. All have been relative failures — largely because I smiled, shook hands, and tried to appear both mannered and sincere, only to confirm either naivete or weaknesses or that I had become utterly tame. After the ordeal I earned the loss of agrarian self-respect, which follows from the resort to nuance and subtlety, and the public rebuke of being both the offended and offensive.
A group of us once sued Sun-Maid Growers of California for its failure to return the retained moneys to us, its membership. We held meetings. We sent fliers. We made calls. We spent hundreds of hours reading briefs, plotting strategy, and appearing in court. The hardest part? Dealing with the corrupt legal class? Navigating through the labyrinth of the American court system? Facing the capital and administrative hordes of a huge, inefficient, and mostly godless cooperative? No. It was talking to fellow farmers whom we wished to help and to organize so that we could petition, sue if need be, for expropriated property. Their responses to our communitarian efforts to reclaim their lost capital?
“Now, what you are doing is just fine with me, but just exactly what do you get out of it?”
Or: “Why should I put up any money to sue anybody, when there are others with more than me?”
Or: “Sure, the whole bunch is crooked, but let me tell you first . . . .” (Twenty minutes of narration about feuds with his neighbor follow).
Or: “Mr. Hanson, just tell me right now: In two years will I or will I not get my money back. Right now, answer yes or no and then shut up and sit down.”
Or: “The problem is that our damn lawyers are worse than the crooks who took our money in the first place.”
And they are probably right. Still, taciturn farmers might have functioned well in an old republic of like kind, but in the democracy of the modem age they really do appear unmannerly. If I wish to be flattered, entertained, treated with perfunctory respect, and met with pro forma chitchat, I will from now on seek out peach brokers or Sun-Maid Growers of California’s roving sales agents, not yeomen. If I wish to hear pleasantries, I will not go to those farmers milling around the barn or communal irrigation gate, but to a bank which is about to call in a loan or foreclose on a farm. As a rule, farmers are sincere and they are honest. But they really are not polite people.
Myth 3: Farming is “simple”
OUR THIRD MYTH is a product of polite condescension and also part of the age-old antitheses between city and country. Anyone who lives in the country, works with his hands, gets dirty, produces something that can be handled and felt, must be rather simple and his world equally so. This fallacy that farming is easy is held not by the mean or duplicitous but by the well-meaning and ignorant who confuse the outdoors with purity and plainness.
But family farming — not corporate agribusiness — is complex, maddening, and inexplicable. The farmer, unlike the agribusiness specialist (who really is simple), fights a war on all fronts. His money? Now an accountant, he figures interest, dividend, depreciation, profit, investment, and costs to beg for someone else’s capital to pay for an entire year of the unknown before he harvests. Whatever his physical prowess in the rather mean world of his vineyard, the power of his arms and back cut no ice with a junior loan officer with red suspenders, pin-striped shirt, and round, tortoiseshell glasses. Despite his cut hands and creased flesh, the farmer must battle rather impressive gladiators in someone else’s arena, constantly pitted against BSS, MBAS, and CPAS whose nets and tridents are spread sheets and software. And they really do and must say, “Mr. Hanson, are you sure of a six percent return on those plums’ initial capital investment within three years? Our figures suggest otherwise.” Ave, Caesar, morit uri te salutant.
Surrounded by engines, gears, and bearings, the farmer must be a grimy shade-tree mechanic who welds, fabricates, and changes enormous water-and air-filled treaded tires that weigh far more than he. Some days he disks 60 acres of vines; but on others only two or three as in defeat he welds his broken disk, changes his worn shaft bearings, and rebuilds his ruined alternator. Of the farmer’s makeshift tractor rewiring, the local dealer’s authorized mechanic — certified at the Ford training center itself — scoffs, “This is a hell of a mess, even if it has worked this long. We would never do anything like this.”
Our agrarian at times is no more than a thug himself, a centurion of Caesar’s crack Tenth Legion whose task is to cross over the Rhine and battle the woolly Germans. In a world of macho pruners, grimy pickers, and rather angry hired shovelers, polite rebuke — even pleasant compliment — hold little sway. More likely, kindness leads to complacency and soon on to contempt, ending in outright defiance. Our farmer by bluff, brag, or muscle must at times stare down, push, threaten, hit, and run off those of America’s forgotten classes who would like to see him try. He must lay down his checkbook, wrench, sugar-tester, and polite technology to wade into a crew to announce to men who are usually not announced to, “The next son-of-a-bitch that leaves only three canes on my vines is fired, pronto.” De l’audace, encore l’audace, toujours de l’audace!
Puffed up with the notion that he is autonomous and a small businessman of some acumen, more often the farmer is an unthinking brute. In mid-September, the temperature over 106 degrees, most of his raisin-rolling crew suddenly vanished, he must gather up ten stragglers and himself lead these sunstroked men down the vine row in the scorching heat, shoving the caramelizing raisins — his entire pay for the year — under the vine, yelling like Frederick to his exhausted but now hesitating comrades, “Rascals, would you live forever?”
He himself must drive the tractor down his rows 12 hours and more in July, fever or not. Some April nights he is up running water for a week straight. In January he prunes a hundred vines up, a hundred vines back, his mind put on ice as legs and arms work in tandem until dusk. Too often victory or defeat is found only within his resistance against the elements and monotony, not just within his IQ or his biceps — or the ideal mean between the two. Bored silly, without cash, tired, the farmer looks at his unploughed field, his gassed-up tractor in his yard, and his relatively healthy body, and thinks to himself, “Fifteen hours from now it will all be done.” Del dicho al hecho hay gran trecho.
But the agrarian cannot live by endurance, reason, or muscle alone. The farmer must gamble more than any Las Vegas junkie — to pick early or late, fast or slow, once or twice through the orchard. He can plant plums, peaches, nectarines, or grapes — on a hunch that one, none, or all will have a market in five years. With no salary, health insurance, retirement, disability, or unemployment insurance, the farmer’s entire life turns out to be a wager — that he will make enough to survive when his body is shot, a small pile to tide him over should his courage and nerve leave. “If we had not planted those plums, but peaches instead, same with the no-good grapes, we’d have fifty thousand in the bank, not a hundred and fifty out at the bank,” I once told my wearied brother. He at once answered me back: “And when peaches were no good, you’d say the opposite or something else, since who the hell knows what will happen anyway.”
And who does?
And finally the farmer is a dilettante plant pathologist, geneticist, biologist, and chemist. No Nobel Prize winner knows all the intricacies of plant production, how exactly and under what precise conditions plants produce food. No agricultural scientist knows the exact — and relative — contributions of weather, soil, air, cultivation, and water that create fruit. No one knows, but the farmer alone pays. So he wracks his brain, reads his books, does his own ad hoc interviewing and research to discover just how many pounds of nitrogen, how many acre-feet of water, how much brush to leave, spray to put on, spray to leave off, how many plums to thin, grapes to girdle, in order to produce food on a particular soil, in a particular climate, in a particular place, in a particular year — all on the premises that success then demands exact duplication the next season when none of the variables will be the same, that failure under all circumstances must never be repeated though exactly what caused failure in the first place is never known. A whole lifetime can be consumed in that.
I’ve taken meaningless degrees and taught 39 different semester classes from Attic Greek composition, Roman history, the origins of war, and advanced Latin grammar, to Sophocles, Sallust, and the Satyricon. And I have dutifully chaired worthless tenure committees that have never not tenured anyone, created a classics program ex nihilo and watched it sputter, helped to raise three kids, written books, remodeled, replumbed, and rewired the house, been married for over 20 years, engineered a ridiculous 500-foot blockwall, come down with dysentery in the Valley of the Kings and kidney disease in Athens, researched and pontificated about Thucydides, hoplites, and Diodorus’s use of Ephorus, and lived under fascism and then again amid socialism for two years in Greece. I even for a while attempted to lecture 50 times out of state about farms, wars, and the poverty of postmodernism. All that so far has turned Out to be mostly free of deadly catastrophe.
But for many years just farming trees and vines in Selma, Calif.? Now that was mostly one big ungodly and embarrassing failure.
You see, it was not simple.
Myth 4: Agribusiness “threatens our food supply”
MYTH 4 IS THE PRODUCT of the ecological movement. Slightly Marxist, slightly academic, slightly paranoid, slightly scientific, more often well-meaning, idealistic, and utopian, the theory runs like this: Corporate America has now taken over agriculture (mostly true). Those captains of industry see farming only as a business, where profit is the sole arbiter of all farm activity (mostly true). Consequently, they have developed technologies, chemicals, and practices whose single purpose is not cultural, not community-spirited, not ecological, but entirely commercial (mostly true). The result is that we, the people, are being bombarded with food that is dangerous and soon — due either to corporate conspiracy or to the general collapse of their overly sophisticated system — to be in short supply (mostly untrue).
Yet the Truth is, of course, more bothersome than the Lie. Americans pay less for food than any citizenry on earth. Americans receive the safest, least infectious food on the planet, which will not kill the great majority of us. Americans have a greater supply and selection of tasteless fresh produce than any people alive. Those facts are indisputable and are true because, not in spite of, enormous complexes of vertically integrated agribusiness consortiums, whose refrigeration and packing plants, trucking, brokerage, and distribution services manage to navigate harvests across a continent of vast expanse in a matter of hours.
Make no mistake about it: Agribusiness is a godless enterprise. It has created an entire industry to create artificial species of fruits and vegetables — produce that is hard, shiny, colorful, will travel, and tastes awful. It enriches a few at the top, disparages wage labor, contributes nothing to the communities in which it thrives, uses cheap food as a mechanism to consolidate market share, seeks to monopolize farmland, receives free government research and subsidy, is inefficient and propped up by mostly hidden government support, pollutes through bribery civil and political discourse, and provides the cheap fuel for the entire American materialist rampage.
Without the low-cost, nutritious, and generally safe food that agribusiness ensures, the welfare system would collapse, there would be no Food-4-Less, and McDonald’s would go broke. The world of agrarianism come back from the dead would be quite different and — I am afraid, as it was in the past — hated. Food would be local and in season and far more expensive. No growth hormones and regulators. Farmers’ markets would be the norm, not the exception. Not just half a parking lot each week, but acres of them every day. Fruits and vegetables would be riper, with fewer chemicals, and therefore uglier and tastier. Suburbanites would find roadside stands every mile; city street corners would have fruit peddlers. In a Vermont market in April, there would not be watermelons, cherries, and apricots from the Imperial Valley. If it froze in Minnesota in late May, there might not be any local apples for the summer to come.
In turn, smelly and unkempt farmers would be ubiquitous, at the restaurant, in the post office, at the bank. And not just in Iowa or Kansas, but farmers in every community and metropolitan district — they might comprise 10 percent or 15 percent of the population, not less than 1 percent. Without the stranglehold of corporate shipping and distribution, local orchardists, vineyardists, nurserymen, and truck farmers would be strapped to supply their communities in season as supply — subject to local weather and harvest conditions — dictated. Local co-ops would process grains, and they would cost more since farmers would control the land, the mill, and the product until it reached you. No more monopolies that put farmers in the street or in the grave. By the 1990s four cereal companies controlled 80 percent of the market; five grain conglomerates ran 96 percent of all of America’s wheat exports. All that would go.
All citizens would listen to local weather reports, worried about unseasonable frosts and hails, very concerned that their produce might be interrupted or short — with no Florida or California to bail them out, without tons of surplus kiwis, melons, and nectarines available anytime they wished. Young people would want in on this profession, so central to the community; so profitable to the hardworking, so esteemed by the nation. All sorts of local and antiquated varieties of fruits would reappear: delicious apples and plums with unimpressive hues and crusty veneers, fruits of the nineteenth century that become overripe in a matter of hours, that bruise and discolor when picked, that eat well and ship badly.
Under agrarianism, schools (as in my childhood) might start a week later to allow for harvest time labor. No more piano, soccer, and ballet after school; no more Jason and Nicole off to gymnastics instead of picking and shoveling next to Grandpappy until dusk. With farms of 80 to 100 acres everywhere, sons and daughters would tie vines after school; locals without the dole would harvest — and they would pick and prune or not eat. And they would then choose to eat. And so there would be occasional shortages of hands, with no guarantee that 500 men would arrive on specification from Mexico to pick and then be gone the next day, on to the next corporate enterprise. Chemical use on the farm, of course, would be less frequent, as is true now under the few remaining family enterprises. Poison is used less by those who put it on themselves, who have little money, and who are not part of a chain that ensures people in Philadelphia that their nectarines picked Monday in Selma will look absolutely the same back east on Friday.
In a world without integrated corporate agriculture, without chemical poisons, and without enormous vertically integrated chains of supply and distribution, the produce section of the supermarket would not be open at midnight, and it would not have papayas, guava, bananas, and red grapes in February. There might be three television channels, not 500, given a viewing audience in large part exhausted by shoveling until dusk on their small tidy farms. Given the parochialism of local tight-fisted agrarians, interstate freeways would not slice through five counties at a crack in a perfectly straight line, and so it might take 20 not six hours to drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles — small plodding produce trucks and smoking pickups clogging the lanes as dirt-poor farmers drove down into the L.A. basin each morning to peddle their wares to a waking and hungry Southern California. We would be a more moral, more law-abiding, and more humane society; but that would be so perhaps because we would have a more exhaust ed, poorer, and immobile citizenry.
Agribusiness, not family farmers, has given us beautiful and plentiful and bland and tasteless and mostly safe fruit. You find it in any supermarket in America at any time. The world knows this and so copies not our south 20, with barn, and Gramps on the tractor, but the idea of mile-long rows, and enormous machines, and vertically integrated conglomerates. Agribusiness, not yeomen, makes it possible to have Wheaties in Greece, and Levi’s in the Sudan. The Archer Daniels Midland Company and a few like it are probably right in their boasts that they make it wholly probable that 6 billion on the globe can eat cheaply — and so have time and money to experience the banalities of modern culture before they die. This entire life-sustaining multinational enterprise is but one part of a larger seductive appeal to the senses which is surely a world away from the blinkered farmer.
Remember, the family farmer is not even fair or democratic, at least not entirely. While agrarianism functions only within the realm of capitalism, it has always been burdened with an ethical repulsion for the world of commerce; its rote, and tradition, and moral investment do not produce goods and services to the same degree as the corporation. The latter is godless and without memory and not shackled by voices of grandparents in its head — and thus free to lay off, rip out, move on, tear down, or take over as the laws of supply and demand alone dictate. And dictate they must if all of us are to eat and enjoy as we demand.
Confess it, reader: Agrarianism come back alive would not welcome such huge corporate chains of food, dry goods, and mass entertainment outlets that give us more than we need at cheap prices we can somehow manage to go into hock for, a small tab really for destroying the smug and oh-so-tiny cosmos of local merchants and century-old craftsmen. A culture of agrarians would be uneasy with the demagogic idea of sweeping entitlements and large government intrusion. In short, let us be still more honest: The family farmer has little that those in America need or want. The world of IBM-cloned computers, CDs, and Disney’s Lion King is what the planet prefers — and that partiality is ultimately quite democratic and gives much to many on demand.
It is in the interest of corporate America to sell goods to everyone who can obtain credit, to everyone of every color and creed, who are united by an entirely color-blind CD player or colorful Gummi Bears, who all alike — and quite democratically — pay the same 16 percent to 19 percent interest on their overdue Visa accounts. Class, like race, like ethnicity and religion, has at last met the democratic juggernaut of global capitalism.
In this brave new vulgar world — which today’s pampered critics never understand is ultimately antihierarchical, anticulture itself, and so purely democratic — agribusiness operates. It, not agrarians, ensures food to millions, thereby saving for the Wilsons, Martinezes, Yangs, and Husseins the worry of finding rice, porridge, or bread at an affordable price. Only that way can they rent movies, buy a plastic Christmas tree, or get braces and eye tucks at affordable prices. Corporations, at least for a while longer, will continue to produce literally tons of food for us from mile-long fields. Those food factories alone allow Americans to buy peaches for 49 cents a pound, 50-pound bags of rice for a pittance, or cantaloupes three for a dollar at almost anytime and anywhere. Megafarms ensure that tomato paste and soy by-products, cottonseed, cattle offal, pig eyelids, corn syrup, and grape sweeteners are not thrown away, but can be mixed and matched and chemically laden to give us concoctions like Pop-Tarts, Ball Park franks, veggie burgers, and Lucky Charms. Corporations give us vegetables in bright plastic bags and plastic-covered hormone-laden meats that are clean, mostly safe, and bloodless. If it has to feed us, corporate America someday will be able — and quite willing — to recycle our very flesh and bones: corpses freeze-dried, smoked, processed, concentrated, ready to eat or microwaved, hyped on Rush Limbaugh and blared out on MTV, Granny’s ears and little Josh’s nose ground, pureed, and artificially sweetened into Baby-Bites and Fruits-Are-Us, madman disease or not.
Family farmers, in contrast, slowly and with conversation, put apples in paper bags, hand corn to shoppers with dirty hands, and have insects crawling around their reusable boxes. Again their fruit looks awful and tastes wonderful. In this world the sellers talk not of price but of how they grow food — the entire boring tale of watering, fertilizing, cultivating, and picking it that you have no time to hear while the kids are fighting in the back of the Explorer and the cell phone is two calls backed up. And family farmers do not worry us with toxic soups or chemical residues, but man’s age-old nemesis, the bacterium, is not entirely eradicated from their produce. Farmers’ natural milk, unprocessed juice, and chops on a hook are more likely to have E. coli and a fly or two.
So give agribusiness its due. Yes, it helped to destroy the agrarian profile. Its onset wiped out thousands of small towns and communities. Corporate farming obliterated the entire rural culture that was once America, and for better or worse, was integral to the appearance of the uniquely American twentieth-century material appetite. It took hardworking, dirtied, and dutiful underpaid sons and daughters off the land and into suits, air-conditioned offices, and real money. Latifundia brought to farming huge, horrific machines, an army of accountants, brokers, and bankers that hated the idea of a bumpkin ploughing on his granddad’s 20. It equated the use of the land with the worst corruption of the human spirit. Corporate agriculture did all that and more still that we will only come to learn of later.
But agribusiness has not yet given America food that is immediately dangerous, scarce, or expensive. It has not yet forced down the gullet of America anything it did not want. Farm preservationists and agrarian activists are right to want the Lie and to hate the Truth. But finally they must be honest and so must acknowledge the Truth: Agribusiness is dangerous and frightening, not because it has failed, but because it has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.
Myth 5: Farming is “timeless”
WE READ, SEE, AND HEAR that agriculture is of great antiquity, a timeless part of the human experience itself. It is not. Our final myth of agricultural perpetuity also derives from the back-to-nature movement, or perhaps even from the anthropocentric idea that all of nature exists for and is defined by us. But man is very old, and nature is older still, and agriculture is very young — and so there is no reason to believe that farming will always continue as it has or at all. Man has inhabited this planet for over a million years, homo sapiens perhaps for the last 200,000 seasons. Cultivated crops on any scale and true agriculture have but a 7,000 to 10,000-year pedigree, one coterminous with civilization itself.
My point? Simply that for most of the life of the human species, there was no such thing as agriculture, as is true even still with a few indigenous tribes today. When such a premise is accepted, then its logical corollary is apparent as well: Just as agriculture is a relatively recent development, and not essential to human survival, so too it can disappear and not end man’s continuance on the planet.
The link between farming and mankind is not survival but rather civilization. Man can live on without agriculture. But civilization, likewise a late and frail phenomenon, cannot. For man to be stable and fixed, to form populous communities, to have surpluses (Aristotle’s material safeguards so necessary for the life of contemplation and intellect), to be literate and to be lawful, he must grow food, which in turns ties him to the soil, to one place as it teaches him what property and culture really are.
To the Greeks, the polis was simply a reflection of a stationary and landed populace who grew food and planted permanent crops — in antithesis to Scythians, Thracians, and other nomads who hunted, fished, raided, plundered, trapped, and traded, but did not have a permanent agriculture and thus no civilization as the Greeks knew it. No wonder that the Cyclopses, Satyrs, Centaurs, Amazons, and all the other monsters of Greek mythology are creatures of lawless disorder who have one common and feral bond: They do not farm. No wonder that when Odysseus meets Polyphemus, Calypso, Circe, the Lotus Eaters, Scylla, and Charybdis, he meets humanlike creatures of assorted shapes and sizes who as nonfarmers are kindred in their uncivilized states. No wonder that when Thucydides at the beginning of his monumental history wishes to emphasize the barbarity of early prepolis Greek civilization, he says merely that “they planted no trees or vines.” His readers, of course, would have nodded in their agreement. Farming, then, arose late in human history, and with it civilization. But will it always continue?
Of course, there are apocalyptic scenarios for agricultural demise — nuclear exchange on a global level, chemical pollution of the atmosphere, or epidemics of strange new plant viruses. Alarmists, in theory, could be right that productive but genetically vulnerable hybrid species, together with a growing dependence on a few technicians and petrochemicals, could make food factories vulnerable in the next century to such unforeseen challenges. We could also soon die prematurely at middle age due to chemically laden food. But it is unlikely — that food production itself will cease and that mankind, in vastly reduced numbers, will be forced to return to our pre-state origins as a roving society of a few thousand hunters and gatherers.
Far more likely, agribusiness will thrive and thus ensure that food making in some form will continue even as actual knowledge of farming exists among fewer and fewer people. Even now in this country, no more than a million or so Americans if turned loose know how to produce enough food to feed their peers at present levels of population and material comfort. If our past is any guide to the American character, it is likely that corporate enterprises of the next century will be devoted to creating even more food — will that be the proper word for it? — under more efficient and sure circumstances: meaning less human or animal involvement, and more predictability in a realm beyond soil, weather, or muscular labor. The industrial science of mass fabrication of food, which has a pedigree of only a few decades, will accelerate, but the age-old craft of what the Romans called agricultura will erode.
Agriculture, after all, means not food production, but “the culture of the soil.” And I see no assurance that in the millennium to come, food-producing plants will be grown in the “soil” or that there will even be such plants, much less their “culture” — much less farmhouses, rural communities, and families tied to particular parcels of land. With the disappearance of this culture, the question then arises: Will there be civilization as well?
Yes, there probably will be a complexity in the sense of a sophisticated urban landscape and a specialized workforce. But will it be a civilization we are proud of?
The hour is late for the American farmer, and what is needed is not more romance and mythology but a truth that is often brutal and offers little comfort to anyone. Farming, always difficult, dirty, and sometimes deadly, is now even more so, given years of static commodity prices: Farmers must work harder for less money, and they feel and show that struggle. Farmers, always curt and blunt due to their solitary existence, are even more so now, given their vanishing numbers and the truth that they are failing and going broke as millions of Americans thrive as never before. Farmers, always harried and versatile, are even more so now, as they are forced to be accountants, tax specialists, mechanics, computer-literate, and conversant with zoning and environmental laws, as well as age-old growers of food.
In contrast, agribusiness is not more complicated, not more vulnerable, and not more at odds with contemporary America than are family farmers. The corporatization of food is simple and operates on a single truth: There is no money in growing harvests, but a great deal in packaging them, shipping them, and selling them. Invulnerable is the conglomerate that can do all three. It can lose money from growing food and profit enormously on getting it to you. Its upper- and mid-level employees, with health benefits, retirement plans, and usually clean and comfortable workplaces, are polite, kind, and relaxed folk more to America’s tastes than farmers, who have no money or time for such things. They have been busy, we must remember, going broke, growing only food.
It is easy — and becoming an unconscious and natural part of the American character — to develop housing tracts from farmland, to shop at the supermarket produce section, and to eat anything at any time while romanticizing from afar the man with the hoe; but it is hard to curb our appetites, buy direct and in season, and keep the countryside pristine to benefit someone illiberal and bothersome in our midsts. We wish to make the farmer like the suburbanite in appearance, behavior, and ideology when he is assuredly not; and then, and only then, save him on the cheap and in the abstract. But far more honest and difficult it would be to confess the truth about his nature and then rescue him in the concrete.
Family farmers are not more moral than people in town; and what they do is no longer essential to the life of the nation. America will continue to be free, rich, and democratic long after they are gone. But they are different and they are a link with America’s past that brought us the very bounty we take for granted, or worse, sometimes despise. You off the farm are not truthful in claiming farmers to be saintly and invaluable; and we are more dishonest than you for basking in that romance. You in town should like us for offending, not pleasing, you; for not wishing to be like you; for that is ultimately for your own good. And you farmers, as you vanish, should not claim that you are not disappearing, or that your disappearance will destroy what your country has become. If anything, you should cease your mythmaking and must feel proud, not ashamed, that you are bothersome, direct, unchanging, and so, in your eleventh hour, entirely and forever at odds with all that which you are not.
©2000 Victor Davis Hanson