Food Issues Book Club - A Defense of the Family Farm from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: A Defense of the Family Farm, 1986


It is amazing (absurd) that the family farm must be defended - and its political defense has done it harm.  For these purposes, a family farm is defined as follows:
  • It is a farm that is in fact farmed by a single family with little outside help - additional labor on a family farm supplements, but does not replace, labor of the family.  "On a family farm, the family members are workers, not overseers."  Any additional labor remains full time, year round, essentially becoming part of the family.  Seasonal workers are not employed.
  • The farm is tended sustainably.
  • Its family has a long-term, vested interest in its health - and the more generations that have been on that farm the better.
A real family farm produces good farming - "farming that does not destroy either farmland or farm people."  Large farms are unsustainable; "there is a ratio between eyes and acres, between farm size and farm hands, that is correct."  In modern agriculture and in a far cry from the family farm, "we have enough farmers to use the land but not enough to use it and protect it at the same time."  A family farm uses the land properly, and as such yields a great return for both the family and the community.

In addition to agricultural benefits, family farms are justified politically and culturally as well.  A society in which people depend on money rather than the products of their own work, where usable property is owned by the few, is not true democracy.  "To renounce the principle of democratic property, which is the only basis of democratic liberty, in exchange for specious notions of efficiency or the economics of the so-called free market is a tragic folly."

When the family farm is displaced by more "efficient" means of farming, the quality and dignity of farming is lost.  The factory-minded method of dividing labor so that each worker performs one repetitive task denies workers "the economic use of their minds," reducing each worker's activities to "dismembered gestures."  When workmanship is thus degraded, so are the work's products.  "This is why we must now buy our clothes and immediately resew the buttons."

The family farm is demonstrably good, and yet it is failing.  Why should something good fail?  "[T]he fault lies in our identity and therefore will be hard for us to see."  Namely, the family farm is failing because it does not align with industrial values, to wit:
  • it does not accept that value equals price;
  • it does not function well as a factory; and
  • it does not treat its community as either merely a resource or as a market, or strive to compete.
"The industrial mind is a mind without compunction; it simply accepts that people, ultimately, will be treated as things and that things, ultimately, will be treated as garbage."

The family farm fails, in other words, because it does not fit into the industrial economy.  "We assume that we can have an exploitive, ruthlessly competitive, profit-for-profit's-sake economy and yet remain a decent and democratic nation, as we still apparently wish to think ourselves."  Profit at any cost is, of course, the antithesis of how a family farm operates, but it is what the industrial world - our world - demands to be deemed "successful."  Farms large and small continue to fail to be sustainable in various ways, despite government subsidies and other such supports, because these supports are aimed singularly at an industrial style of agriculture.  The industrial model and agriculture fundamentally do not mix.  And yet, because value equals price, as long as agribusiness continues to turn a profit the system will be deemed successful.

Farmers share part of the blame of the failure of farms, in that they have "subscribed to the industrial fantasies" of what value is and of how farms should work.  They have quite literally bought in to the industrial economy, and now can't find a way out.

The family far can, perhaps, be saved by ending the industrially-minded practice of producing as much as possible and by instead matching supply to d3emand.  Large operations should not be allowed to undercut the prices of smaller farmers.  Farmers must learn to return to looking to each other for assistance rather than agribusiness.  "[N]o farmer and no family can be entirely independent," but that dependence should be on community rather than on corporation.

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