Why the founding fathers wanted Americans to be farmers

Farming = freedom.
Farming = freedom.
Image: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
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There is perhaps no profession more noble or closely aligned with the founding ideals of America than farming. Yet the backdrop for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that was once the small family farm has become something else entirely.

Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill district of Washington, DC has served farm-fresh produce to the district for nearly 150 years. There you’ll find some 25 different local farms serving up a host of organic vegetables and all-natural meats and cheeses. The market is a reminder of times past; an era of small farms, abundant city marketplaces, and a more sustainable food system. But we have to go even further back to appreciate the impact that farming has had on our young nation, and how far we have drifted from our founding ideals.

Eastern Market in Washington, DC
Eastern Market in Washington, DC has served farm-fresh produce to the district for nearly 150 years.
Image: Jeff Slinker/Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the time of the American Revolution, our colonies were a landscape of endless natural resources. Land, to be sure, was in no short supply. It was this resource and the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the colonists that ensured the viability of the independence movement. To speak of the seeds of revolution is to speak literally. Food production became a key determinant of American independence, with seeds serving as the organic capsules containing the roots of liberty and the means by which British goods could be successfully boycotted. Seeds represented autonomy. They were independence.

Once revolution was achieved, our founders were tasked with building the economic base on which our vision would be furthered. On this topic Benjamin Franklin so famously states: “There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.”

“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world” — George Washington

A visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier, or Adams’ Peacefield estate confirms the founders’ commitments to this third approach of wealth creation. These farms, however vast and aristocratic, were emblematic of the humble birth of a farming nation. Washington was particularly infatuated with his Mount Vernon estate, the site where he is buried today. “I had rather be on my farm,” he said, “than be emperor of the world”. In fact, the precedent set by Washington in leaving office after two terms was driven in part by his desire to return to the business of managing his farm—which featured only American plant species, upon Washington’s orders.

Andrea Wulf in her book Founding Gardeners describes the emerging agrarian landscape in the United States as a symbol of a young nation:

“I came to see how vegetable plots, ornamental plants, landscapes and forests had played a crucial role in America’s struggle for national identity and in the lives of the founding fathers. Golden cornfields and endless rows of cotton plants became symbols for America’s economic independence from Britain; towering trees became a reflection of a strong and vigorous nation; native species were imbued with patriotism and proudly planted in gardens, while metaphors drawn from the natural world brought plants and gardening into politics.”

The founders’ connection with nature and farming was driven not only by an ecological imperative, but by an economic one as well. Farming represented a means of both procedural and distributive justice. The right to own property and the opportunity to work the land protected Americans from “the arbitrary will of another” and offered the privilege of receiving the benefit of one’s own labor directly. This sort of self-reliance and self sufficiency—at first a rallying cry against British colonialism—would become the underlying principle of our economic system today (however distorted).

Farming in the time following American independence represented an epoch in US history when freedom and equality were not at odds with one another. John Adams wrote that “equal liberty required every member of society to acquire land so that the multitude may be possessed of small estates. Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor,” Adams continued, “it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate a natural right.” An equal distribution of land represented the founders’ vision of freedom in America. Agricultural land satisfied that most basic of equitable economic conditions in their eyes. They would take measured steps through public policy to ensure this basic condition was met.

In his book, Common Credo, John Schwarz writes of the Louisiana Purchase, for example, that “Jefferson proposed that every individual who never owned property be granted fifty acres of public land, enough in most locales to support a dignified living for a family in terms customary to the day, well above mere subsistence.” The Louisiana Purchase, he suggests, was perhaps the “largest and most enduring public assistance program ever in the nation’s history,” and would set the stage for subsequent “homestead acts.” To be sure, the words and ideals that we find written in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were penned by farmers.

A changing landscape

Today, we have effectively severed the link between land ownership, farming, and the twin concepts of equality and freedom. Our commitment to farming and agriculture in the United States is, instead, enshrined in a vast Farm Bill—surely unrecognizable to the founders. While Eastern Market shoppers stuff their bags with local produce, lawmakers not five minutes away cook up a legislative behemoth that balances farmer safety nets (in the form of subsidies and insurance), food assistance and aid, a growing biofuel program, agricultural infrastructure, and host of other new demands that characterize our modern food system.

The economic landscape of today would seem utterly foreign to those living in the agricultural-based economy in the 18th century. Today, agriculture (and related industries) accounts for only 4.7% of GDP in America. We have experienced both an industrial revolution and subsequent societal and economic changes that have transformed our way of being (and farming). Today, our tractors are guided by satellites, our seeds come from laboratories, and we interact with our food through shiny supermarkets. We have adopted a system of what James Scott calls “high-modern” agriculture, and exported that model across the world in a green revolution.

Meanwhile, at home, small farms grow more threatened each year. Today, less than 5% of US farms account for over 50% of total agricultural value production. In fact, over half of all farmers earn less than $10,000 and supplement their farm income with other work. In their place, mega-farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have sprung up, touting seeds as intellectual property and plowing those in their way.

The modern industrial agricultural system is increasingly characterized by a concentration of land ownership and high barriers to entry for young prospective farmers (a new four wheel industrial-sized tractor will run you about $200,000). Inheriting land is considered the only viable entry in to the industry for many prospective cultivators, and according to USDA, this tends to happen mostly for ‘white, non-hispanic males’. Direct, on-farm activities employ only 2.6 million people today in America.

Jefferson’s idyllic vision of a mosaic of farms dotting an expansive landscape has given way to a different kind of labor for those displaced homesteaders: in urban production and service economies, their wages stagnant but their productivity ever increasing. That we should be able, as Americans, to get ahead through our own efforts is sorely diminished when we lose access to the productive, renewable resources of the earth.

These trends are unlikely to change. Investments in agricultural lands have proven a consistent source of return for large financiers, pension funds, and private equity groups (both here and abroad) who have grown more comfortable investing in this tangible asset—they have been historically put off by the weather-dependent nature of farming—leading to a further concentration of agricultural land ownership:

“Farm gates have traditionally been closed to capital markets: nine in ten farms are held by families. But demography is forcing a shift: the average age of farmers in Europe, America and New Zealand is now in the late fifties. They often have no successor, because offspring do not want to farm or cannot afford to buy out family members. In addition, adopting new technologies and farming at ever-greater scale require the sort of capital few farmers have, even after years of bumper crop prices.” (The Economist, Jan 2015)

This flies in the face of Noah Webster’s assertion that “a general and tolerably equal distribution of property is the whole basis of national freedom.”

These and other trends have resulted in a tremendous loss of crop biodiversity across farms worldwide. Today, only 30 crops provide almost all of the world’s nutritional needs. The loss of diversity is especially acute in the US where over 90 million acres of corn were planted this year. That’s equivalent in size to the state of Montana. When everyone is subsidized to grow the same thing, then the only reasonable profit scheme is to grow more (what might be termed ‘extensification’).

All the more, we treat soil like dirt, not the living complex ecosystem that it is (truth be told, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the soil beneath our feet). Paul Kaiser, a zero-till farmer in Northern California, asks, “What creates life? The answer is sun, rain, and soil. We can only impact one of these: soil. It’s the only thing on the planet that takes death and converts it back to life. And all we’ve done is destroy it.” It can take 500-1000 years to naturally build an inch of topsoil; what we’ve already farmed away was laid long before the idea of America was born.

George Washington and James Madison warned us nearly 250 years ago of the dangers of unsustainable, extractive agricultural practices. In their time the principle culprit was tobacco, grown for export to Britain. George Washington referred to these monocropping practices as “ruinous” to the long term success of the Union, while Madison—similarly forward thinking—urged his fellow Virginians to live in “symmetry [with] nature” for the survival of the country. What the founders understood—which is more than simply a product of the economic circumstances of the time—is that there is something truly honorable in recognizing our delicate relationship with the environment around us. We’ve lost this connection.

Importantly, the modern agricultural system has become representative of broader income inequalities and concentration of wealth in our country. The agriculture of today, not commerce in Benjamin Franklin’s original framing, would surely be considered “cheating”. It has, in other words, left the founder’s baseline criteria for both equality and freedom thoroughly betrayed.

The seeds of a new revolution

Can small(er) farms once again be engines of growth in our economy in a way consistent with our founding ideals and compatible with the current state of our economy and society? Organic and local consumption is the single largest growing agricultural market in the US, according to the USDA. The growth in what might be termed ‘civic agriculture’ has spawned new relationships between small farms touting sound agricultural practices and restaurants, cooperatives, and farmers markets (the number of farmer’s markets in US jumped 17% in 2011 alone) whose customers are demanding to know where their food is coming from.

Simultaneously, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are popping up across the US. What started with a single farm in 1985 has now grown to well over 4,000 across the country. This movement, which allows producers and consumers to share the risks of agricultural production (CSA customers pay in advance for a share of the farm’s off take), is among the latest efforts to foster relationships between food producers and consumers and to reduce the distance our food travels.

These trends are paralleled by other civic-minded programs that aim to provide local food and employment opportunities in communities across the US, especially in underserved areas. There is, for example, a growing movement to link schools with local farms, simultaneously ensuring that our children have access to healthy foods and creating markets for local producers. There have also been several private efforts to provide jobs and education opportunities for the homeless through local farms, and USDA sponsored efforts to do the same for veterans.

While in their novice stages, these programs work to collectively dispel the myth that bigger is always better in agriculture. Small scale farmers are more productive than per unit of area than are large producers. This is because—when done right—they can accommodate greater on-farm diversity, and reduce reliance on expensive (and greenhouse gas heavy) synthetic fertilizers. The common argument that economies of scale and specialization serve to make the industrial food system more efficient (and ultimately more environmentally friendly) than localized systems, denies a broader biological imperative—that is, as the saying goes, “if you believe you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, then you are either a madman or an economist.” This is especially true when your product relies on complex soil processes that will be disturbed when the same crop (or combination of crops) are grown year-in and year-out. We can feed the world with small-scale agriculture, but we can’t do it without healthy soils.

From an environmental perspective, then, small-scale farming offers clear advantages over its industrial counterpart. “If the problems of modern agriculture are centralization, simplification and biological reductionism”, Paul Hawken writes, “then the answers include diversity, complexity and local knowledge”. These are the roots of the small-scale, agroecology movement. The livelihoods of small-scale farmers are inextricably linked to the health of the system that they are farming—just as the founders intended. It’s a recipe for a production system that “nourishes both person and place.” James Madison remarked that “the class of citizens who provide at once their own food…may be viewed as the most truly independent and happy…It follows, that the greater proportion of this class to the whole society, the more free, the more independent, and the more happy must be the society itself.”

The point here is not to romanticize small-scale farming, nor the founders’ original attempts at building a farming nation (to be sure, for every successful small farm today there are countless others struggling to make ends meet, and, more importantly, most of the founders’ estates were made possible through slave labor). Rather, the point is to demonstrate that the broader goals of equality and freedom through the land is not at odds with who we are as a nation. Quite the opposite; it is central to our story.

The sort of rugged, pick yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism that we celebrate in this country was, quite literally, born in a barn. It will serve the new food movement well to remember that. What is happening in the US is a collision of economic necessity, moral awakening, environmental consciousness and the simple desire to eat good food. These are the seeds of a new revolution. So, I urge you, in the words of Mark Twain, “buy land—they’re not making any more of it”.

Farming at the time of independence was a political act, and it needs to be again today.

This article originally appeared on Medium.