Toward a Progressive Family Farm

I have been out of the ranty blog business for several months mainly because life and restarting a farm and taking care of myself all take time… and I’d rather get a good snuggle in or play Legos for real (not half pretending) in the precious hours when I’m not working… but I’m back again. Recently I posted on almighty Facebook a link of a farmer talking mainly about creating a farm for his family not in spite of it. I find myself agreeing with him at many levels as I have learned how to calm down, to love my life in the now, and work on patience (of which I generally have none). I wrote at the end of my Facebook post that dedicating oneself to the family farm on an ideological level is not the same as dedicating oneself to it on a practical level. This is what I want to talk about here.

I am interested in the progressive manifestation of the family farm – not some overly romantic Christian version (Wendell Berry I love you but Christian virtue does not in itself prevent abuse and capitalist expansion) complete with baked pies and a happy and dominating husband. I’m also not interested in the family farm, which we seem to worship fully in sustainable agriculture circles, that is succeeding despite consolidation, draining resources in rural communities and a broken commodity system. Many of us have been eager to prove the alternative is a real alternative, so much so that we have sacrificed ourselves to it. 

I do want pie, I want a beautiful loving family, I want hard work, I want care for my land, I want fishing and midday kisses. I do dream about the beautiful parts of the farm - but the large social structures are so powerful that we should reckon with those too. 

I have to say I am interested in my specific family and our specific farm. I am interested in deep loving relationships with my children, mother and a partner. I am interested in mutual support and celebration of food and community but in the genuine version – not the cleaned-up version where I look great and smiley in pictures but the kids didn’t get dinner until 9pm because we were working and I am soaked in guilt and too exhausted to sleep. I am interested in the less accomplished and more fun version – and I say this while restarting a business, going to endless meetings and networking opportunities and feeling a little run down. I am interested in the some what poorer (literally) but happier version. I am also looking forward to making a reasonable income and spending money on things that are not the farm like normal people get to – because being a family farm does not mean sinking it all into the farm, it also means having resources to enjoy being a family. We, and I mean I, should not lose sight of that.

What is a progressive family farm? First and foremost we should know what it is not. I have alluded to this before but I literally made life decisions to fall in line with my ex-husbands personal dedication to a definition of the family farm. I was bought in because after all you can’t be a hypocrite when you critique factory farming or certain labor regimes - I was both a farmer and an ideological warrior. I so deeply wanted a perfect family farm too - but the starting structure made this impossible.

Do you have any idea how insane it was in my life to be dedicated to the definition of a family farm in which we literally provided the majority of the labor on our farm while at the same time creating continuous growth. And as it turns out, when I left the farm, the man I was married to who wanted to be a family farm and to make speeches about it  at farmers union conventions (sorry I’m being mean) finally realized that this definition was impossible with out me. Not just because of the way that I worked on the farm but the endless labor I provided at home. I am not proud to say, based on the number of people who are currently “replacing my work”, that  I did the work of 3-4 people. I suspect that this same labor arrangement is true on many farms. And because we continually sink financial resources into the farm we feel like the endless work is needed just to stay afloat.  

Here are the parts of the family farm we should connect to from the ground up for a progressive vision.

Equality and a fair wage – not just for employees, not just for ‘farm work’ but also all for of “women’s work” too. I am a big fan of paying people to do house work. I am scheming ways to exchange my talents for everything I need in the domestic realm. I love cooking but I would rather pay someone (in barter or money) to clean my floors while I play with my kids. I would rather pay someone to watch my kids while I work rather than neglect them or expect them to work like adults. I would rather plan time to have my kids engaged in the farm (and understand that it wont be very productive) than alienate them through toil, stress, and work for works sake. I have wild children of the woods but that should be a choice rather than a requirement of farming. Be clear about what is work and be clear that parenting and housework and emotional labor are work and either self compensate for them, find help with them, or sure as heck make sure they are really evenly divided. Note: If you are fighting about them, a whole bunch of longstanding feminist scholarship on domestic work will tell you, it is probably not equal.   

Love, respect and support – for all living things from soil microbes to children and grandparents. These are ideals that are often used to force people into or to keep people in tragically unequal and painful situations. I mean the real deal. If you are kicking, yelling at hitting or destroying anything or anyone on your farm there is an issue. I was struck in a conversation with a fellow farmer last year when she mentioned that when her partner gets really upset he will throw his hat. Let me suggest that this is likely a good standard for anger and stress response. Kicking pigs, hitting cows with rebar, yelling at your partner or score keeping on all their faults, and ignoring the basic needs of children are forms of abuse – they are not just responses farmers have when they are stressed by the weather. Go to therapy, hold people responsible for abusive and mean behavior, and set up farms with clear legal divisions of wealth and compensation in the case of breakouts (so people who are in damaging situations can leave without putting themselves into poverty)

Celebration of feeding people and cultural work of farming but… the recognition that being the salt of the earth isn’t the goal for everyone. I absolutely hate the ‘thank a farmer’ things because they assume that somehow all agricultural is good. Even all family farms are not good.  Let’s be more critical in our worship of our farming history – and if we interrogate it seriously we will see that gender dynamics, racism, and social class exploitation have always been there too! Great meals, delicious food, community parties and potucks YES! Blind worship of exploitation on the land and people NO!

Hard work – and when I say this I mean it. I love hard work. I think it is good that my children understand the actual work that goes into producing food but (here is another but…)… hard work for specific reasons at specific times is valuable. But not the celebration of empty toil and not the celebration of ability to work over all other personal characteristics. Being able to work or having a long history of working hard does not excuse meanness, abuse, stress, lack of relationships, or even lack of self care. We often act like family farmers get a pass because of hard work. That is insane and I want children who like themselves even if they don’t work as hard or in the ways that I do. Maybe the concept I actual like is “family work” because this is one that is a bit less grounded in being super productive. I love making bouquets with my kids for them to sell. I love when my kids help unload straw bales because I actually need help and we eat an ice pop after. I don’t really want my kids to have memories of passing out in a hay mow from dehydration at age 11… but family farms allow us to romanticize those things in an uncritical way. Imagine if you friend told you that she had her son or daughter walk the dog for 6 hours and it took the kid days to recover. What? Why on earth is farm work any different. My neighbor delivered bales to my farm several years ago and I looked at them and said “why are they so little”. I had been on a farm that made giant bales and baled way too wet on occasion which meant that I was used to picking up 70-80 lbs  or being hit in the face by the bales when unloading at top speed. I thought it was normal… and then my neighbor turned to me and said “it uses more baling twine but I started doing it when the kids were little so they enjoyed helping and could pick up a bale… and then I realized they were easier for me too”.  That was one of the first times I saw that family work was different that just supporting a “family farm”. That is the type of consideration I think we need.

Distribution of wealth- This is the best reason to worship the family farm. Our source of wealth in the US is land. It is right and just to expect people to have access to land (not just housing) and to try to free our land resources from speculation and outside investment which drains resources from our community. In this case I think broad land access, broadening programs for acquisition, and tools to control land speculation are the best things we have right now – because progressive taxation isn’t coming anytime soon – I want immigrant land access and "regifting" to the people whose land we robbed. But let’s be clear that the land wealth distributed from family farms is also rooted in theft from Native people, more recently from Black farmers, and from the poor. This is the legacy we come from. We should not be shocked that the system is continuing to consolidate with wealth and power – specifically in the hands of white men.

Last but not least – If the family farm is something to struggle for we need to make it something kids, women, LGBTQ folks, people of color and immigrants are welcomed into. That is a big task for a system that is steeped in the legacy of patriarchal white supremacy. In future months and years I hope to work out some of the legal resources, community events, educational structures that can help us get there but let’s be honest about what we have and what we worship…. Being critical of something you want to save doesn’t ruin it, it will potentially be the only way to preserve it.