Thursday, March 27, 2008


It was heartening to watch the trailer for The Greenhorns, a documentary film about young people in my generation reclaiming control of our country's foodways through their own small farms. I think it's a good thing that at the same time urban agriculture is starting to take hold, another new ruralism is also growing.

I noticed something in watching the trailer, though. These wonderful young people are so strong, so ambitious, so conscientious, and so...white. I think there was one person of color featured among the many in those few minutes.

Maybe it's because I grew up where I did, in a county where African Americans are the majority (example: at the public middle school I attended, out of 806 students total, there are currently 75 white students--my elementary and high schools were a bit more demographically "even" but still not predominately white). So maybe, when other people might take it for granted, I sometimes notice when the "minorities" (a relative term) are absent--from a restaurant, a church, a school, a film or a social movement.

It's difficult for me to weigh in on this topic without feeling like too much of a nice white lady. I don't really feel like it's my job as a white person to go around proclaiming where people of color's interests ought to lie. Something's wrong with that picture. But I feel like something is also wrong with the picture of the new rural America that I'm seeing--where privileged and socially conscious young white folks can move out to a piece of land somewhere and have the resources to start up, and somehow people of color are always thought of as "urban." African Americans and Latinos have their roots in the land as much as whites do, but one issue is that the rural agricultural legacy for many, at least for the past couple of centuries, is intertwined with one of oppression and imposed poverty. It quickly becomes a more complex subject.

I suppose the greater issue at hand is that farming is seen as either a) something people do who can't do anything better or b) something white people can afford to do for fun because they think it's neat. And really those are both huge myths. I think if more people saw farmers as the proud, self-sufficient, hard-working, intelligent and creative people portrayed in films like The Greenhorns, more people--of all races--would view farming as the admirable, respectable, and even desirable line of work that it is.

And I guess there's a limit to what I can do from my position of privilege. I am glad that I notice when people are invisible, but what next? Besides blogging?

Edit: It's not just me. A recent New York Times article on young farmers was found to contain a significant amount of Stuff White People Like.


Cian said...

It's urban agriculture that's concentrating the knowledge of the old, who once tended farms, to their grandchildren, who are learning leadership skills and agriculture skills. I think you'll like it, and wish it were in the Times instead of articles following the stereotype of new farmers as white folks with urban backgrounds.

Bill said...

Big media is always selling the idea that "farmers" are someone else, whether they are "new" or "white" or "black." If all of "us" thought of ourselves as farmers, not just food consumers, then we would look at land and the ownership and control of land a little differently.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most people in the US were farmers. Across the country, the populist movement, based on farmers and their communities, were demanding public ownership of railroads, banks and electrical utilities. Radical farmers were a major source of the Socialist Party's strength.

The politicians and corporations had a solution: introduce tractors and chemicals so that farmers are "freed" from the land. Herd farmers, white and black, into cities and factories where they can be complacent consumers of industrial crap. The Great Depression was an expression of how devastating this forced movement was to the national economy. Tractor dealers throughout the 1920s took teams in trade for new tractors and immediately sent them to slaughter destroying in a decade a huge genetic bank of draft stock.

The last good idea that republicans ever had was 40 acres and a mule. And I'm not saying that facetiously.

Just like in Bangladesh, it is all about land reform. We'll know things have really changed when Americans start demanding land so that they can grow their own food.

Allie said...

This is so interesting. And I really like Bill's point about farmers always being someone else in big media.

I'm starting a major gardening project in the back yard this year and I am so nervous about it. Like I'll ruin the lawn or I won't be able to pull it off. I think it has a lot to do with the idea that normal people don't farm. I need to put that out of my head.

maria said...

cian: thanks for the link; it's going in my ever-growing "urban agriculture" folder...always looking for good models.

bill: once again, you tell it like it is. there is a lot of work to be done before everyone (no matter what they look like or where they live) begins to see the value in subsistence farming.

allie: listen to bill; he is my father-in-law and he tells it like it is :)
this our first year starting up too, and a lot of what we are doing is just trial-and-error, so i understand the nervousness. we are renting, but our landlord is encouraging us to farm as long as we share some of the harvest...fine by us. honestly, if all things were equal, i would tear up the lawn. we might still, though maybe not this year. there is a park with a big field down the street if we want to run around. meanwhile, our yard could be put to better use.

Howling Hill said...

Great points, maria and Bill.

Land is so cost prohibitive for everyone, skin color doesn't matter. This is done purposefully in my opinion. After all, if no one can afford to buy large tracks of land, it lays fallow until some developer comes along and puts a McMansion neighborhood in. Then, of course, no one can afford the new houses. It's a never ending cycle it seems. So how do we break it?

Bill said...


Here are two ways to start -- regulate the real estate mortgage market to end speculative and predatory lending, and end all farm subsidies by the USDA. Farm subsidies are the number one reason why productive farm land is so expensive in this country.

You urbanites have to realize that there is land all around you that you can use, because not very many people in urban areas value the productive capacity of soil to feed people. Many people in suburbs, particularly white people, have forgotten that they can feed themselves just by using their own muscles and applying their brains to practical problems.

Jacob said...

You urbanites have to realize that there is land all around you that you can use, because not very many people in urban areas value the productive capacity of soil to feed people.

To follow on that, it only takes a few boards and some dirt for a raised bed. I think it was the guru of raised-bed gardening, Mel Bartholomew, who said a 4'x4' box can yield enough produce for 1 person per season. So while there is indeed land all around us urbanites for the using, one also mustn't be daunted by the vastness of the available space. Start small and you'll be amazed how easy it is to farm! (Or so we hope...)

Jacob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

Excellent points Jacob. The French farmed with raised beds, cold frames and cloches around the Paris suburbs which provided a steady supply of vegetables to the city year round.

We have been eating salads for several weeks now from an in-ground cold frame from seed sowed late last fall.

As is always the case, home is the best place to start with your land reform program.

Jacob said...

HH: p.s. even if you don't have the skills (or skilled friends) or gumption to build a small bed frame, you can do a raised bed in anything with sides. folks where i grew up in WV used birdbaths or tires - the latter might have some toxicity issues (?), but it seems to work. you can grow potatoes in a trash can (we are!). if you really want to buy something, you can get a planter. and so on.

all it takes is dirt, a few seeds, and will. really, when you compare the price of a seed to the price of a lettuce head, buying from the store (i.e. the alienated market) is a total racket. (see also: yogurt, butter - but more on that later.)