Can an agrarian future avoid the violence of the agrarian past?

The agrarian tradition is increasingly characterized as a positive alternative to industrial agriculture. The lauding of the agrarian past as a way to redeem food production and social organization is demonstrated in Paul Schwennesen’s TEDx talk (below), Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, Michael Pollan’s numerous books, and documentaries such as Food Inc and Food Matters. Although I am sympathetic to projects that encourage critical thinking about contemporary food practices, I have reservations about attempts to import ideas and practices from the past as solutions to problems of the present.

“We are being sucked into a nameless, faceless, system of consolidated food production which destroys the family farm…Lets come back to the land” – Paul Schwennesen

Agrarian and small-scale agriculture are often characterized as fostering a caring relationship with animals and the environment, establishing self-sufficiency and sustainability, and strengthening bonds of communal belonging. Yet in narrating these benefits a number of contentious themes of that tradition are ignored: dispossession of indigenous peoples, defined social roles, racism and exclusion, and indentured labor.

Advocates for the value of agrarian thought and practices in contemporary contexts – both urban and rural – have ignored or downplayed historical manifestations of agrarian sectarianism and exclusion that conflict with the values of contemporary democracies. Contemporary liberal democracies purport to value diversity, openness and the freedom for individuals to choose their own ends. However, historical examples of agrarian farming practice have run against aspects of these values. My point is not to say that liberal values trump agrarian values, but that potential conflicts need more open acknowledgment. See [1]

Arguably the most rigorous philosopher of agrarian thought, Paul Thompson, acknowledges sectarian expressions of agrarianism in the 18th century but suggests that these expressions evidence the influence of 18th century culture in general and are not inherent to agrarianism [2: 137]. According to Thompson it is possible to ‘untangle’ agrarian ideals from the deleterious influence of the 18th century. I dispute this possibility and argue that it belies Thompson’s own reading of agrarian thought within the virtue tradition [3: 78-82]. I contend that the vices of exclusion are the unchecked virtues of community and belonging. As such the historical expressions of exclusion and violence associated with agrarian communities cannot be quarantined but needs to be acknowledged and reconciled if agrarian thought and practice are to be used in shaping urban agriculture.

My concern is that contemporary proponents of agrarian ideals ignore or marginalize the history of exclusion and violence, which not only perpetuates the historical wrongs but risks repeating them when these ideas are applied to urban contexts. I am supportive of projects that attempt to provide new and helpful ways of relating to food, the land and community. However, I do not believe the purported benefits or virtues of agrarianism can be achieved without clear and honest recognition of the historical manifestations of exclusion, xenophobia and violence. Ignoring this history only weakens the putative benefits and virtues of agrarianism.

1.         Mayes, C., An Agrarian Imaginary in Urban Life: Cultivating Virtues and Vices Through a Conflicted History. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2013: p. 1-22.

2.         Thompson, P.B., Thomas Jefferson and Agrarian Philosophy, in The agrarian roots of pragmatism, P.B. Thompson and T.C. Hilde, Editors. 2000, Vanderbilt University Press.

3.         Thompson, P.B., The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. 2010, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.