Rebuilding an Agricultural Commons
We've let private ownership have its turn, with tragic results. How can we steward land, resources, and full-featured human communities without extraction?
Hey y’all. I’m back again with another laundry list of complaints, critiques, and observations. Spring is in the air, for somewhere between ten minutes and a half an hour daily. It seems early, but I swear I heard the alarming beacon of the timberdoodle yesterday evening. A few spring peepers sing out on occasion. Mourning doves flit together, and our poultry flock is beginning to act a bit hormonal. Along with the suffocating abundance of milk, mud and eggs I have many lists, jotted down in notebooks, or scribbled somewhere in my own brain. The treadmill of farm tasks that I never fully stepped off of in winter is increasing speed.
Agriculture is awful lonely business sometimes. Even in the context of a family farm, there seems to be a requisite amount of isolation, physical, social, and emotional. Part of this, at least in the US, seems to be due in part to our cultural expectations of the farmer as individualist. It of course doesn’t help that our mainstream land access and economic models actively segregate humans from food, and from each other. But it wasn’t, and in many circumstances, isn’t like this. In spite of all the relationships modern American farmers have with neighbors, banks, insurance companies, supply chain marketers, chemical corporations, seed dealers and equipment manufacturers, the farming profession is often competitive, if not downright adversarial. At the end of a career spent growing food, the most valuable commodity a farmer can hold is land, and at the rate land is being converted out of agriculture, the retiring landholder is increasingly likely to see the result of their life’s stewardship bulldozed and sold off for a more profitable real estate venture.
A lot of has been made of Bill Gates’ purchase of agricultural lands. I think it is a natural and reasonable reaction to feel creeped out when the 1% begins to voraciously horde a resource, but in comparison to foreign corporations, Gates’ holdings are relatively small. And don’t allow xenophobia to get the best of you. The majority of acreage held by foreign firms isn’t from Chinese corporations… it’s the Canadians. In fact, there are 17 other foreign nations that hold more US farmland than China. Still, housing development and urbanization play a much deeper role in the loss of productive agricultural land than any of the popular conspiracy theories. Look folks, the powers that be do not care enough about us to purposely starve us or deprive of us resources. Their main interest is pleasing shareholders. And in the world of landholding, that means breaking up the collective power of land held in common. And this has mostly been accomplished, for the time being.
There are countless examples of land and resources being held in common for the public good, and it could be argued that food/resource access and sovereignty are a pretty big part of the public good. Land held in common trust may have a specific legal definition, but as a concept this has largely been how human society has historically operated, from the shared use and care for historical, indigenous hunting grounds such as the one I’m farming on, to the public streets and cul-de-sacs of my youth where gangs of children were generally tolerated to inhabit space for play. I’m going to focus on the decline of common land in 16th century England, but just a bit. Sometimes it feels like a big ask from me for y’all to get excited about these things, so I’ll try to keep it light.
In a nutshell, it used to be that people were less greedy, or at least that’s how I figure it. Medieval England wasn’t awesome, by any stretch of the imagination. There were viking invasions, famine, plague, times of civil unrest, pogroms, patriarchy, and theocracy, so basically the same as today, except we have antibiotics and no vikings. Feudal lords held an estate, which was granted by the Crown, or some superior peer. In other words, the good ol’ boys club was up and operating a thousand years ago. Still, central to the manorial system were a series of land use rights granted to different classes. Among the rights granted to commoners were pasture, piscuary (fishing rights), turbary (the right to harvest peat and sod for fuel), pannage (swine herding in the woods), rights to mineral harvesting, and woodcutting and harvesting. A social class of subsistence people developed around these granted rights. Access to the commons was regulated to conserve resources and prevent degradation to the land. Medieval people had some sense of what comprised overgrazing and overharvesting and put legal limitations in effect that mirrored the limitations set by the ecosystem, something our modern society and economy seems unable to do.
Common lands often utilized a “three field system”, essentially a crop rotation for arable lands in which livestock holders were allowed grazing access to fallow rye, barley and pea fields for a time. The peasant graziers could support livestock, the manor owners received fertility in exchange, and the land could be kept in somewhat sustainable production. However, the three field system was eventually supplanted by the more efficient and profitable Norfolk four-course system, which integrated clover and turnips into the rotation. While this system was, overall, more efficient, profitable, and led to better soil health, it precluded the fallow period in which commoners could graze the area.
And so began enclosure, or the fencing off of the commons and the creation of legal entitlement, restricting access. Over the next half millenium, the trend towards a restricted commons in exchange for land held privately for personal gain has become the norm. And that is not to say that most of my farming neighbors are greedy land barons… they are merely caught in an economic system where landholding is perhaps the only path to a profitable career in farming.
Enclosure was what I’d call a win-lose transaction, the most common type of transaction in our current dominant economic system. Landowners realized that they could trade their previously held obligation to the landless in exchange for an increase in profit, and they took the win, paving the way for an efficient agricultural revolution. In return, the landless commoners lost their self-sufficiency, and turned to wage work. We haven’t really crawled out of the shadow of this system yet.
Nowadays, land prices are high. Way high. They’re not making any more of it, or so I’m told. Access to farmland is very difficult for the young, beginning or disadvantaged person to swing, while our farming population is aging with few able to step forward to replace them in this vital work. In post plague Europe, the drop in population, paired with the drop in food demand led to an increase in wages for agrarian labor, and then inflation, and ultimately revolt and the end of feudalism. Today, large monoculture tracts owned by foreign investors and operated with the assistance of drones, self-driving tractors, and yes, robots will be the stand-in for farm labor in the next few unhinged decades, unless we can find a way to make land accessible to us commoners again. As exciting as a peasant revolt sounds, I just don’t see it going well, given our recent history of social movements and our mass-cultural tendency to get duped and used by the very same lords of industry we claim to stand against. My lack of support for populist movements isn’t because I’m an elitist, believe it or not. I’m just not that gullible.
And so, farming has become a lonely profession, not just due to the time spent literally alone in a field, which is actually one of the nicer parts of it, but because most farmers have to struggle with institutions that will sooner put them out to pasture than pay out a living that matches the true value of their labor. It’s either enclosure or foreclosure. Sometimes farmers are a kind and gregarious lot, and if you live in a farming community, you might know that some of them bear at bit of resentment for a culture that simultaneously needs them and treats them as obsolete. Best you can hope for with most any farmer is that they’re acceptably surly. But, there is an alternative that can allow land access for the common good and simultaneously improve the living conditions of commoners and tenant farmers well beyond those of 12th century England. I don’t know exactly how my life compares to a feudal era commoner, but I do have snacks, shoes, toothpaste, and electricity on most days.
I farm on a land trust. It’s never a perfect arrangement, and from my end, I see ways to improve the relationship with my land trust, but it does achieve three considerable goals. It has granted my access to agricultural land that I otherwise would not have due to my own economic status. It facilitates agricultural projects that benefit our community through tiered lease rates that encourage cooperative, scaled farming. It is oriented to land and resource conservation and environmental considerations in its policies and goals. The pitfalls are that it is sluggish to act on decision making when needed, it doesn’t offer much in the way of infrastructure improvements to facilitate efficient farming, and it does not offer a lot in the way of equity. When I give up my lease or retire, the natural capital I’ve developed over time, the improvements to soil and ecosystem health, are not valued financially. I might be able to sell infrastructure improvements like barns and fencing, if someone is foolish enough to want to get into farming here, but the nest egg that many farmers hold, the land itself, well that’s unavailable to me. And perhaps that’s all the better. With our land held in trust, I can at least rest assured that this patch of Missouri sidehill I’ve dedicated my time to stewarding won’t go on to be something awful, like a McMansion or a chain restaurant, not that the risk is exceptionally high here in Scotland County, where we literally do no have a traffic light.
My land trust is not specifically focused on agriculture, but does value a certain amount of agricultural activity taking place on it in order to support the local community. In addition to serving the creation and maintenance of sustainable community, the land trust sets aside abused and degraded land in order to regenerate our native ecosystem, in this case tall grass prairie, savanna, and healthy wooded areas. In order to gain agricultural access, we need to engage in activities that actively support this type of ecosystem regeneration, which dovetails with my personal land ethic. The imperfect land trust model that I’m working with is a good start in restoring the balance in land access, but there are other models which may more closely align with the goals of a 21st century agrarian commons.
Land trusts, be they conservation oriented or community oriented, or even both, are effective at holding land as an oasis in the face of so much degradation, extraction, and resource intensive development. In order to meet the very real need we have for them, land trusts will have to continue to form, grow, and stay functional and economically viable in the face of a dominant culture profit motive that is quite contrary to the goals of common access and ecosystem repair. In other words, it requires more generosity from the resourced or otherwise become profitable without resorting to environmental extraction or human deprivation. Most farmers are only empowered to deprive themselves of a livelihood, and understandably choose extraction as the most tenable solution.
I’m not entirely clear why the commons system of midieval England thrived for as long as it did. Landowners allowed it to occur, and I don’t suppose it was out of philanthropy. Most likely it was considered to be a win-win transaction. Barons may have found value in the industrious nature of commoners, who kept wilderness at bay and made improvements to the soil for mutual benefit. Adjacent to the commoners were gleaners, typically peasants of a particularly destitute nature. Gleaners were allowed to scour fields and orchards after harvest to take away dropped and culled food. This is a similar management practice as to what I do with my pigs and poultry, actually. The extra thorough pick up job certainly helped reduced pests and disease, a boon to the landowner. Nowadays food is tossed away in locked dumpsters where vermin, but not humans, can benefit from the margins of economic abundance, another example of enclosure over the common good.
Humans, like all animals hold and express a certain inclination for self-preservation, but it used to come with the understanding that survival is mutual. Over time this understanding has become less visible in our culture. Perhaps the loss of the commons is a symptom of our turn towards a self-defeating culture of fierce independence, or maybe the loss of the commons is part of what lead us to where we are at this place in history.
Independence takes a lot of priveledge. And priveledge comes at some cost to others. A lot of folks enter the homesteading lifestyle in pursuit of increased independence, and I can hardly fault them for it, at first. Many things led me to pursue this lifestyle. I believed, and still do, that achieving food sovereignty for myself and my family would reduce my reliance on rapacious corporations that harm the planet. I thought that freeing myself from wage work would keep my US dollars out of a tax system that supports war and extraction. I never wanted to hedge my bets on a system that seemed so out of control, bloated, ready to fall apart. But without participation in an alternative system, that lifts people up and regenerates ecosystem health, my impact will be, at best, negligble to neutral. And it’s still lonely business, to exist merely in opposition to a world gone to the dogs of greed.
Regenerating the commons isn’t nearly enough. Cooperation is requisite in maintaining them for future generations, and the less heirarchical we can make our contract with ourselves and our land base, the more likely we are to succeed without having our reestablished relationship with land stolen or co-opted in the future. Cooperation is present formally and informally throughout global farming communities. Even in most “mainstream” American farming communities, it is not uncommon to help a neighbor out, one way or another. I myself have helped run a crew of neighbors to glean a wind-flattened acreage of field corn down the road. The farmer of said field was able to safely recover the lost space by grazing cattle without risk of bloating them, and we were able to secure a few wagons worth of grain for our pigs and poultry. Neighbor farmers cooperate all the time, to invest in shared machinery, negotiate better prices for specialty crops, and gain access to resources they couldn’t afford on their own. In rural communities like mine, it’s rare that a farmer wants to see their neighbor go out of business or sell their land. I think there’s an inherent understanding here that the health of the individual household is contingent on the health of the wider community. Still, giving ownership of land over to a trust is a challenging proposition for folks who are cash poor and only wealthy on paper.
Novice homesteaders who strive for independence will likely underperform, burnout, fail, or all three. If they succeed at all, it relates to their class privelege more than anything else. Me, I’m hanging on, but boy howdy am I tired. Some time back our dairy goat program become too much to handle independently, and so we created an informal cooperative that has eased our own workload and expanded to be able to serve our wider community. Currently I am organizing a similar cooperative venture related to tree crops.
The lonely business of agriculture becomes a bit less so with others laboring alongside me, with the acknowledgment of some common good to work towards, and by being valued for my practices and what I provide rather than whether or not I hold an estate. If a farmer has to wait their whole life to sell their land in order to finally benefit from their labor, then our system of farming is unsustainable for the humans who have to endure it daily. I haven’t even touched on the way migrant labor is valued in our food system, itself a remnant of feudalism. Just a week or two back it was exposed that underage migrant kids are being placed in slaughterhouses as clean up crews. If the QAnon set wants to take on actual issues of child abuse, they ought to spend more time investigating the food processing industry and stop worrying about Tom Hanks.
Farming in harmony with our ecosystem has somehow become what I’m doing with my life. I will always place great importance in employing practices that are respectful of the limits of our planet, that aid in the rehabilitation of the land, and that respect the dignity of the living things involved. Only recently has it become clear to me that this harmonious way of growing food has got to extend to our human communities as well, despite how annoyed I am with them. And while I’m a proponent of cooperative agriculture, truth is I’m critical, I’m nit-picky, and I’d rather do a lot of my work alone. But I don’t think I’ll choose independence at my own detriment over cooperation for the benefit of all, if I can help it.
It doesn’t feel at all appropriate for me to end on a hopeful note, and it’s easy enough not to. Issues of land access are challenging and only getting worse. At the rate we’re going, the next wave of enclosure, in which small farms are made extinct by corporate interests is all but assured. There are excellent models of alternative landholding out there, but the work in getting there is, well, very uphill. Ultimately, wherever private ownership is concerned, it isn’t the commoners who have their way under the current economic realities. Power resides with the powerful. It kills me to think how achievable a better world is in the hands of those who hold so much, while the rest of us are left to glean. It’s a cold world out there folks. We can struggle alone, or we can struggle together, either way, its struggle.
Thank you Ben, for your time and energy that you put into this piece.
This is great, I want to read it every day for a week! Just to make sure I squeeze out everything I can from it.
Although not totally in line with your theme, forming a cooperative or other legal entity hedges against unfortunate incidents by corporate neighbors continuing unresolved. During my trip, I stayed with people (wwoofing, airbnb) that had their well water contaminated by a corporate neighbor. My hosts were surprised (and hurt, betrayed) that the sense of urgency for resolution was not shared by both parties. If you have two non-human legal entities, once the facts of a case are established, insurance companies will usually push for settlement - you know, within a normal person's lifetime. And if one party is actually human, well... It usually has a different kind of end. It's a weird dichotomy. The triggers for damage are very human, but there is nothing human about resolving it.
We're definitely stronger when we work together. Thanks for the post!