A Nation of Farmers: The Return to Living off of the Land

In "A Nation of Farmers", co-authors Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton examine the limits and dangers of the globalized food system and how returning to basics is our best hope.

A Nation of Farmers

Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil

Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

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The cost of flying in food from far away and shipping it across the country in refrigerated trucks is rapidly becoming unviable. Cars and cows increasingly devour grain harvests, sending prices skyrocketing. More Americans than ever before require food stamps and food pantries just to get by, and a worldwide food crisis is unfolding, overseas and in our kitchens.  We can keep hunger from stalking our families, but doing so will require a fundamental shift in our approach to field and table, including a homesteading resurrection. In A Nation of Farmers (New Society Publishers, 2009), co-authors Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton outline what changes need to occur. 

Getting Back to the Victory Garden   

Professional standards, the standards of ambition and selfishness, are always sliding downward toward expense, ostentation, and mediocrity. They tend always to narrow the ground of judgment. But amateur standards, the standards of love, are always straining upward toward the humble and the best. They enlarge the ground of judgment. The context of love is the world.    — Wendell Berry — 

What would a nation of farmers and home cooks look like? Many of us are so far removed from food production that imagining that world seems like a return to the dark ages. In fact, we only have to look back two generations, to the US in 1945, at the end of World War II. In 1943, 44 percent of all the vegetables eaten in the US were produced in home Victory Gardens, and 20 million American families worked in gardens, in addition to the one-fifth of the population living on farms. Americans fed themselves and were proud of their ability to meet their own needs. A popular war poster read, “Guts ...and sweat...that’s the stuff victory is made of! We’re fighting this war to WIN...and every mother’s son of us is doing his job.... Who said the US is soft? PRODUCE FOR VICTORY!” We tend to think of growing and cooking our own food as unimaginably arduous, but even were that true (and it isn’t — more on this shortly), have we gone soft? Are we really incapable of guts and sweat any more? 

Envision this. During the First World War, the town of Marian, Indiana, for example, had a population of 29,000 and more than 14,000 Victory Gardens. In Dallas, Texas, during the same period, there were 20,000 Victory Gardens. During World War II, the total quantity of vegetables produced in Victory Gardens was equal to the total output of produce from all US farms combined. Think about that — Americans produced in their yards and in vacant lots as many vegetables as all of the farms in the US. That, we think, gives us a sense of the scope of possibilities. 

A society in which many of us cooked dinner every night and got our food from our own gardens and the farms and gardens of our neighbors would look very much like the World War II era. Only this time, we’d all be fighting our war from home, rather than sending sons and husbands off to battle. A nation of farmers and cooks is one that needs less oil and is less vulnerable to terrorism — and thus needs to fight fewer wars. Instead of a war on two fronts, all of us would be working together on a single victory — a victory at home. 

The problems articulated in the previous chapter have been described as each individually requiring a national build up and commitment on the same scale that was required to succeed in World War II. Joseph Romm, former assistant secretary of energy, argues that climate change alone will demand such an effort of us: “This national (and global) reindustrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer.”  We have already mentioned the Hirsch Report. The report assesses that in order to address peak oil and avoid massive economic and energy crises, two full decades of full-scale, crash- program mitigation work would be required. The report refers repeatedly to World War II levels of production, but then says what would be required to avoid a worldwide recession is “unprecedented” — that is more national effort and unity than World War II required. 

Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute, notes in Plan B 2.0 that we are now in the situation that many people were in at the beginning of World War II — that much must be asked of us if we are to have a future. And, of course, we’ve been told by our leaders that thewar on terrorism is our generation’s World War II. Whether you believethat last statement or not, it is almost certainly true that our security depends on our ability to meet our sovereign needs for basics such as energy, food, clothing, and shelter. Right now, the US is dependent in part or in whole on foreign sources for all of the above. We have, in only 60 years, gone from being people who could supply our own needs to being the most dependent people in American history. A single act of terrorism — a bomb in a shipping container that closed ports or the closing of the Straits of Hormuz— could cut off our supply lines and energy resources. We begin from a position that is in many ways weaker and more vulnerable thanwe were in World War II, and it will require a matching level of commitment to free us from our dependency. 

If climate change alone, and peak oil alone and soil depletion and falling food supplies alone each require an effort on the scale of World War II, what will they ask of us together? The answer may well be “As much courage and passion and commitment as has ever been asked of any people in human history.” Addressing these crises will demand that we cease to be dependent and step forward and take responsibility for ourselves and our future. We believe this is something we can accomplish with grace, courage and dignity, but we must begin soon. We may already be too late to avoid a global tipping point in climate change; we certainly have far less than 20 years to begin preparing for a global energy peak; and our degree of dependence on foreign sources and multinational companies for everything from water to food to shelter increases daily. 

You will notice that most of our political leaders have not called for radical change — and do not always even admit there is a serious problem. Some are just waking to the realities of climate change and have yet to acknowledge peak oil. In part this is because doing so would be political suicide, or so our leaders believe. They have bought the Big Lie; they believe that the people of the wealthy West will never give up their comforts and take up plowshares and defend their nation and their future. Most (there are a few important exceptions) fear to be the ones to tell unpopular truths. 

We cannot expect leadership from those who call themselves leaders until we make it clear that as a nation we value our future security more than any short-term pleasures, that we care more about a livable world than trivialities. They think we are cowards, and they think we are shortsighted and willing to sacrifice our own children for short-term comfort. But they slander us. We must show them otherwise — that we are people of courage, people of strength, people who want the best for the US and are willing to sacrifice to get it. 

If our leaders will not lead us there, then we will lead them. In truth, that’s what democracy is — the people leading. The people deciding. We ordinary people have the power to change the world, and we invite you to do so. We need to go forward into something like the recent past, in which ordinary people did more than buy things; they made things, tended their places and helped them grow, prosper and their land bloom. We need to reinvoke the best parts of the history we’ve inherited, while not duplicating the mistakes that we made before. We need to become a nation that can meet its needs without consuming more than a just share of the planet’s resources. 

Food production is a remarkably democratic exercise. The original war gardens of World War I were founded not as an institutionalized national product but by home gardeners and garden clubs as a way to ensure a stable food supply. All over the world, when nations fail their people, small-scale home agriculture, led by the people, arises to fill the gaps. For example, in Kampala, Uganda, after that country’s civil war, urban farmers and gardeners fed the city, keeping most of its populace alive. In Cuba, when a large percentage of oil imports were lost and the nation starved under the embargo, ordinary Cubans led the way in feeding their nation. Eventually, governments claimed the work of ordinary people, but feeding people in hard times is generally a grassroots project, one that individuals and communities are remarkably well qualified to lead. 

The first step to compensating for the limitations of our government is a new Victory Farm and Garden movement. This alone has the power to mitigate many of the ills in front of us and address the most urgent needs we have. A nation of farmers can ensure enough food and water for all and can soften the blows of the coming crises. 

Becoming victory farmers will reduce the amount of climate-warming gasses released into the air each year, create stronger local economies, reserve resources for the world’s poor, reduce the amount of fossil fuels our nation is dependent upon, improve soil and water quality everywhere and give us all access to better, healthier, safer food in our own communities. It will improve our communities and our relationships with our neighbors, improve our health and well-being, strengthen our democracy and make our air cleaner and our homes more beautiful. How often does something so simple have so much power? How often can a small piece of dirt and a little effort change the world? 

We are calling for 100 million new farmers and victory gardeners — up to one out of every three men, women and children in the country. We are also calling for 200 million people to take their places in the kitchen and begin cooking and eating sustainably. And when that many people act together, how can millions of small pieces of dirt and effort fail to change the world? 

We should say that in the course of the book we will speak mostly about the US — American history, present-day American practice, and how Americans can make change. We in no way mean to exclude other people. In fact, we believe strongly that the other rich nations must begin to grow their own victory farms and gardens as well. But the US has had a particularly powerful role in shaping the present-day Western lifestyle and has been a disproportionate contributor to all of the problems that we are seeking solutions to. To some degree, global warming and peak oil are American problems: we created and modeled the lifestyle that so many others now dream of, and we are the largest single contributors to global warming and the largest consumers on earth. As others have pointed out, to a large degree, where Americans go, others will follow. And so we believe that we must focus on our own nation, not just exhorting Americans to act, but tracing through our own history the strains of uniquely American thought that could enable us not only to do less harm but to repair what we have done. We believe that not only will the US be better off but so will the world if we succeed. 

Reprinted with permission from A Nation of Farmers by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton and published by New Society Publishers, 2009.