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

  • A Nation of Farmers

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. 

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