What Does It Mean To Be a Farmer in the Twenty-First Century?: Apart and A Part

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What does it mean to be a farmer in the twenty-first century? We do not yet know. The answer is being uncovered, by labor of the mind and hand, through creative processes in emerging communities. Or maybe it is a rediscovery of agri-culture that was lived as a partnership, as healing, conserving, and restoring life. Regardless, these creative processes must be nurtured in as many places as possible, urgently, if there is to be an “us” or a “we”—a community, life—well into the future. And that is the goal of being a farmer in the twenty-first century: to pass on the capacity for life, a living community capable of self-renewal, to the next generation, for as long as our dying star will allow.

To be a farmer in the twenty-first century is to participate actively, vitally, in the creation of a new story. It is to use one’s labor—body and mind and spirit—in the service of re-making a broken agri-business through the practice of agri-culture. What it means to be a farmer emerges from participation in this new story, with others, human and more-than-human.

The new story has at its core a reckoning with this question: Are you a part of the world or are you apart from the world? It is the basis of a new creation story. It is an old question, an existential question, a question that goes straight to the root of the problem motivating many of the other problems we face today, including the one that encompasses them all: climate change. The question is rarely, if ever, acknowledged explicitly in our thoughts and actions, but all of us answer it routinely, even if tacitly, multiple times every day. The answer lurks in our deep story—the unquestioned narrative each of us constructs over the course of our life. The answer lurks in our sense of self, in our identity.

Which is another way of saying that, in farming (and beyond), we face above all else a cultural problem. Agri-culture—a principal interface of humans in nature—has been at the root of this tragedy of culture, this identity crisis that now threatens life. It also means, being at the root of the problem, that agri-culture can be—must be—a principal means of working out answers to the problem. If we face the “(a)part” question in this work, the answers will support transitions to cultures that support life, in all its forms, while our dying star still gives us light.

Sunset over mung bean field

For too long, we presumed we had the right answer to the question. In the process of enacting this answer over millennia, we have learned to our peril what it cannot continue to mean to be a farmer in the twenty-first century. Because what it has meant to be a farmer has brought us to the precipice of collapse—collapse of species biodiversity, of human societies, of ecosystems, of life. We know now what our ancestors could not have known or did not want to know. We now have the feedback, the evidence—human and ecological—to know our answer was wrong.

A powerful story motivated our answer. So deep was it that it was hard to call to the surface for reflection. It was more than a story. It was a creation myth. For many—and especially many in the United States—to be a farmer in the twenty-first century means reckoning with a fundamental source of the “(a)part” question: the “dominion” clause from the book of Genesis:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen. 1:26-28).

Nearly three thousand years after Genesis was written, the deep story of dominion and the role of farming in it are still very much at the core of the dominant “deep story” in American culture, and the dominant agri-culture. Former President Donald J. Trump described a contemporary version of the deep story in an address to the annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation on January 8, 2018: “We know that our nation was founded by farmers. Our independence was won by farmers. Our continent was tamed by farmers. So true. Our armies have been fed by farmers and made of farmers. And throughout our history, farmers have always, always, always led the way.”[1]

We are living through the terminal crisis of this story. We are now likely somewhere in the afterword, awaiting a new story—the one that, like all good stories, shows us our image while offering us a new way to imagine ourselves.

Farmers may have participated in the construction of the United States. They may have helped win our independence from Great Britain. They may have tamed our continent. They may have joined and fed our armies. But for far too many, the deep story of dominion motivating these acts did not come to a harmonious, just, equitable, or humane conclusion. The deep story of dominion has come at a very high toll, measured solemnly in loss of life and destruction of community—human and more-than-human. Today, less than two percent of the U.S. population is directly engaged in farming. Farm incomes are approaching record lows, farm bankruptcies are surging as family farms consolidate into ever-larger “business units,” and far too many farmers, entrusted to steward life, are opting out of life altogether, as suicide rates reach all-time highs in what remains of our agri-cultural communities.

We have used our dominion, which we have interpreted as a right—as an unambiguous license to extract life, to take without giving—to craft “labor-saving” technologies that “free” us from our connection to life through agri-culture, that free us from the necessities of feeding ourselves and being in community. Under the guise of what we self-referentially called “technological supremacy” and in the name of dominion, we so precisely and comprehensively subdued life that we found it possible, indeed desirable, to create in our minds a category called “nature” to separate us from—life. Our story told us we are different, we are separate, we are apart: apart from each other, from “nature.” Over millennia, the deep story of dominion has made its way beyond the farms into the cities and the broader society, which is now predominately a non-farming society because it has so successfully destroyed agri-culture. We see the effects in our relations with each other. We feel the effects when we try to breathe the air. And now, our relations with each other, and with the more-than-human world, are making it more difficult to live.

For too many of us, it is also getting harder to breathe in the year 2020. Too many people of color among us have been killed while pleading for air under the knees of abusive police officers. The coercive use of force choking people of color is fueled by a cultural atmosphere saturated with white supremacy. The atmosphere of white supremacy enabling these killings is an outcome of a culture that, from the very beginning, privileged whites and disempowered people of color, allowing wealth extraction from people of color and wealth creation for whites, which established a culture of racialized hierarchy passed down through the generations. And at the bottom of that culture, from the very beginning of the country, there was an agri-culture practiced by people who forcibly displaced and killed the land’s original inhabitants, and who brought the ancestors of many people of color among us today against their will, in chains, to this “new world” to enact a deep story of dominion, hubris, control, subjugation, mastery, domination.

Meanwhile, the air over much of California and the west is suffocating too many of us. The fires choking our skies and our lungs are fueled by an atmosphere more soaked with carbon than at any point in at least the past eight hundred thousand years. The carbon-rich atmosphere exacerbating the fires is an outcome of highly dense carbon plumbed from the depths of the Earth not by people in community, but by people freed from community, without obligation, without responsibility.

 These are not isolated, disconnected events because technological supremacy and white supremacy are not disparate ideas. They share a common root in an identity, in dominion. These are enactments of a story, a very old, deep story. Are we a part of or apart from life? The “(a)part” question still lurks within us, but it feels more unresolved now, more unsettling. Agri-culture can and should be a place where we enact answers to the question, and in the process, heal ourselves, our communities, life.

To be a farmer in the twenty-first century is to recognize that we are a part of, not apart from, life. This is the foundation of a new story. For those claiming adherence to some form of Christianity, the new story is found right there in the old story, in the temporal ordering of the Creation as it is laid out in Genesis, which tells us that humans were created on the sixth day, not the first, following the creation of the elements of life: dark, water, light, day, night, sky, land, sea, plants, trees, stars, living creatures in the sea and air, and on the land. Humans, Genesis tells us, were formed of the Earth: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2: 7).

This is a story not of unmarshalled independence or unmitigated license, but of an elemental dependence, of an inextricable relationship with the life from which we emerge, to which we return, and to which we are responsible. Created in a state of dependence, humans are given, not born with, “dominion.”

To be a farmer in the twenty-first century is to appreciate the sequential ordering of the dominion clause itself, which places the obligation to “replenish” before the ability to “subdue”: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion . . .”

There is trust in dominion. Dependent on the elements of life, we are given responsibility to steward life, to replenish life even as we have the capacity to subdue it, tame it, master it, control it, dominate it.

To be a farmer in the twenty-first century is thus to appreciate the power and meaning of the conjunction, “and.” In Genesis, “and” adjoins concepts that seem to exist to contradict each other: dark and light, land and sea, replenish andsubdue. Regardless of one’s orientation to Christianity, Genesis expresses the incongruities of life lived as a human, of life lived in the human condition: We are dependent and autonomous, we have choices and limits, freedoms andresponsibilities.

We are apart and a part.

To be a farmer in the twenty-first century means enacting community with the human and more-than-human world. It means practicing community, through agri-culture, which connects us vitally in community, in support of life, indefinitely, or as long as our dying star will allow. The farmers laboring through this process, with hand and mind and spirit, are constructing a new creation story. They are uncovering, or maybe rediscovering, what it means to be a farmer in the twenty-first century.

Image credits:

Sunset over mung bean field. Image courtesy of Julien-S. Buchem (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


[1] Remarks by President Trump to the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention, Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, Nashville, TN, January 8, 2018, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-american-farm-bureau-annual-convention-nashville-tn/.

  • Matthew R. Sanderson

    Matthew R. Sanderson is Randall C. Hill Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work & Professor of Geography and Geospatial Sciences at Kansas State University. His research focuses on development, as a practice, a problem, and an ideal.

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