Monday, December 19, 2022

The Bias Against Agricultural Careers

 Last week in a discussion of Masanobu Fukuoka's book One Straw Revolution, an almost spicy discussion (or as spicy as they happen around here, anyway) happened on the question of if Fukoka's sort of organic farming could feed the world.  One of the things that was mentioned in passing - and my subject today - is the perception of farmers (or really any of those that work in agriculture).

The point that came to my mind immediately when I was thinking on this was the fact that our society lives in a sort of dichotomy:  on one hand, the concept of "organic" and "small farms" and "farmers' markets" and "Think small" is both popular and (from what I can see and listen to) a desirable thing to support.  On the other hand, we view the places that such activities could take place (e.g., land to do it on) as only having the greatest and highest value when is developed for something other than farming (or ranching or forest products, etc.) and those that proclaim that they want to follow an agricultural career as having committed some form of professional and career suicide.  

I have more than a little interest in this matter, in both cases personal.  One, of course, is simply that my sympathies (and at some level, my desires) comport with the agriculturalists of the world. The other is that I have such an example in my own family:  my Great Uncle B, the original owner of The Ranch, only ever wanted to be a Rancher growing up.  He worked in the sawmills as his "paying" job for many years, but his heart was always with cattle since he was 12 years old.

Stereotypes of course play into this, as they play into any association of any social groups - I say this is a world where we are enjoined to "confront stereotypes".  Sadly, the stereotype of the  agriculturalist - either red-necked and bitterly conservative or "back to the earth" and bitterly liberal - is one that magically seems to almost never be confronted.  In point of fact, agriculturalist thinking spans the gamut, explaining why you can have people as varied in opinions as Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin and Gene Logsdon and Masanobu Fukuoka in the same field.  

But stereotypes in and of themselves do not fully explain this, at least to me.

Deep within modern Western culture - or at least American culture and I presume Western Culture in general - there remains a thread of the inherent "less-ness" of agriculture as a career.  Oddly enough, this may be represented in no better place than The Great Gatsby, which gives a sense of the modern world that effectively sprang into existence in the 1920's, the industrial and exotic world that called young people of the era off the farms and ranches and into society.  Buried within this perception of progress and the technology is the idea that the best and brightest went on to such technical things while those that could not simply "stayed on the farm"  and performed low end, menial tasks.

Low end, menial tasks - which underlie all of our ability to eat and therefore do anything else.

On one hand, I speak of course as someone who not performed agriculture as a career.  I can read of all the challenges of such a life (by some of the good people over to the right there on the "The List"), but cannot say that I have experienced them:  I have seen low temperatures, but not low temperatures and trying to birth cattle or get a crop in; I have had gardens die and animals pass, but not the sort where I was depending on them as my livelihood; I have faced unemployment and loss income, but not to the point that it was a genuine threat to my way of life.

Were I to express such things to those who practiced such things that I know, I doubt they would accept my empathy much beyond a quiet "Thanks" and "It is really just part of the business".  For those that love their career or way of life - like anyone - they would just consider it part of the package - but likely would appreciate the respect behind the comment.

And that, I think, underlies the entire discussion.

We have lost respect for those that practice or would like to practice agriculture.  How that respect has been lost is probably a dissertation of its own  - although even within the history of the Roman Republic, the farmer went from valued member of society to an outlier, to be replaced by the industrial farmers of day.  Perhaps within our own modern societal structure, we have made the grave error of connecting greatness of intellect and drive only with technology and modern thinking.   Or perhaps it is the mistaken belief that "nothing new is happening in agriculture or ranching or forestry or aquaculture" - which reveals more about us and our lack of education of such things.  Or again, perhaps, we have reached the point that "hard physical labor" is seen as a something to be avoided - we, who face a modern epidemic of out-of-shape, overweight individuals and who have made several industries of fitness and wellness due to our inaction.

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy:  neither its pipes nor its philosophy will hold water (John W. Gardner)."  Substitute agriculture for plumbing, and I would propose the following to be true:

"The society which scorns excellence in agriculture as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good agriculture:  neither its food nor its philosophy will feed the body or the mind."


  1. I come from a rural background - i lived on a farm in my youth - and have observed that most people simply cannot understand what a rural life really involves. If any animals are involved it is a full-on 24/7 life in a way that almost no other work is. And always you are subject to the vagaries of the weather - hot, cold, wet, dry they all directly impact your life now and into the future. Together with that ignorance goes the disparagement that you describe - they don't know and therefore seem to automatically assume that it is an inferior way of life even though ultimately they are dependent on it for their food.

    1. Thank you for your perspective Will. I understand the concept, though I obviously have not lived the practice. I can barely keep my garden alive.

      In reality, we all remain dependent on the weather, exactly for the reasons you describe. In modern urban life, we have managed to mitigate the impacts through technology and energy - but remain dependent on it ultimately for our food.

      The disparagement of people on whom you depend - historically, at least - never really goes well.

  2. Anonymous4:16 AM

    Working in the field or range keeps you humble. Physical labor allows you to think because not a lot of distractions or conversations with others is done. Quiet introspection - its good for the soul.

    But hard on the body. Maybe worth the time to spread out chores so your body has time to recover. Too much sun during the summertime will wear a person out. Hitting it very early or late in the afternoon, with a noon time 'siesta' may be a better way.

    Will above put it better than I did. No one is so tuned to the weather as the person out in it.

    1. I have found that the "best" jobs I had were ones that involved me using my hands at level where I was busy, but my mind could be engaged in other things. I do enjoy introspection, and even now find my best thinking happens in things like raking or mowing or even walking.

      But it is hard on the body - I say this as someone that does not do it for a living. We fool ourselves into believing that because of climate control, we can do almost anything - until we work without it.

      Gene Logsdon really conveyed to me the importance of weather in the life of the agriculturalist.

  3. I think you are absolutely hitting the nail on the head when you pinpoint lack of respect as the basis for the bias. In Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes about visiting Italy with her husband. One of her observations was that Italians not only respect, but esteem, their farmers; an attitude that I suspect has its roots in the cultural reputation of Italian cuisine.

    What I find interesting is that in the great "social experiment" of 2020, there was an emphasis on essential versus non-essential workers. It was interesting to me that the careers people esteem the most (athletics, entertainment, etc.), are actually the least essential.

    Somewhere in One Straw Revolution, Fukuoka mentions that when he worked for his government, Japan adopted the American agricultural goal of allowing no more than 10% of the population (if I'm remembering that number correctly) to be farmers. If that is indeed the case, then one can understand an official motive to discourage people from going into farming.

    Now, we have sophisticated technology which is being touted as the solution to feed the world (which begs the question, what are they waiting for?) But we also have current events, in which political punishments in the form of sanctions bring supply chains for the commoners to a halt. That alone should alert the casual observer to a very deep flaw in the paradigm.

    Historically, those who comfortably survived such problems were were farmers and home gardeners. It would seem prudent for all of us to note that lesson from history and act accordingly.

    1. Leigh - Going out on a limb (which is the first such time I have ever done such a thing on this blog), I would be that you are correct in that a connection between respect for farmers and great cuisine are linked. How could they not be? If there is a direct link between those that grow and those that cook, both benefit from the other.

      I cannot remember the precise reference, but it is completely believable that setting a limit on the population to live by farming was a Japanese policy. Japan has a history of setting such policies in what is perceived to be the best interest of the nation (witness the wholesale change of the Meiji Era and the Post WW II transformation). That said, it also assumes that one can maintain that percentage, and that those in the profession will have their children want to do the same (which does not always happen).

      The sophisticated technology that is being proposed are largely based on highly industrial societies and limitless energy. What happens if one or both disappear or are disrupted? We have indeed lived through these situations, be it The Great Economic Disruption of The Plague or the Russia-Ukraine war, where a significant portion of the world's supply of specific foods -and chemical fertilizers - went off-line. These have had tremendously bad outcomes.

      Food security is something that most national governments would probably pay at least lip service to, yet do little or nothing to actually enable. Probably a good thought experiment for myself is how long would things continue if 100% of food imports halted in the U.S., and what would they be like.

      Those that can provide for themselves and have prepared always do better than those who do not. The fact that even our government is belatedly - in a very small way - suggesting people "get ready" for something, suggests even they recognize not great things are coming. I shudder to rely on their very minimal preparations.

  4. Filthie7:19 AM

    I grew up on a small farm and never meant to imply anything about farmers or their politics.

    I suppose we’d have to define our terms? Are we talking about a serious producer? Or the hobbyists? Or the poseurs (the hipster/beardo urban beekeepers).How do you define ‘organic farming’? It means different things to different folks.

    As far as saving the world, the verdict is in on purist organic farming. The history is quite settled; organic farming methods guarantee periodic famine. The science is too. To the plant, chemical fertilizers are exactly the same to the plant as organic ones. The only difference is that they don’t have to break down the fertilizer chemicals as they do with organic ones.

    Not judging anyone, but the facts are what they are…

    1. I do not think you were implying anything about farmers and their politics Glen - that was my writing entirely, but based on my observation that society at large makes large assumptions about agriculturalists and their beliefs. Like most things, it is far more nuanced than what society believes.

      As for terms of definition, I would simply apply the same metric as any other job: it is a primary source of income. If I told society I was going to be an accountant or a scientist or a autoworker, on the whole no-one would question my decision as that line of work as a primary income stream. If I said "Agriculture", there would be looks, and at least some internal thoughts of "Why is he throwing his life away?". I would compare it to something my friend The Director told me years ago when he went to Asia to study and perform, that it was refreshing to be in a culture where the concept of being an intellectual was accepted as a valuable and useful career.

      Organic: I dare not even trouble the waters here too much, as this is one of the most hotly debated topics I have read. Even Gene Logsdon, who I revere, did not buy into the "certified organic" label as he occasionally had to use some things that were "not on the list". That said, I think at a minimum it would involve limited use - or no use - of things like chemical fertilizers and chemical herbicides/insecticides. But I suspect much clearer definitions exist out there.

      Purist organic farming - Historically you are accurate in that periodic famines have occurred throughout the pre-Industrial Age. However, to say that modern organic farming should or would resemble that would be the same as suggesting that we continue to manufacture industrial items on the hand built model. No-one expects that or holds that up as a model, so I do not know it is fair to do the same for the concept of organic farming.

      Chemical fertilizer - The plants in fact do not know the difference. The land the fertilizer plant is built on, the by-products of the manufacturing process (all chemical processes have by-products), and the run-off of the fertilizer - these are impacts beyond just what the plant uses.

    2. Filthie10:53 AM

      Odd. I don’t see that kind of snobbery up here at all. Ranchers and farmers are generally respected up here in Alberta and probably across the prairies. I wonder if that is a function of your particular urban environment? Possibly I am clued out by my age and social circles too, I suppose.

      We know for a fact that organic methods are going to lower yields and raise prices. At the moment it is an undisputed fact. When you do that, the poor are hit the hardest, many of whom are on the edge of poverty already. It is what it is regardless of politics. It’s a fact of farm life.

      If you want to see the effects of organic and traditional farming techniques, Africa is a great starting (and ending) point. They have literally gone from being an international bread basket to being a desolate flyblown hell hole. I too will pass on the politics of all that…

      Contrary to the usual suspects, our food supply, historically speaking - has never been better or more readily available. Everything is political these days…so unless I can see the data and analyze it for myself… I would regard any opinions of “experts” with a healthy dose of suspicion.

    3. Glen - That is great if that kind of snobbery does not exist where you are. Down here, I fear it is more prevalent than it should be, given our dependence on food.

      I question the use of undisputed fact. If others demonstrate - as they have - that they can have equal success or better with other method of farming, then it is not undisputed, although it may be a matter of application. For the record, Fukuoka felt organic food should be no more expensive than regular food.

      Ultimately, all we can do is examine the data and make our own decisions. I would wonder, though, if experts from Our Political And Social Betters (OPASB) can be wrong about other things, why they would get this one particular thing 100% right.

  5. I grew up on a hobby farm and hired out to the pro's. I've learned a lot and don't know more. What I do know, is subsistence farming is precarious. But everyone should be involved in it.

    Looking at the old town layouts, there was room enough for a family to have a garden and a pig or goat, or a milk cow in their yard. When houses became investment vehicles, land use became window dressing. Lawns and flowers pushed out food. We can help ourselves out, but that isn't the norm anymore. I think everyone needs a veg garden. It teaches responsibility and planning. Forward thinking if you will, to all involved.

    This growing year was awful. The dirt quit working. I've put up only five gallons of pickles. And 4 gallons of kraut. I'll be eating rats and mice as a side dish until they are exhausted if things continue to go south. I've named all the stray cats around here: General Tsao, Mongolian Beef, Pot Sticker...

    We do have the technology to feed the world. But we sacrifice it to the gods of gaia, silly psudo-science, greed, graft and luxury.

    1. STxArR, I am of the opinion that a garden - any kind of garden - gives one some sense of appreciation for what it takes to grow food. The reality is, in a sense, we are all ultimately dependent on farming - subsistence or industrial - to feed us.

      Suburban living also does not help with this. Most suburban developments anything remotely resembling livestock in one's allotment (bees seem to be a open issue, as they are not technically "livestock") and some of the more aggressive ones I have seen even ban anything non-lawn in the front yard.

      It was a rough year here as well. I had the water situation (I thought) largely dealt with; the direct sun was a killer. That is next years project.

      My issue with the promised technology is similar to my issue with all-renewable energy: completely cutting off what you did before on the promise of technology that has not proven itself is a pretty big gamble.

    2. Promised, untested technology IS the sacrifice to gaia, It's a gamble at best and an intentional cull at worst.

      A garden can be more than an illustration. If you are in a serious situation, you need to have been serious before it shows up. but, this is preaching to the choir. Keep warm this week.

    3. STxAR, when this all goes horribly wrong - and it will - I tremble to think of the repercussions.

      I like that saying - "If you are in a serious situation, you need to be serious before it shows up."

      You stay warm as well. Looks like cold down your way.

  6. I think the easiest way for others to understand farmers is to spend a season on a farm. Yellowstone, a show on Paramount that I've been watching is touching on this very subject this season with an environmentalist spending forced time on a cattle ranch and learning to appreciate things from a different perspective.

    1. Ed, one of things my mother always threatened my rather with was that if wanted to retire somewhere else, go live there for a year to find out what it is really like. It is true in a lot of settings.

  7. If the farmer wants to go past feeding their self and/or their immediate family, then farming has to dip a toe into business.
    There are many people who can be successful farmers, but they are not such a success as business people.

    One of our longtime friends farms near Pittsburgh, and not only was he the first farmer in his family, he will be the last one as neither of his children have followed him into the profession.

    1. Good point John - In the modern world, there is a certain amount of business acumen needed to succeed.

      The following in their footsteps is a big challenge. That is one of the reason I supported the previous Kickstartet at Permies for the book SKIP, which is a program of skills to begin to allow landowners without heirs to find people not only willing to farm, but with the ability to do so.


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