The United States was a land of farmers, from first settlement to the industrial revolution that took off in the 1830s. European settlers, mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland, were overwhelmingly farmers, peasants, from generations of the same. They came to North America for land to farm. With the support of the British colonial institutions, and later the United States government and military, they appropriated land from the indigenous farmers, a kind of original sin that has seldom been acknowledged. Poor farmers without slaves, the great majority of white settler farmers, could not compete on the market with the enslaved African labor enjoyed by plantation operators. But they could raise their own food and feed their families and even have some surplus to sell or barter. And in working the land, they came to love the land. With the 1846-48 United States war against Mexico, the northern half of Mexico became the U.S. Southwest, populated by both indigenous and Mexican farmers. Following the Civil War and emancipation, Africans were freed from enslavement, and some received reparations in land taken from plantation owners or in new territories that had been seized.
By 1880, a little over fifty percent of the U.S. population was farming, but the proportion declined to seventeen percent in 1940 and then to about two percent today. What happened to those who would have become farmers? Were they no longer needed? Growing food remained and will remain a necessity, but large corporations took over the land and displaced individual farmers. Patriotism — in the form of allegiance to a distant government, with its flag and other symbols, with its wars in distant lands — has filled the black hole left by the loss of land and a way of life they loved. For would anyone choose to farm if it were not for irrepressible love? Yes, farm laborers (as well as enslaved Africans) were forced to plant and pick crops for corporate planters in earlier times and have been compelled to do so for huge agribusiness concerns since their rise, but they too came (and still come) from peasant cultures and would prefer to farm their own land if they could. The settlers came for land — those Scots-Irish, Germans, Japanese, and so many other peasants from faraway places where their land had been seized. Armies assisted in pushing Native farmers off the land they farmed or where they followed the game, so that immigrant peasants could own a piece of land, only to lose it through intentional government policies, supposedly to create “efficiency.”
What happens to a society that literally loses its roots in the earth? We take for granted that some of us are born to music or mechanics, to the word or the brush and canvas. May there not be those whose heart is in the earth, in tending it, in planting, growing, and harvesting? Indeed for the Pueblo Indians and Hopi of New Mexico and Arizona, corn is the center of their religion. What becomes of those so born and their progeny? They become throwaway people, no longer needed. Yet, we still need to eat the fruit of the earth, or for that matter, the bounty of the sea — I expect the same applies to fishing communities. Why do we as a society choose to replace ten thousand farmers with an absentee corporation? It isn’t more productive, but even if it were, is it moral to destroy the lives of so many who want only to farm?
Not only have U.S. government policies destroyed subsistence farming in North America; now they are trying to destroy it in distant lands with their “free trade” agreements — the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Association, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Mexico changed its constitution to do away with the ejido, the land reform measure from the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, driving millions of farmers off the land and to the U.S. border to cross illegally for jobs. China is doing away with the collective farms that have been so successful in feeding its vast population, most of whom were starving before the Chinese Revolution. French and Japanese protection of small farmers has been challenged by the United States.
My father was a born farmer in Oklahoma, but he never owned his own farm, rather he rented farms or sharecropped. When he could no longer do that because the medium-sized farmers who employed him also went under and were replaced by corporations, something in him died. He moved to Oklahoma City and worked as a roofer. The second half of his life — he died at age 93 — was painful. His tragedy is ours as a society.
This is not to say that everyone or even many would want to return to farming the land, and I am one who would not, even if I could. But, two percent of the population still working the land is far too few to provide the balance a society requires. Farmers fought long and hard to stay on the land. They fought throughout the nineteenth century and even through the 1930s, finally crushed by the Great Depression and drought — Dust Bowl days. Or that was the excuse; actually, New Deal policies were themselves designed to end subsistence farming. Farmers could have survived with government assistance, but the New Deal allowed banks to foreclose and destroyed surplus food production to maintain high prices, while people were starving. The government could have bought and distributed the food they destroyed (“dumped in the ocean,” my father used to say). So, much for even the free market — free only with government intervention on the side of the corporations and finance capital. Then the Dust Bowl refugees were put to work picking cotton and fruit for agribusiness in California, the Northwest, and Arizona, until the war industry grew, and they went to work in defense plants. All those angry ex-farmers and wannabe farmers making bombs and fighter planes, whole new generations following in that nasty work, a good many other of them serving in the military, now a business, not a civic duty. They get to drop the bombs and man the guns on the tanks that the others manufacture. Subsistence farmers, small farmers, like peace — not war that takes away their young sons, and now daughters. Getting rid of them, reducing them to a tiny minority, has made military recruitment and passive acceptance of war much easier than during World War I, when farmers rose up in rebellion, as did workers, against a “war for big business,” which all modern wars are. Why would we be surprised by increased violence (requiring more jails and cops than schools and teachers)? Why surprised that blind patriotism and promise of heaven after death, even apocalypse as in the Book of Revelation, would replace love of the land and of all living things?
And consider all that land given to agribusiness, drying up the aquifers, poisoning the air and soil with nitrates from fertilizers, spraying pesticides, and now spreading genetically modified plants.
My father died in June 2001, two months before what would have been his 94th birthday. It had been nearly a year since I had spent two hot, humid days with him, when we actually had said our good-byes. He didn’t have any life-threatening illness, but his will to live had been waning since his companion — my step-mother — of more than forty years suddenly had died of a heart attack in 1998. My brother Fred, being the only one of my siblings still living in Oklahoma, had cared for his needs for years, but had moved him into a hospice a couple of months before he died. My other brother, my sister, and I, all living in California, went back for the burial. There was no funeral ceremony in a church, as my father never attended church, but there was a small ceremony officiated by my brother at the burial site in Matthewson cemetery, just outside of Piedmont, where most of our relatives were buried. Besides us siblings, a few of our first cousins were there, ones who had idolized my father. We each said a few words. In the casket, Daddy looked peaceful, but determined as ever. As I had realized when I reconciled with him a decade earlier, I miss him terribly and both salute and mourn his life. Had I been in charge of his tombstone, I would have written: Here lies a farmer, whose dreams were killed by the greed of the wealthy.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (forthcoming October 2005 from South End Press) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.