Jan 292010

An unemployed idea: more (labor intensive) farming

By Danny Mayer

Seed catalogs do not just sell seeds. Often, they function as repositories of all things agricultural. Most include some sort of instructions for growing each variety of seed, and nearly all include brief descriptions for each fruit, flower or vegetable that they offer.

As my interests in seeds have drifted toward primarily heirloom varieties of produce, meaning that the seeds were developed through open pollination rather than manipulated for large scale industrial production, the catalogs selling them have gotten even more interesting. In addition to instructions, most sellers of heirloom seeds include at least some stories about the seeds themselves. I enjoy learning about the depression-era history of, say, mortgage lifter tomatoes in general, or of Halladay’s Mortgage Lifter in particular. I feel the stories attached to the seeds—sometimes agriculturally focused, at other times culturally or socially so—better connect me to the long continuum of agricultural acts that comprise the bedrock of our culture.

Of seed catalogs, the D. Landreth Seed Company has the most fetching that I’ve come across to date. Established in 1780 in Philadelphia, Landreth’s is the fifth oldest company in the United States. It’s 2009-2011 catalog—which in addition to information related to ordering seeds is also filled with reproduced pages from over 150 years of Landreth’s seed catalogs—is a beauty. I’ve spent several hours looking at images (“The grand display of D. Landreth & Sons, at the Southern Exposition in Louisville, KY, 1883,” page 14), reading nineteenth century customer satisfaction notes (“When a boy, fifty years ago, I bought your Seeds, and buy them yet,” says Abraham F. Hains, District of Columbia, 1884, page 15) and pouring over century-old planting ideas (which varieties of greens to plant—and how and when—for winter salads, page 31). As catalogs go, it’s a keeper. It stays on my shelf long after its use as an ordering mechanism has passed.

One picture from the Landreth’s catalog, entitled “Harvesting Onion Sets On Reedland Farm,” stands out to me for its ability to glimpse a working agricultural economy. The woodcut offers a panoramic view of the farm as its workers—all white, seemingly all mustachioed—work together in digging up, sorting and collecting onion sets into a series of bins stacked on wooden horse-drawn trailers. Although the catalog gives no date for the image, the ratio of horses to tractors in the scene (5:1 by my count) suggests that it was produced at the beginning of the 20th century when mechanized labor (tractors and such) as yet did not have a stranglehold on our national agriculture. (Mass mechanization of our agriculture began to occur between 1930 and 1945, when tractors in use increased from 920,000 to 2.4 million, according to a 2006 USDA publication.)

Though I A.M. sure the farm life depicted in the image is idealized—the fact that it’s populated entirely by white men, for example, suggests an implicit racialized and gendered order of workers on this Philadelphia farm—I was struck by the sheer numbers of workers in the landscape. Reedland farm at the time of onion set harvesting was a place bustling with human labor. To the left, workers on their knees dig up onion sets; at the picture’s center two men chat and work together to dump the collected bins of sets into bigger piles; to the right, people stack and then haul the onions off to the horizon in horse-drawn trailers. All told, the picture shows more than fifty men employed in the process of harvesting a product that will eventually be grown and eaten—consumed—by people like Abraham F. Hains of the District of Columbia. Food production, the image shows, is a labor intensive process.

Or at least it was. Fast forward 80 years to what that picture of agriculture might look like now. The image that comes most readily to my mind, Kevin Costner alone on a tractor plowing up a portion of his corn farm for a baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, is in many ways the direct opposite of the onion set harvest at Reedland. In place of the vibrant social activity of laboring men working together, we get a single man, broke and lonely, sitting atop his tractor.

The two images, each an artifice in its own way, nevertheless leak a certain truth. In 1900, nearly forty percent of the U.S. population, 31 million people, farmed on about 800 million acres of land; today, that number is closer to two percent of the population, or about 5.84 million of us, farming on close to 1 billion acres. If the Reedland scene is depicted as vibrant, and if by contrast a hundred years later Costner seems so damn lonely on his corn farm, it’s because less people farm the land today. Twenty-five million less people, to be exact, even though the U.S. population—those who farmers are theoretically tasked with feeding—has increased by more than 200 million the past century.

The current paucity of farmers in the country has produced and reinforced a number of destructive behaviors. When 20 million less farmers are tasked with farming 200 million more acres to help feed 200 million more people, some things have got to give.

And give they have. As farm owners have come to rely less and less upon human labor, they have become dependent more and more upon other forms of labor to supplement their lost manpower. They must pay Kubota for the tractor (and its upkeep), Monsanto for the genetically modified seeds, Du Pont for the pesticides; Cargill for the technical expertise of making all of the farm’s mechanized “systems” work properly. They must scale up their production and trim down the number of crops they produce, such that over the past 100 years, average farm sizes have increased by 350 acres (to 450 acres) while the number of crops produced on them have decreased from 5 crops to 1 crop per farm. All these things have costs: monetary, ecological, cultural, demographic.

They also have great labor costs. As our farming has become increasingly mechanized, it has also become increasingly depopulated. Somewhere along the line, whether by choice or necessity (and probably a little of both), farmers chose to support machines and poisons over laboring human beings by putting their dollars behind industry and technology rather than workers. An estimated 15.3 million people were unemployed in December; we’ve lost 25 million farmers over the past century for an industry—basic sustenance—that never experiences a downturn and that, theoretically, cannot be outsourced. We should begin to think about how to re-people our farms—not as models of efficiency (though human labor on farms has the potential to decrease farmers’ economic dependence on fossil fuel burning farm machinery and ecosystem-killing pesticides), but as a great source of jobs production. We want farmers because we all must eat in this country; farming is a basic and irreplaceable economic necessity and yet, as a percentage of our GDP, it registers a minuscule 0.7% (down from 7.7% in 1930).

I’ve heard a lot about the need for a “green” economy, mostly from well-meaning liberal democrats. Usually what is had in mind consists of creating new energy grids and systems, investing in solar or wind, and re-fixating on super-fuel efficient cars. These are, of course, fine and needed things. But they also tend to require different sorts of outside inputs. For the most part, these things require access to exceedingly costly tuition dollars for the right to gain access into the new high tech green service economy that they are imagined to be a part of.

Perhaps a quicker, cheaper, and on the whole more effective way to “green” our economy and landscape might involve something a bit more basic and old fashioned. Why not begin employing the nation by de-mechanizing at least one industry?

Why not send the nation out into the fields?

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