There's an old joke among farmers. One asks, "What would you do if you won 100 million dollars in the lottery?" The farmer thinks for a moment and says, "Oh, I'd probably just keep farming until the money ran out." And unfortunately - this is, in the end, no joke, but representative of the reality of most American family farmers, and a vast number of farmers world-wide. All over the world, the industrial economy has created situations where the costs of growing food are greater than the prices we pay for it. That means that farmers are terrifically indebted, and terribly vulnerable. And yet, they are willing to pay that price in order to keep a way of life going.
Peter Rosset in his book _Food Is Different_ notes that in Mexico, despite the fact that NAFTA and WTO policies meant that the price of imported corn was up to 33% below the cost of growing it in Mexico, 3 million poor and indigenous farmers still planted their land to maize - even though they couldn't sell it for a profit because of American grain dumping. The traditions of corn growing were so important, and their commitment to their land so great that the farmers kept on farming, despite heavy economic counterpressures.
And how did they keep on farming? Well, to a large degree by having family members move to Mexican cities, or to America, and send back money to subsidize the desperately poor farmers who still cling to their land and the via campesina, the traditional way of life in the countryside. Despite the active intent of industrial agriculture to undermine traditional ways of life and drive peasants into the cities where they can be used for cheap labor (and into the US for the same purpose), peasants in Mexico and all over the world recognize that even if they have to seperate families, disrupt cultures and risk death by illegal immigration into wealthier nations - life on the land is worth something.
Millions of American farmers recognize the same thing - they work off farm jobs, working at night after a full day on their land, or farming in the evenings on their way home from work. Families that once worked together now are divided as spouses go off the land to get health insurance and make enough money to support their farming. Others become tenant farmers on their own land - going into debt to companies who micromanage each decision and use the farmers as virtual serfs, so indebted are they for huge buildings, elaborate equipment and other materials dictated by large meat and milk processors.
Farmers, in essence, are subsidizing your cheap food by working extra hours, by sending their family members off to work in other nations, by impoverishing themselves. They value their land and their lives sufficiently that they are willing to pay the price to keep farms that are rendered economically unviable by the industrial economy available. This is a shame - that is, something we should be ashamed of, that we treat the people who feed us so shoddily, and do them so much harm.
In poor nations, many farmers are serfs on land they or their families once owned. Over the last decades, the best farmland in the world has been forcibly claimed for multinational corporations, and the peasants who once owned the farmland (but rarely had formal deeds, because their ownership was traditional, going back generations) were impressed into service on plantations as virtual slaves, or cast out to become urban slum dwellers.
When farmers fail, they are either driven off their land and out of their culture, their community and their way of life, or they kill themselves. The rate of farmer suicides in the US has been horrifically high since the 1980s, and those rates are rising in places like South Korea, India and Africa. The choice is offered - the death of way of life - or the end of your life. When Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae committed suicide on the barricades of the 2003 WTO protests in Cancun, he did it holding a sign saying "WTO Kills Farmers" - and they do. Globalization murders farmers, and it murders the way of life that farmers hold dear. It drives them to exhaustion, to illegal immigration, to slavery and serfdom, and to suicide.
Not only is this situation morally horrifying, and destructive to food security and human life, but there's another issue. Ask yourself - what do these poor Mexican peasants and Korean rice farmers, American corn farmers and African subsistence farmers know that I do not? Seriously, how many of us, if our jobs made us no money at all, if in order to keep them we'd have to do dangerous, exhausting things and break up our families - how many of us would do it? How many of us care so very much for the work we do?
No one, of course. So for those who were not born with a strong connection with land, it is worth asking - what is it about agriculture that makes farmers so desperately willing to sacrifice almost anything, even their lives, rather than lose their relationship with a place, and a piece of land, a culture and a way of life? What do we have in our jobs, in our culture, in our places that we value as much?
And if the answer is "nothing" - that is, if the answer is that we do not value our work and our homes and our way of living and our communities enough to sacrifice nearly everything for it, to stand up and resist what industrial civilization demands, then perhaps we need to look for new ways of life, at the same time we are working to ensure that farmers do not have to make these choices. Most of us regard our homes as a fungible commodity - we could live here or there. We regard our work perhaps as part of our identity, but also fundamentally mobile, changeable. We see our culture, if we feel we have one, as troubled, and few of us would sacrifice to maintain it as it is - we see it as something that ultimately needs transformation. We certainly have little or no relationship with the land itself - most of us only go outside occasionally.
What would we feel about our culture and our lives if we were to stay in one place, invest ourselves, our culture and our lives in soil and community and culture in a deep way, if we were to know a single place profoundly and in depth. Americans right now are the most depressed people in the world - we turn to medication and therapy, but rarely ever to good work and a powerful connection with nature.
It is not enough to say that we must fix agriculture, although we must do that. But in a world of increasing misery and displacement, we must fix ourselves, and agriculture may be a way to do that. It is possible that by returning to small scale agriculture we might find ourselves again, along with remediating some of the great harm our shift to industrial food production has done.