Among the many problems with how we feed ourselves today and the business of agriculture in general is how we rromanticize the idea of a family farmer.
This is really Same Same But Different. Family farms of today bear little resemblance to family farms of the past.
Most peopledon’t realize just how hard it was to support yourself in an agrarian economy.
FAMILY FARMS AREcentral to American political mythology. Smiling, attractive families working the land and tending animals are a staple of campaign commercials and stump speeches. Rural family life enjoys exceptional deference and celebration, fetishization even.
Our collective political mythology portrays the family farm as a form of reproduction that is authentic, healthy, and sustainable — the way we lived before modernity, urbanization, and industrialization corrupted both family life and farmland. Given the inhuman scale of ecological crises like climate change and food insecurity, family farming offers a seductive mythology, anchored in a fantasy of permanence and human scale. But it’s a mythology all the same, and one largely disconnected from the history of rural family life in America.
The truth is that life on farms from the Atlantic Seaboard to California bore little resemblance to the nostalgic ideal suggested by contemporary imaginings of the family farm. Populations were transient, families were chaotic and broken, sexual taboos were flouted, and the romanticism of “Little House on the Prairie” pioneering collapsed on its first contact with the material realities of violence, deprivation, disorder, loneliness, and longing that better characterized the peripheries of America’s agricultural empire.
At the turn of the century, such laments were entirely common. Commentators rarely looked out on rural families and communities as models of propriety, chastity, and virtue. Instead, they saw distressing disorder. The Social Gospel activist Josiah Strong captured the sentiment best in 1893. Observing the chaotic churn of populations in and out of rural communities, Strong announced he could “see no reason why isolation, irreligion, ignorance, vice and degradation should not increase in the country until we have a rural peasantry, illiterate and immoral, possessing the rights of citizenship, but utterly incapable of performing or comprehending its duties.” He called this endemic “degeneration and demoralization” in rural areas, and he prescribed a hearty reordering of rural family life as a tonic.
By the 1930s, officials at the Department of Agriculture, the CES’s parent agency, bragged that 4-H clubs were teaching millions of rural youth how to build stable families in the countryside, families that fit the gendered order and social stability we only now impute to family farms. In fact, it was only at this moment in American history that the term “family farm” itself emerged as a celebratory ideal, and it did so primarily in the context of government officials and their allies’ rallying the public to reform rural family life.