How Radical Is Radical Farming?

Is farming a radical act? The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s certainly thought so, with the disillusioned hippies of the 1960s evaporating into the rural communities of the United States in an attempt to find themselves through the earth. Today, a new farming movement is surging again, branding itself as standing in defiant opposition to corporatism, conformity, and the social pressures that demand we live, eat, move, and function in specific ways in order to be allowed to participate in society.

Of course, both movements largely ignored the fact that for many in the United States, farming has always been a way of life, and isn’t defiance so much as it is simple reality. I speak not of the family farms across the Midwest struggling to make their way in a world dominated by industrial agriculture, but of those living in poverty in rural areas who have been forced to farm to survive. Former sharecroppers, low-income families, and others have been put in the position of needing to live off the land in order to function, rather than taking to it as a hobby or some kind of social statement.

They’re the ones who have maintained and built the skills for farming on a small scale, who have preserved heritage livestock (not out of a hipster desire to raise fancy chickens and sheep, but out of a simple need to breed what’s available), who have preserved the arts of canning and running a small working farm on the land that they have. Poor people throughout history have grown, raised, and salvaged what they can from the environment around them, and they’re rarely labeled as radicals or rebels for simply living. Their work is just as important, and yet, virtually nonexistent in the framework of conversations about ‘radical farming.’

This is a concern that people engaging in what they term as radical self-reliance should be addressing, and some are, but many more are not. They’re treating what they’re doing as novel, and as an act of defiance, a sort of ‘fuck you’ to the world around them, without considering that what they’re doing isn’t something everyone can do, and that it’s something people are already doing. At the same time, though, they are making an important statement to the society around them, and that needs to be addressed too – we need to have room for the conversation about the appropriation of poor skills and the false mythologies of self-labeled radicals, and the importance of what people who are choosing to support themselves are doing.

Because making the choice to live independently can be challenging, and that should be acknowledged – along with the things that can make it easier. Those who are doing it with independent wealth to support themselves, for example, are hardly breaking out of the system. Those who claim to be eating locally but who spend half their time driving around their ‘foodshed’ in search of luxury foods aren’t really living close to the land, but are rather forming an imitation of the life they had before.

This isn’t a diatribe suggesting that you’re not allowed to be radical unless you grow every scrap of food you eat yourself, perform all your own medical care, go solar, and live in a walled compound where no one can reach you. Some people do choose that path, and it’s a valid one, but striking a balance isn’t ‘selling out.’ It is, however, something that people need to admit when they’re talking about self-reliance, and those who occupy positions of relative privilege should be talking about how they can use it not to lord it over other people, but to support the radical farming movement as a whole, to help others develop the ability to choose their food sources and to make conscious decisions about their lives.

The thing about radical self-reliance is that it functions more effectively as a community, one in which people exchange their skills instead of trying to reinvent the wheel (and then crowing if they manage it). The person with an orchard houses bees and the honey goes to someone with a car who can take it to the farmers’ market and the cash goes to someone with cows who need veterinary care and the milk goes to someone with cheesemaking equipment and…so on. The giant, interconnected loop allows people to exchange skills and abilities, to live not just within their own radical communities but within their outside communities, as well.

Too often, I see a model of ‘radical self-reliance’ that is unsustainably costly, both in terms of money and time. This creates the image that you must effectively be independently wealthy in order to enjoy the privilege of radical farming, which is both incorrect (as we can see illustrated by the low-income people who do it by circumstances, not choice) and offensive. Radicalism should be about a break from norms and socialised beliefs about culture, class, and superiority – and suggesting that only some people have what it takes discounts those who aren’t as socially privileged.

The farmer who teaches and offers allotments to people with no room to farm is practicing radical farming as it is meant to be: As a community project, not as a personal indulgence. The farmer who donates to her community and supports low-income people who are struggling to survive is practicing radical self-reliance, in which those in a position to help give, and those who need help can accept it in the knowledge that they may someday be in the same position.

We know that poor people, overall, tend to be more generous than rich people. The same applies, I’ve noted, to so-called ‘radical’ movements. Low-income people give and support each other as much as they possibly can, even at personal cost, while privileged newcomers assume that their very appearance in the movement is enough, that they are somehow making a political statement by loading their Mercedes with seedlings and starting a vanity garden.

Image: Farm Friends, Linda Tanner, Flickr.