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Saving Small Farms

Big Agriculture bears some blame for the decline of rural communities.

Whenever I think of agriculture in the Soviet Union, the old refrain that “Khrushchev sowed the Virgin Lands and reaped the Canadian wheat” comes to mind. It is a pithy remark that, coupled with a few of President Reagan’s famous “Soviet Jokes,” accurately summarizes the 70 years of Soviet agricultural history. From the murder of thousands of smallholder kulaks and the collectivization of their farmland to the resulting famines and diminished yields of collectivized farms, the history of communism and agriculture is one of the most effective rebuttals to Mr. Marx’s manifesto. Many of the worst famines of the 20th century across Asia and Africa can be traced back to communist agricultural policies.

Given this history of chaos and death, I was surprised to read an article in the socialist magazine Jacobin attacking the growing enthusiasm for local agriculture. The authors dismissed the entire movement as a bourgeois affair and counter to the interests of the working class. They claimed further centralization and industrialization of agriculture would yield more benefits for the working class, heralding processed food as a godsend. 

Arguments in favor of local agriculture and its superiority to industrialized, centralized farming have already been made, notably in the essays of Wendell Berry. Rather than rehash these points, I would like instead to point out the evident disregard communists have held for local farming throughout history. This disregard is most apparent in communists’ interactions with local breeds of livestock and crop varieties.

The existence of local breeds of livestock or crop varieties is a defining aspect of a healthy agricultural system. It is evidence of local farmers’ commitment to their trade that they willingly devote years, sometimes generations, to perfecting a breed fit for the local area and climate. These local breeds are a physical embodiment of hard work and tradition within an agrarian society. That fact has made these breeds enemy number one for any communist regime.

There is abundant evidence of communists’ anti-agrarianism. With the fall of the Third Reich, German and American soldiers risked life and limb to evacuate the Trakehner and Lipizzaner horse breeds from Eastern Europe, fearing the breeds would have been slaughtered to fill the cauldrons of the advancing Soviet Army. In Peru, Shining Path guerillas nearly wiped out the Junin sheep breed, declaring the first indigenous Peruvian breed a tool for capitalist imperialism. And in Armenia, one of the actual republics of the former Soviet Union, ancient grape varieties with exclusively Armenian names were nearly lost as Soviet central planners temporarily upended Armenia’s rich history of wine production, requiring the exclusive production of brandy. 

Yet this disregard for local breeds has not been confined to those states directly afflicted by the plague of communism. As has been noted before, the uniformity of livestock breeds across the United States is unusual. In Britain, every region and county has breeds of livestock unique to their area. These hundreds of breeds of cattle, sheep, and other farm animals have been crafted by farmers over a period of centuries to best suit local conditions. Given that America is many times larger than Britain and has a greater diversity of climates types and habitats, one would expect to find thousands of unique breeds of livestock across the more than 3,000 counties of the continental United States. Yet in most agricultural regions in the U.S., one will only find Black Angus and Holstein cattle. 

This is a direct result of the centralization of agriculture, which prioritizes efficiency over all else. This centralization may reduce short-term costs for consumers at major grocery stores, but it will impose long-term costs. Water pollution, negative health impacts, and the overall decline of rural and small-town communities are direct consequences of these policies. I do not believe saving a few cents on a pound of ground beef or a peck of apples is worth these costs.

To counter this de facto communist threat, local agriculture must be supported. Not just with dollars, but with laws. The current agricultural system has been rigged in favor of larger producers since the end of World War II. Passing laws on the local and state levels to support small farms is the best practicable option to truly support local agriculture.

Take, for example, some of the agriculture laws in Pennsylvania. While dairy farmers are struggling across the country, Pennsylvania has minimized the number of dairy farms lost and kept its dairy herds smaller than other states through several pro-farmer laws. One is setting a minimum sale price for milk across the state, ensuring most farmers are not producing their product at a loss. This measure has been somewhat controversial, but cost increases have been marginal for most consumers. These costs are also offset Pennsylvania’s making milk tax exempt, encouraging its purchase over sodas and other unhealthy drinks.

Some would decry these measures as state favoritism and interventionism. I see these measures as a necessary evil to level the playing field for small farmers and prevent the nightmare scenario of common foodstuffs like milk having to be trucked from the other side of the continent. In time, its pro-farmer laws may leave Pennsylvania as one of the last states east of Mississippi with any significant number of dairy farmers. 

If that come to pass, I hope the cattlemen of Pennsylvania take their herds and develop a few breeds unique to the hills and valleys of the state. I can think of no better act of defiance to the advocates of centralization, who would eat defrosted patties composed of meat from a dozen different animals, than to cut into a well-marbled steak from an Allegheny Angus, raised only a few miles away. That is what victory looks like.

Austin Jepsky is a writer currently based outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He writes on topics related to conservation, agriculture, and history. He has had works published in Dark Mountain and Front Porch Republic.

This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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