The Interdependent Farm

The Interdependent Farm

“Pa and Ma, and Mary and Laura and baby Carrie left the little house in the big woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees and they never saw that little house again. They were going to the Indian country.”

~Excerpt from Little House on The Prairie by Laura Ingles Wilder 1935.

THE NEW FRONTIER

As 2020 rolled around, the sense of food insecurity and other socio-political instabilities led to what Joel Salatin referred to as the “Homestead Tsunami”. Many of the wealthiest people in the nation bought property in remote areas and flooded rural real estate markets. Akin to the Westward Expansion of the mid-1800s, states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia quickly became the El Dorados for many Northeasterners. Except instead of horses and wagons, it was led by brand new F-250s and Subarus.

Similarly, anyone familiar with the story quoted above (and if not, you should become familiar) knows that from here, Pa, though incredibly industrious, skillful and witty, brings his family through multiple encounters with sickness, starvation and potential death, all with the ultimate goal of setting up a new home for his family out West. When reading this incredible classic, I had to ask myself, "Why did they have to leave Wisconsin? What was all of this for?”. I by no means hope to denigrate Pa. If you’ve read the story you’d know he’s a far better man than most of us. He was a real frontiersmen, back when the frontier was still tangible. But I can’t help but wonder if the wild adventure he took his family on was one of wisdom. It seems as though perhaps he was searching for something deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we still strive for today. That is, a sense of self-sufficiency and independence. 

Though times certainly have changed, it seems the impulse in the American mind has remained: to leave everything behind and start anew. To carve your own way, and seek what has been unseen. Our culture's obsession with self-actualization and fulfillment through new works and adventures has been one of our greatest strengths. It’s what led us to be the great nation that we (somewhat) still are today. And yet, it also remains one of our greatest downfalls. The sacrifice Pa makes in order to pursue his slice of the American dream was community. His mindset was not, "What can I do for my place?" but rather, "What can places do for me?"

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

A large driver behind the the Homestead Tsunami and the Westward Expansion alike was cheap land in cheap states. It is a common misconception that the cheaper an area that one is in the easier it is to farm there, but the research reveals quite the opposite. For a small organic farm, success is more often found in the areas of the world with the most expensive land. Believe it or not, the Northeast has some of the highest rates of successful small farms in the country according to a meta analysis done by Texas State University in 2021 (Tritsch).

Much of this has to do with the geography of an area at large, something roads and modern life has led us to take completely for granted. Land, even if soils and rainfall are similar, is not created equal. A huge reason for the success or demise of agriculture in a given area is its ability to distribute its products efficiently to the people who need or want them, which is largely dependent on the topography of a place. Some locations lend themselves better to this than others. Despite our best bulldozing and paving, landscapes still plays a huge role in an area’s ability to prosper.

Many of us living within the two hour radius of a pre-1850’s urban center have a perceived notion that our land is expensive and of high value because of its vicinity to the city, but it is precisely the opposite. The city is there because the land we’re on is of high value. After all, that's how New York City came to be in the first place. It’s one of the most strategic places for a city from a resources in and out perspective-- a hyper-fertile valley with over four million productive acres which can produce resources and distribute them to the people rapidly via the Hudson River. 

This is not the case for city centers that were built post-industrialization. The advent of the steam engine and, not long after, the internal combustion engine radically transformed the way we distributed goods and structure society. We used to build society around resources, but now we build resources around society (Emerick, 1896)

EVER-CHANGING ECONOMICS

So if where we live was built around communities feeding the city, what were these new western settlements built around since they weren’t established until post industrialization? The short answer is that they were built around fuel and cheap land. Better yet, western land was essentially free during Pa’s time. Thanks to the Homestead Act, all one had to do was head out there, put up their flag and hope their gunmanship was greater than the local tribes’ bow and arrow skills. As for the fuel aspect, the advent of the steam engine opened up markets back east for the excess they could produce and exchange for other goods.

The impacts of these two factors on the supply chains as well as the health of the urban populous was drastic. The supply chains that were previously feeding the cities now had to compete with farmers who weren’t paying for land through their crops, lowering the price for wheat and corn in the market to a point where farmers who were paying off their land could not compete. This happened right where we are farming today. The Hudson Valley, which was once the bread basket of NYC, could no longer make money off of making bread. This drop in the cost of grain meant that folks in the city naturally would be eating more of it and less highly perishable products such as meat, milk, fruit and vegetables. With this, we saw a somewhat rapid decrease in muscle mass, bone density and other health metrics in the urban populations (Emerick, 1896).

The newer, less settled topographies of America gradually became more settled and hospitable overtime as the automobile came about and rendered it more accessible. These more remote areas in the plains are still where the majority of grain production in our country takes place. Cheaper land costs, yes, but they only grow corn and other crops highly reliant on irrigation, which assumes cheap energy to pump and distribute water. If that fuel or water ever becomes less accessible or their cost of energy increases, the model falls apart. 

The truth is that agrarians need the city just as much as the city needs agrarians. With easy transportation across the nation available at all times, modern rural areas can convince themselves that they are self-reliant. This is true to a degree-- they’re closer to their water and a food source, but fundamentally the economy they rely on for existence is further away and their production of food still relies on the global supply chain as much as anyone else.

THE INDEPENDENCE PARADOX

While I believe it’s a noble thing to seek out the establishment of smaller rural communities that produce their own food, I would argue that a completely “off the grid” and self-sustaining farm is a myth. Even if we think historically about the vibrant and independent agrarian societies throughout the world, many of them grazed their cattle far and wide across the mountainscapes and toward the ocean, as well as to salt deposits and different soils that offered a variety of nutrients. There is no one piece of land that contains all the micronutrients people and animals need to thrive. 

Unfortunately we’ve lost our ability to walk our cattle dozens, sometimes hundreds of miles around the country to obtain the diverse nutrients offered, so we have to bring the nutrients to us. The point here is not to discourage the tsunami of folks seeking to produce their own food and pursue farming. I would hope to be only an encouragement to anyone in pursuit of that. The question that I’d hope to reorient many of us around is not whether or not we ought to rely on others, but who we ought to rely on. 

No matter where we farm, there is a fundamental reality at play-- you are dependent on others, no matter what. I have yet to meet a single successful farmer who attributes their success entirely upon their own skill and finesse. It is almost always their neighbors and community who get the credit.

Perhaps prepping for dooms day, as many well-intended folks desire to do, does not look like you alone on a farm with a few others and enough food to last a decade, but rather us, together, all looking to reestablish supply chains that make simple sense. One farm without off farm micronutrient inputs will not feed you, but the sixty mile radius around Red Hook NY is capable of feeding far more people than we can imagine. 

Instead of prepping for dooms day, let's prep for a better day. When economies are at a healthy scale and we consume resources as if people mattered. Establishing such an economy, though never perfect, is far easier in places where they’ve already been. Let's not farm out of fear of the darkness but rather out of the pursuit of the light. Raising food for one’s own personal false sense of security is not the target in my opinion. Farms are here to serve others. They ought to seek localized interdependence rather than sheer independence.

There is certainly a place and a time for fleeing, for new adventures and frontiers, but it seems the real frontier is not out there anymore. It is right here and right now. So let’s start building, because we’re here to stay.

Citations

Emerick, C. F. “An Analysis of Agricultural Discontent in the United States. I.”Political Science Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 3, 1896, pp. 433–63.JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2139931. Accessed 13 Mar. 2024.

Salatin, Joel. Homestead Tsunami: Good for Country, Critters and Kids. 2024.

Tritsch, Katie. Journal of
Exention Vol 59. Number 2. Texas State University.2021.

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