The Hands that Feed Us started with a sense of injustice: Farmers can’t make “a living” from farming alone, most need off-farm jobs to pay the bills. That sense of righteousness launched me into my journey with a great deal of momentum, and it has carried me a long way. As I’ve learned more about how farmers live, my thinking about the problem has shifted. I’ve grown. And I’ve realized that focusing on how much money farmers make misses the bigger picture.
What picture is that? The Farming Lifestyle. Invariably, whenever I ask farmers why they do what they do, the answer I get is some variation of “I do it for the lifestyle”. That makes sense. I mean, they sure aren’t doing it for the money! But what does it actually mean? What is “The Farming Lifestyle”? When I dig more deeply, farmers tend to talk about food and family: “It means we know where our food comes from”; “it’s a better place to raise our kids”. I think those are really good reasons to adopt a farming lifestyle, but to an outsider like me, they don’t really articulate what the lifestyle is, or why it has to happen on a farm.
I find it quite difficult to articulate that idea myself, and I’ll spend an hour and a half trying to express it in my documentary. At its heart is a different idea about how to live life and what a good life is. The question I started with — why farmers don’t make enough money — contains our standard cultural assumption about how we should live our lives, i.e. we grow up, spend our careers earning money, and then retire when we’ve accumulated enough wealth to live our lives out comfortably. Money is central to that cultural viewpoint; we measure our wealth and our success in money, so when we discover that farmers don’t make enough money, it’s a crisis! It’s unjust that farmers can’t succeed in their chosen vocation.
I have my sister to thank for giving me insight into the connection between The Farming Lifestyle and farming income. In a conversation about the impossibility of trying to buy real estate in Vancouver, she wrote: “The way I see it, one can focus on the unfairness of circumstance and therefore be in opposition to wealth or one can focus on solutions and build wealth, however that looks.“
I think her critical words are “however that looks”. How wealth looks is critically important to my film. Among other things, my documentary will be a meditation on the nature of wealth. And one of my points of criticism will be the system we use to measure wealth: Money and land prices.
When banks lend farmers money to buy farmland, the act of borrowing has the effect of pushing land prices up: More money for buying land creates more demand for it, and the result is increasing prices. When the borrowing is structural, land prices continue to rise, and the earlier buyers can sell at a profit. That certainly looks like building wealth, if you happen to measure wealth in dollars.
The question is: Are dollars a good measure of wealth? As a society, we’ve acted as though they are for at least a couple generations. Our policies at every level of government and business are designed to maximize economic benefits, measured in dollars. We measure our national wealth in GDP, and nearly 10% of that GDP is simply land being sold, back and forth.
So, after these multiple generations of maximizing our dollar-wealth, we need to be asking, are we actually wealthier? Is the rising price of our farmland a sign of wealth? Because, measured in dollars, it certainly is. But, measured in the health of our soils, the shrinking number of farmers, the average age of our farmers, and the disappearance of local grocers and other food processors, I think we would be forced to answer differently.
Buying and selling farmland does not create real wealth. No real value is created by buying and selling alone; value comes from using the land in wise and beneficial ways. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that selling land is way to facilitate succession to the next generation of farmers, but that value is not realized if the land is simply viewed as a way to increase dollar-wealth. Maximizing dollar-wealth means selling to the highest bidder, and that means the people who can afford to pay the highest price: Bigger farmers, giant agribusinesses, and land speculators. Those people are not the farmers who actually live and work on the land.
In my opinion, the forces we are using to increase our dollar-wealth — farm mortgages, low interest rates, and our policies around money in general — are not making us wealthier. Rather, I would say we are spending the endowment that we inherited — our natural resources and our family farms — at an astonishing rate. We are impoverishing ourselves in the name of building wealth because we are not thinking clearly about what wealth actually means.
What does wealth mean? I come back to The Farming Lifestyle. The richness of living on a farm comes from living in an environment that is self-sustaining, where sustenance — food — comes directly from the efforts put into stewarding the land. Having land that provides what we need to live in abundance: That is wealth. Dollars are not wealth; dollars are the first step towards spending wealth that already exists. Perhaps that money is well spent, perhaps it is invested in stewarding the land so it continues to nourish us in the future, or perhaps it is spent on something else. But, the moment we think of wealth in terms of what we can buy rather than what we can produce is the moment we start spending our wealth rather than creating it.
Our GDP-optimizing policies of recent decades have optimized the spending of wealth, not the creation of wealth. Knowing that, can we be surprised that those policies have led to a world where farmland, the source of our food, is priced higher than a lifetime’s worth of food grown on it? According to our economic logic, we would rather sell land than eat off of it. Instead of nurturing land so it produces food on an ongoing — hopefully indefinite — basis, we are spending everything the land will give us right now, without a care for whether that land will be fertile in the future.
I think that’s the opposite of what farmers mean by The Farming Lifestyle. The lifestyle is living on a farm, yes, but even more than that, it’s knowing how to farm. It’s knowing how to create food out of nothing but hard work, and the attitude that is needed to go ahead and do that work. When farmers talk about farms being a good place to raise their families, they are talking about being able to pass that knowledge and that attitude on to their children so their children will never go hungry. Is there a better example of the good life — or good parenting — than that?
Having described wealth in a different way, I want to return to the idea that farmers don’t earn enough money. Because, despite the value of The Farming Lifestyle, I have yet to meet a farmer who considered the lifestyle an acceptable substitute for being fairly paid for their food (and I’ve asked)!
The reality is, my idyllic sketch of farms being self-sustaining oases isn’t quite true to life. None of the farmers I know eat solely off their own farm. There are bills to pay and at least a few supplies from the grocery store — no farm grows everything we eat in our modern diet. And farmers like to spend their wealth as much as anyone in our culture. Perhaps we could all stand to spend a little less, but it would be a bit rich to suggest that farmers don’t deserve the same middle class luxuries that everyone else enjoys.
Beyond that, when farmers sell their food, they are literally sharing the wealth they have produced. Farmers are unique in their ability to self-sustain, and the rest of us all depend on farmers for our food. When we eat food that has come from a farm, we are consuming wealth that was created by a farmer. The more of that food-wealth that a farmer sends off-farm, the more they are straining their own resources — and the resources of their farmland — to feed the rest of us. The more industrial parts of our food system — the parts that stock our urban grocery stores — ship so much food away from their farms that they need to constantly replenish the fertility of their farms in the form of (mainly) fossil-fuel fertilizers that do long-term harm to the land, permanently reducing the land-wealth that they are responsible for stewarding.
Our society is built on top of that transfer of food-wealth from farms. If we do not compensate farmers fairly in exchange, not only are we impoverishing farmers, but we are starving the farms themselves of the resources they need to maintain the quality of the farmland. We are spending the food-wealth of farmers, and also spending the land-wealth that supports the long-term viability of our whole society. Cheap food may sustain more people today, but if we don’t pay enough for our food, we will all starve tomorrow.
What I’ve learned in my time living and working on farms is that worrying about how much money farmers make is too narrow a concern, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a concern. But, if that concern eventually blossoms into a crisis — if the economic house of cards that is our food system starts to collapse — farmers may not make any money, but they will still have food. When push comes to shove, their wealth is in The Farming Lifestyle, and I trust that wealth more than I trust my bank…