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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Death of the Family Farm

Air Date: Week of

Author Victor Davis Hansen comments on the decline of the family farm. Hansen hails from his family farm in Selma, California, and his most recent book is Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.


HANSEN: Family farming was the ideal that a sizable number of people could draw their sole support from working the soil. By being attached to the land, those people lended stability to their local communities. That idea is now about dead.

CURWOOD: Commentator Victor Davis Hansen.

HANSEN: Less than one percent of America's population is farmers. Of that number, even fewer live where they work or rely on the ground solely for their family's welfare. While few deny that the family farmer is disappearing, many dispute the significance of his passing. We will exhaust the soil and soon starve under the corporations who exploit the land solely for profit, the more ecologically-minded warn us. Don't worry, counters the more concerned agribusinessmen. Like the disappearance of small car makers in the 1930s, the demise of the small yeoman has bought us efficiency, as corporations strive for economies of scale and invest in new technology.

Either bewildered by or unaware of the end of family farming, the public ignores this transformation as long as their food continues to be plentiful, attractive, and cheap. I'm not sure whether our soil will be exhausted or our food scarce when the family farm's gone. But its end means more than changes in how we eat. We are losing a distinct voice in America, a person who views the world quite differently from the rest of us. Someone who welcomes physical work. Farmers know that more often we succeed or fail by our own merits, not those of others. Alone on the farm they're suspicious of fad, and they believe that the individual and the local community, not the bureaucracy, not the large city, grow the first good citizen.

Such yeomen are rare. History teaches us that the land is more often worked by serfs and peasants and slaves and owned by the king, the elite, or the collective. But when family farmers appear, whether in Greece, Republican Rome, 18th century Europe and America, or now in China, a different cycle of human experience begins. One marked by democracy, free speech, and consensual government. One that so reflects the stubbornness and autonomy of the free citizen landowner, free citizen soldier, and free citizen voter. So when these agrarians are all gone from America, I worry as much about us as about our food. The family farmer's the break on the rest of us, a voice that says no, a direct link with our democratic past that has vanished as well. We need that now more than ever, as our cities grow, our society unravels, and our culture itself is in jeopardy. But I don't know where, other than with families on the land, that steady voice of caution will ever be found.

CURWOOD: Victor Davis Hansen lives in Selma, California. His most recent book is Field Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.



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