Monday, October 4, 2021

Learning About "Traditional" Farming

I've been participating in a Zoom-based conference from Transition US last week and next, and one session included comments from a woman named Lyla June. Among other things, she said pre-Columbian Indigenous peoples were farming in many ways that were not recognized or have been forgotten, and that this makes the point that agriculture does not have to be what the West now thinks of as agriculture: necessarily extractive, monocultural, with division of labor, and especially with individual families owning land.

Charles Mann's book 1491 collected and popularized research from many scholars that documented the general point Lyla made about Indigenous peoples farming, and his on-going Twitter feed continues to refer to new work in archaeology as it develops.

By chance, just a day or so before I heard Lyla speak, I read a Twitter thread by the always-amazing Sarah Taber on a resonant topic. As with many of Taber's threads, I can't remember how it started. It's worth reading the whole thing, which had to do with Mormon women and multilevel marketing and Instagram and I don't know what else. But here are a couple of tweets:

Single-family farming was uncommon before US real estate speculators made it a thing! Traditional farmers tend to do it at larger scale than single family, like villages, extended families, monasteries, etc. That's because economies of scale are real! Traditional farmers know better!

Unlike traditional farmers, who usually live in dense villages for protection, trade, and to save land for farming, you'll live all alone on that homestead. This is very stupid. But colonial lifestyle media said it's ok because you can self-sufficient!

That part of the thread made me think not just of what I knew about Indigenous farming (mostly from Charles Mann at the point when I was reading this, when I hadn't yet heard Lyla June), but also of English farming before wealthy people began enclosing the commons. Aside from shared pastures for animals, those farmers also lived in clusters within their villages surrounded by shared fields, referred to as strip farming. They shared work among themselves, as well as their land's output. We are not taught this.

In Taber's thread, after siting the homesteaders (who were white, often immigrant, farmers) on the homesteads, she goes on to look at gender:

Enter the gender norms. Traditional farming can have a lot of gendered labor. But homesteading dialed it up to 11.

In a village, it makes sense for women to do specialized work on top of household labor. Midwifing, brewing, market cloth production, etc. There are enough neighbors to create gigs.
"Family farming" also sounds nicer than just saying "white women support white supremacy and shitty men because that's the easiest way to get property."

From there she explains that between 1900 and 1920 white homesteading women made substantial side money with dairy and eggs. during this time they created the Farm Bureau, 4H, and a lot of cooperatives, but it was all taken over by the menfolk after World War II. Creating... agribusiness. Or, as she puts it, "Yep. Family farm men partnered with agribusiness to steal their wives' businesses on purpose."

Taber is writing a book, and she has an Indiegogo for financial support as she works to finish it with an independent editor. Here's her description:

Hi, I’m Sarah Taber and I’m writing a book that breaks the cycle of nostalgia in farm writing. It’s got wild stories from American farm history, and shows how romanticizing the past makes today’s problems worse. It draws lessons from unexpected places on how to run farms that treat their people and land well. This book is also well through the writing process already, with a whole manuscript that’s already gone through a couple revisions....

This book is a dramatic break from traditional farm writing. It lays out actionable ways we can fix the food system, beyond the usual litany of “vote with your dollars." This book is about how we can make affordable, healthy food by putting people first and using common-sense business practices that aren't yet popular in agriculture.

I want to read this book! Finish it, Sarah.


Past posts about Sarah Taber:

Sarah Taber, Pellagra, Pecans, Wow

O Pioneers!

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