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Dr. Sarah Taber on the Myth of the Destruction of Family Farms

September 05, 2019

Point of Inquiry co-host Kavin Senapathy has covered food and agriculture for years, and if she’s learned one thing, it’s that people’s views on farming are rife with misconceptions. The conversation around food is complex, and involves a slew of gray areas and mountains of data.

Enter Dr. Sarah Taber. She’s the host of the Farm to Taber Podcast, a farm and food systems strategist, and one of Twitter’s most prolific and eye-opening agriculture myth-busters. Taber’s work has included food safety, regulatory compliance, crop care, and making work flows as efficient as possible in farms and facilities.

On this episode, Kavin speaks with Dr. Taber on agriculture and the myth of the destruction of family farms. Part of this myth involves tackling whether big agribusiness destroyed these farms, and what sharecropping has to do with it. Topics also include how racism against various ethnicities displaced our country’s farmworkers, what really separates family and corporate farming, and the current narrative around field automation.

You can find Dr. Sarah Taber on Twitter: @SarahTaber_bww and @FarmToTaberPod.

What was that great music you heard?

“Wahre” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Vittoro” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

If you want to talk about traditional forms of agriculture, this is probably the most common one is sharecropping. And cash tenancy, it’s not family farming at all. But because it’s small people tilling, quote unquote, their own plots, it looks like family farming. If you squint and I think that’s where a lot of the confusion may come from. 

Hi, everyone. Today’s episode is about a topic that affects all of us, and that’s agriculture. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion or several strong opinions when it comes to food and how it gets from farm to table. There are so very many misconceptions about food and farming. I’ve been covering food and my work for years, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the answers to these questions are quite complex and hinge on a lot of data and a slew of moving parts. It can be contentious, to say the least, and requires navigating vast gray areas. And we’re going to dig into just one of those questions today. And it’s a big one. Our guest is Dr. Sarah Tabor. I’ve been following her on Twitter and learning so much. Dr. Tabor is doctor of plant medicine, host of the Farm to Table podcast and a farm and food systems strategist now. Sarah, before we dove into the big question, can you tell us what you do as a farm and food system strategist? 

Sure. So my professional training was basically as a veterinarian for crops. That’s what the DR Plant medicine means. So in that sense, you’re really kind of working with where does the farm interact with the outside world. So in terms of like ecology, in terms of like the stuff that’s living in the field, how is that farm interacting with its natural setting? And then I went up working a lot in food safety because that’s where a lot of the job growth is right now in in producing and horticulture. So that’s where you wind up. And the more I worked to the food safety, the more it became clear that. Food safety really comes down to biology, but biology really comes down to how people behave. And I think that’s something a lot of epidemiologists are going to find. Really familiar diseases tend to, you know, they do what they’re gonna do. But human behavior really impacts them if we’re scared of getting vaccinated. They’re going to spread more readily if we don’t have good public health, if we don’t have sewer systems because we have a dysfunctional governmental apparatus. We’re gonna have more disease. And so I found that to be really true on farms as well. The reason that food safety is a job is in so demand isn’t so much demand is because you have retailers. So again, we have a kind of a social system here. We have retailers, people who are buying the food, who don’t want to be buying problems. They don’t want to be buying stuff that has bad hygiene. So not only is the farm kind of interacting with its workers and kind of interacting with its own public health situation on the farm and also whatever’s around it in terms of feedlots and things like that. But it’s also interacting with a bigger system of buyers, retailers, supply chains and the people who ultimately eat it. 

Something comes to mind that I that I read about you and I forgot where exactly. 

But what you’re saying at illustrates this, something about how you have this aerial view of how all of these parts sort of work together. And that’s what you study. And so people come to you or people within the food and farming world come to you with these questions. Right. Which are, as we said, really complex. But I guess you you have somewhat of a hold on it, right? 

Yeah. So the food system is it’s a system break. So we have all these individual pieces. We have you know, we have farms and we also have. What’s the next step down the road? It’s usually where animals get killed and turn into meat or milk gets turned into cheese or produce even just gets boxed and washed and cooled and all that stuff. And then you have, you know, the buyers, the retailers, the supply chains. So agriculture, is this the system? And it’s really interesting to me because the sustainability world has really kind of, you know, the bigger, more complex a system is, the more opportunities you have for unforeseen problems. Right. And the way the sustainability industry has really tried to deal with this is just by removing that complexity and just trying to do like, you get all your food from one farm and like that’s kind of like the local food ideal in some ways is just kind of remove all those middlemen. But if you actually work in agriculture, those middlemen are not existing for nothing like they actually do valuable work and distributing and making sure food stays good and gets high. 

Yeah, you get sick, which raises up s do you do you work with on a monthly or a day to day basis. Are you mostly working with farmers or distributors or are all of the. 

Yes. So my main role nowadays is working with farms to make sure that they’re interacting with the outside world properly. So we’re kind of like from the farm side. How do we engage? Well, with our buyers, with our consumers, with our environment around us. That’s with her. Labor is really a big one. How do we engage our labor properly? 

So it’s kind of like, OK, so the the food system is a bigger system. So how do you make sure that farms position themselves really well to to be OK in that? 

Right. So while you’re doing all of this, you also are quite active on Twitter and I highly recommend following Dr. Tabor on Twitter and will include all of that information in the show notes. But you also write and you wrote a piece published in New York magazine’s Intelligencer last month titled America Loves the Idea of Family Farms. That’s unfortunate. Now, unfortunate isn’t the word that typically comes to mind when we talk about family farms. And that’s the big question we’ll tackle today, which is whether big agribusiness has destroyed family farms. I know there’s a lot of pseudoscience and woo out there in the food world and quite a bit of it hinges on farming and agriculture. But to really understand that, it seems like you have to start with the most fundamental part of how the vast majority of farming is actually done, and that is land. Right. And you say, Sara, that the whole big agribusiness versus family farms narrative is a mega myth made up of a bunch of baby myths. So let’s let’s start with this one. And it’s one that you mentioned in the article. You said that family farming as we know it, which is this idea of nuclear families that own their land and pass it on to their heirs and raise some of all of their food and produce some cash crops is, as you say, vanishingly rare in human history. Now, that sounds counterintuitive. 

So that article so I love the headline because as authors, we never get to pick the headline right to the magazine and they always pick the thing that’s going to piss the most people off because that’s what gets it. That’s not exactly what I would have said. But there’s there’s kind of this, like adoration of this idea of a way that firms used to work, which if you actually look at what’s ever gone on in history, both in U.S. history and then in world history. That’s not ever really how farming worked. And so we’re kind of worshiping this idea that was never real. Returned to fix things by going back to this idea that was never real. And if it was never real, there’s probably a reason. And so, again, like I feel like the way a lot of sustainability industry tries to fix this complexity issue, which is a real problem, is by just eliminating the complexity and going back to this fictional idea of something that was very simple, that never existed. And that’s just that way. Lies madness. Right. 


And it seems to come up in all of these these areas in which there is a lot of misinformation floating around in this site, Geist. And this is definitely one of them where people want a simple Amethi answer to their complexity. 

Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I get that complexity is terrifying and it has all these emergent properties which, you know, can be hard to manage. But the way to deal with that is not by retreating. It’s not by going, you know, screw it. Let’s just burn it all in and start with something simple again. There’s a reason that it became complex like that. There’s certain tasks that a simple system could not perform. So we need to learn how to manage that complexity rather than just retreating from it. 

So that’s kind of what this is about, is like, OK. So instead of just running away from a system, let’s actually understand what it’s doing and. 

When I was working in agriculture, you know, and you’re growing up kind of consuming the sustainable agriculture media. I didn’t grow up on a farm I grew up in, you know, just a normal middle class family. So you’re kind of consuming this media about agriculture. And then I wanted also to work in agriculture because I liked working outside. I liked working with plants. And that’s really what you do. That’s what you do. So as I started working more and more of this world, I’m like, wow, all the stuff that people are saying about this does not mesh with reality, like at all. 

So what I’ve observed as well, just covering agriculture. And I don’t work in agriculture. 

Right? Yeah. Like, any time you start interfacing with in real life, you kind of go, wait a second. There’s a lot of mythology here. The other thing that happened is I married a historian. Yeah. Who works on colonialism and the slavery era. And it’s kind of funny because we met when we were pretty young and we thought our fields had nothing to do with each other. So I came to do my thing. He’s going to do his thing. Turns out they’re the same thing. 

Yeah. Like, what would a plant doctor have to do with slavery? But there it is, agricultural labor, my dudes. You brought up the how how your work meshes now with your spouses. 

And I know we’re going to be talking about land and the family farm, but I read this recent feature which you and I actually briefly discussed, and I saw your Twitter thread on ProPublica in conjunction with The New Yorker on the massive loss of land by African-Americans. And the piece explains that between 1910 and nineteen ninety seven, African-Americans lost about 90 percent of their farmland. And the piece cites a statistic that 76 percent of African-Americans do not have a well, which is about twice the percentage of white Americans. So could you comment on how power dynamics in the U.S. that are rooted in slavery still impact how farming works today? I mean, I’m sure you could talk a whole episodes on just that question, but I think it makes sense to touch on it. 

Yes. So that’s something that I kind of find as you can talk around and around what the myths are. But I think really the central myth is not understanding the role of sharecropping in United States, which obviously has a huge relationship with slavery. I think most Americans understand that slavery happens. They have a vague understanding of how it worked. We don’t understand what sharecropping was in sharecropping is the hinge piece that connects how things used to work in slavery times to how they work now. So I often find that when you’re talking to people about the myths of agriculture, the most valuable time you can thing you can spend your time on is just here’s how sharecropping worked. Here’s how sharecropping built rural and agricultural society. Here’s how sharecropping really fostered the emergence of business as we know it today. There’s kind of this myth that everything used to be small family farms and then all the sudden agro business happened. And that is not in keeping with reality whatsoever. Sharecropping was a huge part of the U.S. food system and has a whole lot to do with how agri business happens. So I think that’s really kind of the biggest value. 

Add where in this sharecropping era did this sort of, I guess you could say at a Dellec family farm fit in if at denial it fit in in denial? 

Right. OK, so first let’s just talking about. 

Yeah. Let’s just talk about what sharecropping was. Right. Because I think a lot of us, we know the word sharecropping. We know that sharecropping is bad, but we don’t really understand what it is, how it functions in a political economy. So here’s the deal. You’re growing a crop. It could be wheat. You know, it could be, you know, in the south, it was often like tobacco to some extent, sugar cane in some areas, you know, cotton, things like that. When we think sharecropping, we typically think the south. It was not restricted to the south. If you go back and you look at old USDA agricultural censuses because the USDA would do a census of agriculture every five years, I think starting in the 1830. So we have these snapshots every five years, excepting the Civil War. They skipped a little bit during there. OK, we have these we have these snapshots of who is farming what and where. And, you know, in each census, the kind of add a few more questions to the point where today they’re very complex. I kind of look at them and I just think I don’t know enough statistical software to deal with this information. They have to find somebody who does. But if you go through and you look at it, there were states in the Midwest and Great Plains that had more sharecroppers in them than my home state of North Carolina, which is not something you ever hear about. Right. 

Right. Yeah. But it’s right there in the data. OK. 

It’s PDX, publicly available online, but no one who does agricultural journalism has ever fact checked the fact that there’s this mythology of small towns on the plains and in the Midwest that were fueled by small family farming. But if you look at the data, it doesn’t support that at all. There is a whole lot of sharecropping going on. So it’s it’s kind of funny to me that we talk about like going back to the way it was one hundred years ago and my cool. Tell me more about your plan to bring back sharecropping it. 

Yeah, I’m going to. 

I’m going to now go back through Twitter and see where I’m sure you talked about this. Probably. Yeah. 

I’ve done a little bit here and there. It just I don’t know. It it doesn’t really seem to get a whole lot of response because it’s so far off the beaten path of what we know about agriculture. That is just kind of like, hey, just you know, it’s it’s hard to click. 

I’m still down. What’s what’s the problem here? Why are why isn’t this considered something that we should all know about and be common knowledge? 

Glad you asked. So here’s what I think happened. So, again, first we have to go back and understand how sharecropping works and what it means. Right. So there’s a couple of different formats of it. So there’s tenant farming there, sharecropping. They’re kind of interchangeable terms. Sharecropping is when you. Well, well, let’s start with tenant farming. Tenant farming. When you rent somebodies land, it’s like you rent a house instead of owning it and you farm it land and you just pay rent, you know, a fixed amount, you know. X many dollars per acre per year. Right. So that’s tenant farming tenants would provide sometimes they provide the mule and the equipment and all that stuff. Sometimes the landlord provided that. So if the landlord’s providing it, then you pay more in rent. If you’re providing you pay less. And hopefully the idea was if you did it long enough, you could kind of accumulate capital by a couple more mules, be more productive and eventually buy your own land. That was the ideal. I don’t know how often that actually happened, but that was kind of like the hope, right? That was your one right yapper. Mobility sharecropping is when instead of paying cash rent, you give a certain amount of the crop that’s grown to your landlord. So in French they called it Matej because you gave the landlord half is like dividing and half. Yeah. In some places the proportion that you give to the landlord would change. But there was those basically the idea was kind of interesting because both tenant crop, a cash tenancy and sharecropping were very, very common formats throughout human history. If you want to talk about traditional forms of agriculture, this is probably the most common one, is sharecropping and cash tenancy. It’s not family farming at all, but because it’s small people tilling, quote unquote their own plots, it looks like family farming. 

If you squint and I think that’s where a lot of the confusion may come from in the sense that it’s family’s farming, right? Yes. So I think that if you were mainly farming. 

Yes. Like, if you’re driving through the countryside, you’re like, look at all these family farmers because you have no idea who owns the deed. Right. So you can see how that myth kind of got spread that way. I think also it’s it’s kind of comforting for people. We think of ourselves as kind of like the highest possible version of ourselves. That whole phenomenon of kind of senior self as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. So I think a lot of these folks, when they’re kind of telling the grandkids, oh, I used to farm, they’re not going to say I used to be a sharecropper. Some people will do that. But a lot of people are trying to kind of put their best foot forward for posterity. So they may not really talk about what that land tenure situation was like. That’s kind of considered like a detail that we don’t really need to get into. If you hear a lot of the stats about how family farms have disappeared, they often start from 1920 because that was the year when the most people were kind of registered as farmers or counted as farmers on various censuses. So that’s kind of a high watermark. And it’s interesting to me that we use this one is the norm, just as a quick side check, because this was there was a huge land speculation boom during World War One because Europe wasn’t growing much of its own food anymore, especially Eastern Europe was the breadbasket of Europe. And there’s like trench warfare happening all over it. So they are importing massive amounts of food. So global grain prices skyrocketed and this stimulated a lot of investment in farmland in the United States. This was the precursor to the Dust Bowl. This is how the Dust Bowl happened, was all of a sudden farmland is a really great investment. You had a lot of people homesteading down in the southern Great Plains, you know, Texas, New Mexico. And you had a lot of, like Dennis, lawyers and doctors living in towns, buying big oil patches of farmland and then setting up sharecroppers on them to take care of them while they keep doing their dentist job in town. So this is part of why there were so many farmers in 1920. I don’t think we should look at it as a baseline or as a normal. It was in the middle of a huge speculative boom that was about to go kaput. Right. And it was about to cause the Dust Bowl. So it’s finally bantams. This year is our normal. 

All of this is, to me, seems like something we should be talking about as well. So I’m glad it’s not a simple story. 

Right. So what ends up happening is because of this boom, we have a huge number of farmers on the census. And if you look at the USDA agricultural census, it divides out the farmers by who owns their land versus who owns some and who rent some and who is completely cash to a sharecropper. And the majority of U.S. farmers at this time by a long shot, are sharecroppers and tenants who own no land of their own. And so you’ve probably seen the graphs, you know, talking about here’s a number of farmers in the U.S., right. If you only look at the people who actually own their own land and operate their own land. We have exactly the same number today as we did a hundred years ago. It’s three million white landowning farmers. All that disappearance is one hundred percent sharecroppers and black farmers who lost their land bank or farmers in Ghana. 

It’s to some degree are to what degree would you say is that the same people are the same families or, you know, the same entities? 

Right. So there’s there’s always turnover. Right. So it’s kind of funny because individual farms do come and go. Right. And so you have individual narratives of our farm failed. And then you have this graph that’s cooked that is made of cooked numbers and you put them together and it makes a very powerful narrative of this way of life is dying. But there’s actually this season of heard people doing it now. There’s fewer farms, but there’s more people working each farm on average, which is what you’d expect as farms get bigger. Right. So a lot of families did farming that say the families who remain, you know, they they have multiple kids who wind up farming. I think that’s a big part of how it’s managed to stay the same number of people. So you have a lot of agriculture concentrating into the hands of fewer and fewer families. And sometimes they’re splitting off, you know, subunits and different farms from within that same family. But something that’s really interesting that you see is in 1920. U.S. farmers are 85 percent white hand as of the most recent USDA census. Now it’s 95 percent. So you’re definitely seeing and that’s just people who own land. Right. That’s not even sharecroppers. That is land owning farmers. So you’re definitely seeing a lot of collapsing of the ownership of who actually owns land. So what this does when you have tenant farming, is it land ownership is huge. What this means is that you have a lot of people who own land and they’re making money off it without doing anything with it. Right. So the I the ideal of family farming is you have a bunch of owner operators who own their land. They’re working it. Everybody’s like virtuous peasants, blah, blah, blah. That is not in reality what was really going on. You had you had some of that. You had more or you had less of it depending on the state. But who is actually running those rural counties was the landlords. It was the people who didn’t have to work for living because they didn’t have to work for a living. That meant they could spend all their time networking, throwing parties and hanging out down at the courthouse, influencing laws that are passed about what landownership means. Now it’s inherited and all that stuff. So it’s as a crop scientist, it’s been really interesting to me to kind of really see that there are two ends of agriculture. One is being in the field and doing stuff. Right. You know, like, actually. Being out there in the sun, doing things right and even in the office, planning how you’re gonna do things like that, still actual operations. And then there’s the hanging out at the diner with your boys, joining, gossiping, networking, and then. 

Oh, sure. Of course. 

Yeah, there’s a good ol boys side of things. And as a crop scientist, that’s not something we’re ever really taught about. But, you know, as someone who I wasn’t born into a farming family. My daddy didn’t own land. Right. So if I wanted to participate in agriculture, I had to learn how to do things that farms cannot or won’t do on their own. You know, I have to bring skill to the table. It took a lot of work and a lot of debt. Right. And then you get out of the field and you realize that in most parts of the country, nobody wants that because the business model. And even about making food, that was a big wakeup call. 

So you try to get your place at this big ol boys table and it’s, I guess, not that easy. I hear a lot about it. Not at dinner. Ever might not be able. 

Yeah, it’s that the business model was never about making food in the first place. Which is a thing, again, the sustainable agriculture community. I don’t think really understands why there is so much wealth kind of encapsulated in this nation’s land. There’s so much wealth embodied in the families who own it and sustainable agriculture. Advocates don’t really seem to grapple or understand with what this wealth means. That’s that’s what fueled the takeover of the United States, was that, hey, there’s a lot of wealth we can extract passively from this land by having other people work it in. Know homesteaders had their own role to play in colonization. I don’t want to like, you know, absolve you by any means. But they weren’t really the ones financing it, right? Yeah, they weren’t really the ones benefiting. So if you want to understand how agro business emerged, you need to understand these landlords. So they had the same relationship with their farm laborers that any capitalist has with their laborers. Right. I think that’s something, again, that the ag movement doesn’t really understand is that farmers are capitalists. They are not the proletariat proletariat. You know, you labor for living and you don’t own anything. That’s what makes you proletariat. Farmers own land. They own equipment. They have regardless of what they say, they have very good access to capital, particularly on the global scale, if you compare them to farmers anywhere else. Excellent access to capital. And they’re not the world’s most at a press class of workers. They employ the country’s most oppressed class of workers. They are capital. All right. So I think that’s the thing that a lot of folks don’t understand. We’re kind of dealing with this mythology that was born during the sharecropping era. So in our head, farmers, in these impoverished people, in reality, the average farmer has been making a lot more than the average American since the 90s. That’s over 20 years. 

Now I know now I know why people don’t talk about what you’re talking about. And that’s because you’re our radical. 

See, the thing is hot. I actually talk about what’s happening. I’m joking. Yeah, I like what you’re saying. Really upsets the status quo. Yeah. They don’t like it. 

I was gonna ask you to unpack something that you’re sort of getting to. And again, I might be jumping ahead, but you write in this piece that collaborative farming can be a powerful tool for decolonization. 

Yes. And we’re gonna get there. 

Yes. So. 

Yeah. Sorry, I just I don’t want to belabor it as sharecropping and tenant farming thing too much, but it’s so fundamental to what’s really going on. So you have all these capitalists, right? Like, never be deceived. I don’t know how white socialists decided that small family farms were woak. They’re not. They’re just a petty version of capital. They’re just petty capitalism. Yeah, it’s it’s funny because there’s this myth that there was such a thing as small, self-sufficient family farms in New England. And England is always kind of the byword. Right. And it kind of the middle Atlantic, New York and Pennsylvania kind of era. They were not self-sufficient. They were smuggling wheat to Haiti is what they were doing. That’s why they were so prosperous. Self-sufficient, my ass. 

It’s fascinating. 

My husband, again, he’s a historian of colonial Haiti, which was the world’s wealthiest colony at the time. They’re growing all the sugar and exporting it to France on the global market. It’s a slave colony. It’s one of the world’s biggest, fattest slave colonies. Right. So when you’re a fancy slave owner down in colonial Haiti, you don’t want to eat local food. You don’t want to eat plantains in manioc. You want to eat crossable and bug it. And for that, you need wheat, which does not grow in Haiti very well. And it certainly is not as profitable as sugar. So they got to buy it from somewhere else. And France had policies at the time that made grain very expensive because that’s what the aristocracy made their money off of, was renting grain land out to peasants. Right. So they have, you know, invested state interests in maintaining high grain prices. So these colonials don’t want to buy French grain. They’re buying cheap grain from Pennsylvania, upstate New York and New England. That’s how all these, quote unquote, porres, prosperous, small family farms were flourishing. That’s what they were doing. And they were selling. Yes. And it never made it into a bag and never made it into our mythology because they weren’t supposed to be doing that. That was against English colonial policy. They were supposed to sell wheat only to the motherland. You know, and not even that much, because England also was trying to keep her grain prices high. So this was all a black market. We only know about it because sometimes they got caught. So colonial Pennsylvania and upstate New York and New England were really kind of like the Emerald Triangle of their day. They’re growing all this contraband crop, making a ton of money and pretending like they’re just homesteading. Right. 

That’s what was really going on. 

And to this day, a lot of the small farms in New England and, you know, kind of the middle Atlantic are making their money off of agritourism more than production, which is fine. I respect that. It’s a real business. It’s a hustle. Good. Do it. But because their business model relies on interacting heavily with the public, that’s where the most of the information to the public has about agriculture comes from. Is these people doing agritourism. Right, kind of presenting themselves as a small peasant farmers, which they are not. You know, they’re agritourism people. They’re they’re tourist establishments. So and they’ve never really been the family farms that they’re present themselves at every single step of in history as a fiction of somebody’s imagination. 

I’ve been you know, I’ve been to a few farms. As a journalist and, you know, not as a not as a tourist necessarily at every time. It’s not what I expected. 

Yeah, there’s there’s there’s no such thing as normal. And it’s kind of funny because I feel like a lot of folks are like, tell me how farms working. I’m like, well, where is it? Or to be growing. Who are the people? Everything depends. Right? Right. So again, that’s kind of where this fiction is coming from. And at every step of history, it’s always been a fiction. Right. And if you look at the censuses again, like even in quote unquote, the small family farming areas, there was a ton of sharecropping the like the knickerbockers in New York City, like really old Dutch money, made all their money by owning tenant farms in the Hudson Valley. So those are not family farms in the sense that we recognized. Right. And it’s kind of funny because they’re kind of. There’s really this us versus them dynamic rural and agricultural areas like those city people. 

Yes. And I mean, these cities pick these families who are actually farming, not family farms. They’re not having a good time, are they? 

I mean, overall, just, you know, like a lot of this, quote unquote, urban, like a big city, money came from being rural landlords. You know, like there’s there’s really no difference between urban and rural landlords. It’s really the same business model. It’s just a different order of magnitude. So so that’s a big deal. Like you can get gentrification and countryside’s as well as fancy people move in with her McMansion that drives up land prices. So it’s again, we kind of talk like there’s this urban rural divide, but they both have the same problems. Absentee landlords, gentrification, tax evasion. You know, all the good stuff. We kind of have this fiction or this this narrative that as agricultural mechanization and agribusiness became a thing, it displaced small family farms. That is not what happened. It displaced sharecroppers. This was landlords getting rid of their labor. So this is just people being replaced by machines. You know, this is not to some extent. Yeah. There’s been some consolidation of family farms. But the real murky story here, again, is the loss of labor. And I don’t necessarily want to play it like automating agriculture is a bad thing. I think it’s a fantastic thing. I think plowing fields by hand is a terrible waste of time. There’s there’s sitings for where handwork makes sense. But I don’t think all jobs are that job. Right. Like, as someone who’s right and. 

Yeah, as somebody who’s actually, what, not like an injurious job. I mean, I have not. But it seems like it say it takes a toll on a person. 

Well, I think we kind of think like it must be like cross fit for people who haven’t done it before. And the thing about Crossfade is you do it until you’re done and then you don’t have to do it anymore and real work kicks in like that. Yeah. So. Yeah. Who’s worked outside in real jobs before. People who kind of wring their hands about, oh no, we’re losing agricultural jobs. I’m like awesome. But that’s not the best use of human time skills and lateral thinking ability. It’s just not the best use of us. Right. So I’m all about automating stuff. What the problem is, is when automation is used to enhance the wealth of a small group of rentiers, something you hear a lot is small farmers complaining about how there’s no equipment that’s properly sized for them, which is not 100 percent the case. If you go to countries where smaller plants are the norm, like the Netherlands, Japan, they make lots of investment that works for smaller scales. That never happened in the US because we had big landowners owning big plots and all those crap. It’s hard to know that they didn’t get to make management decisions. They were not in charge of deciding how automation was going to happen. They just got replaced. So when we’re talking. 

Right. So those that kind of it’s not that this kind of equipment doesn’t exist for small farms. It’s just that it’s that’s not how it works. 

Yeah. It’s not how it works over here. The import tariffs might be very terrible. We just don’t have that much availability of it over here. It’s not like there’s a ton of it in the Netherlands and Japan either, but it does exist. Right. 

So that’s. 

Again, if you think U.S. agriculture story is one of small family farms consolidating, you’re not going to understand why our equipment situation is like that. So it’s to kind of back it up a little bit. This the story that we kind of have conventionally of agricultural automation is it started in the mid to late eighteen hundreds with wheat reapers and McCormac binders and all that kind of stuff. Those did exist. Those were mostly used on big corporate farms that existed at that time in Minnesota and North Dakota. There was like a wheat bonanza. There was a big period of high wheat prices again. After the civil war and before the nineteen hundreds called the wheat bonanza. And so there’s a big speculative period and these people who are running them wanted to use equipment to harvest instead of people. They did. Sometimes these big migrant labor crews like sometimes and have people come up and harvest wheat by hand. So they were having giant crews from Mexico move up to basically the Canadian border in the eighteen hundreds. So migrant farm labor is nothing new, but they really tried to minimize that because it was cheaper to use Binder’s and Reapers, if you could. So those were kind of the first early adopters, but most agriculture was still having by hand, including wheat and field agriculture. And if you’re looking at the numbers, you know, you still see a lot of sharecroppers in the Midwest and Great Plains by the 1920s, which kind of tells me wheat agriculture was still not 100 percent automated. That tells me they’re still a out of hand labor happening. If you look at California today, there are a lot of crops that are sort of automated, like wine grapes. Bad example, actually. Raisins is a better example. You can either prune raisins. Yeah. You can either prune raising grapes by hand or you can just send in basically hedging machine. Those are both completely common. It’s kind of like 50 50 in California today, because if you owned a lot of acreage, it makes sense to invest in the equipment. But if you own a smaller acreage, it makes sense to just have that doesn’t pay off. Right. So I think U.S. big crop agriculture was in the same situation for a long time. So this narrative that we have of, you know, field automation starting in the eighteen hundreds and be basically finished by the 20s is not accurate. There are still lots of hard labor happening in the 20s. So you still had a lot of landlords who were in the market for automation. By that very late period. So that was automation mostly happening to replace sharecroppers and tenant farmers. It was not happening to replace landowners. It was not family farms eating each other, family farms eating each other. Finally really started happening with Earnest in the 80s. Like, that’s when all this consolidation and replacement of people really started to hit white landowners. And that’s when we had a national panic about it. Right. That’s when he hit the news. The farms are bigger now, which means they also have more people on them. So if you look at the number of farms, you can go, oh, my God, we’re we’re losing them. But stop. Pull-Back recognize of the vast majority of farmers in 1920 were actually sharecroppers. Let’s look at the landowners. There’s a fair number of farms, but the farms have more people working on them full time. 

You know, like the. 

It’s so far out. 

That’s concentrated to the bigger farms, that’s like we have three family members on this farm instead of one. So if you look at the number of people working on the farms, it’s still three million. Like white landowning farmers, it’s still three million. We have a lot fewer farmers of color than we did because the Klan existed to chase black people off their land. And it was very successful. A lot of them moved north, you know, to escape terrorism. So if you look at U.S. history kind of part and parcel with automation, like automation is not the full story. What happened here? Like actual reigns of terror. We’re also a big part of what happened here. Anytime you have. A population of farm workers in the farm business model of the landowning business model has always relied on getting farm work done below market rate. If they actually have to pay competitive market rates for wages, the farms just don’t like the land owners don’t get what they want out of it. Right. So that’s always been a thing they have to do when they’re not having a day job is make sure that legally they have this labor pool of people who don’t have any choice but to work on their freight. Right. So so that’s what slavery was about. That’s what Jim Crow is about. You know, as soon as any population of people who used to do farm work gets freed, there are extreme legal measures taken and just a freak out on the part of land owners to keep them under water and keep them on the farms. So you see that against slavery, Jim Crow, you see that in Japanese American incarceration during World War Two. If you look at the numbers in California, huge amount of sharecropping in California. In 1920, it was a it was very sharecropping dominant in most of their sharecroppers were immigrants from Southern and Eastern Asia and lots of Japanese Americans. 

And it’s funny because if you look at the numbers. 

There were there various Chinese exclusion acts and Japanese exclusion acts, right? You weren’t allowed to own land if you were an immigrant. And that was done to keep people from competing with their bosses by actually farming land, like owning their own land. These Japanese American farmers are getting incarcerated during World War Two. A lot of that was driven by the fact that they were escaping their employers farms and they were buying their own land, those very small plots. So they had to kind of be very concentrated about how they managed it. And so the value of their plots was very high. Their crop revenues were very, very high. So not only are they not working for cheap anymore, you know, so they’re depriving these these landlords of labor, but they’re also competing with them very, very effectively. And they’re driving up land values, which drives up taxes. So there are all these reasons that the Anglo landlords of California were very unhappy with this situation. So as soon as they had a pretext to jail them, they took it. So that’s what Japanese American incarceration was about. 

Well, yeah, you said in that way. 

Yeah, that’s what happened. So and it’s not it’s not the time to. There’s a lot of deportation of Mexican Americans in the Great Depression because they’re like the Great Depression and they’re like, all these people are stealing our jobs. Let’s get rid of them. Well, that sounds familiar. So that happened during war excuse me, the Great Depression. And then once where were to hit, they put all of the Japanese farmers in jail. All of a sudden there all these jobs. Now we’re all out of laborers. We need to start the serial program to bring folks from Mexico that we just deported back in the U.S. to work again. There is already migrant farm labor to some extent before that. But that’s when it really, really got kicked up into high gear, was during war, too, because he deported all the farm labor. And I haven’t been able to find good information on this because I do not know what it was called or what search terms to use. But my understanding is a lot of folks from South Asia were also like they had their citizenship stripped and removed from the country because they were being too competitive with neighboring farmers. 

Have you seen records that suggest thus? So you just hear about this. They had only stories, family stories. Gotcha. OK. Oh yeah. How I. I’m really curious. I mean, do you think it’s a dead end? Do you think you might be able to find something? 

I’m sure the info is out there somewhere. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know how best to pull on those leads. Right. So if anyone’s listening, who’s a historian. There’s a thing to look at. I’m kind of talking with some historians right now, like, hey, if I want to ground truth, this where I go looking for archives for the Japanese incarceration for sure. Like, that’s very well documented. But if you want to dig up more, what I want to do is find some stashes of invoices from packinghouses that were buying all these, you know, strawberries and celery, green beans and other other crops that were mostly grown by Japanese Americans at that time. My understanding, from what people tell me, is that crop yields plummeted because the people who were growing them were gone. And a lot of Anglos and Oki’s kind of took over those farms, but they didn’t have the skill set to manage them as tightly as their original owners were. And so yields plummeted. And this was in the middle of where we’re two. And a big part of the U.S. wartime strategy has been keep your soldiers well-fed, give them some delicious. They’ll feel good about fighting for the homeland and they’ll be healthy. And that was a big part of our wartime strategy. So all these people who are growing the supply chain just evaporates. Right. And this was when the United States got really, really adamant about victory gardens, because all of a sudden we don’t have enough food to supply both the homefront and the war effort. And that’s why Victory Gardens were such a huge part of the U.S. war strategy, was because we locked up all the farmers in the best way to document that is if you can find receipts during that time and watch the yields go down and watch the names change on the, you know, on the deeds and in who they’re buying from. So that’s that’s kind of one of my goals. And heading out to California in a couple of weeks. And I’m going to be asking around as to where there might be chance to ashes of old war to vintage invoices. 

So we’ll be following your Twitter closely for updates. 

Yeah, I don’t I don’t tweet a lot when I’m traveling, just like you’re like. 

I definitely ends after I found it out. 

Something big. Then you do a thread or an article. 

So you’d asked a little bit about the collaborative approach earlier. And I think this is a great time to circle back to that. Something I can tell people is we kind of have this Agri-Business versus Family Farms dynamic, whereas in reality what really happened is agro business is what allowed a family farming as we know it to exist, because before that it was sharecropping. The reason we have families running their own land by themselves at this point is because of agro business. It’s not in spite of it, and it’s because of agro business. That’s why they have the tools, a lot of them, to stay competitive and market rates. A lot of what we’re seeing as farmers being it’s often described as peons of, say, poultry conglomerates and things like that, huh. So shockingly enough, poultry farmers who grow boilers are actually the best off farmers like group in the United States. The way it’s priced, you have a bottom 10, 20 or 30 percent of farmers who are doing very, very badly. But that’s usually not their one line of income. They’ve got some other stuff. They’re farming as well. The people who specialize it are doing very well for themselves. It’s. Really interesting. I’ve got statistics I can send you. But especially considering how many of those guys are in the middle of nowhere with no jobs and they have a high school education and they’re making bank. It’s really interesting how kind of the discourses. There are a 10, 20, 30 percent of poultry farmers who are not doing well with it. Right. Right. And that’s because the tournament pricing system and I think that’s a very logical grounds to critique, determine pricing system. But when we just kind of go like poultry farmers are bankrupt all the time. That’s also a false narrative. A lot of them, like, are doing great. They’re richer than farmers on average. They’re making more money per year. And farmers in general are making more money than average Americans. So this presentation of poultry farmers are suffering is really, really inaccurate. 

And are you saying that these are family owned operation? 

They’re family owned. OK, so it’s yeah. We talk about family versus corporate farming. And the thing is, like I don’t think people understand is that corporations do not want to farm. It doesn’t make sense from a balance book’s perspective. What a lot of these integrators so companies like Archer Daniels Midland and, you know, Tyson Perdue, things like them, they’re kind of like the umbrella company and they have basically farms kind of behaving as franchises. So like you’re a family farm. I want to do a new thing. Let me become. Let me get a franchise farm with Perdue, you know, or they have contracts. It’s not exactly like a McDonald’s franchise, but that’s probably kind of the best way to understand it is. Yes. You’re kind of a businessman, but you also have kind of this this umbrella roof shelter organization. And just like franchising, that relationship doesn’t always work out. So I don’t want to present it like, oh, no, actually, it’s good for everyone. It’s not, obviously. But at the same time, portraying it like it’s bad for everybody is also very false. On average, again, farmers are making more money and the agro business system is a big part of why it gives people the tools. You know, the the veterinary expertize and all these other things that they can’t muster on their own and connections to the market that they can’t muster on their own. You need to have some kind of connective tissue between farms. You know, if you’re having a family farming system where people are owning their individual land, they’re kind of like living their family life and they don’t know a lot of people in a city. You need some kind of connective tissue. And that’s something that you don’t see. A lot of folks advocating smaller agriculture really grapple with is you need connective tissue. Who’s it gonna be? Family farms do not have the resources to do it. So do we have a better idea? Because you can’t just chuck something in the bin and have nothing replace it. I’m all about talking about better systems, but just saying we need to go back to small family farms is completely it’s it’s not viable. And I wish people grew up with that. And it’s not even how we used to do in the past. 

There were always overreaching landlords because of this false narrative. Government policies are currently trying to uphold this family farm ideal. You really advocate for what you call collaborative farming as a way to replace Feste because like you said, you can’t just throw something in the bin. 

So what is collaborative farming? And we touched on this earlier, but you said it can be a tool for decolonization. 

The way I look at family farming, I think people when you use the term family farming, it really kind of gives it a certain gloss. It really makes it sound like it’s totally different from all these other bad kinds of agriculture, like the plantation system was bad. And it’s not family farming. Well, it was it was not corporate farming. They were family owned. And thanks to how many people were having children with enslaved women, they were also family operated. Those were family farms. Right. So we act like there’s this huge gulf and chasm between, like good family farming and bad corporate farming. And there there’s I call it the estate system. Anytime you have land, it’s privately owned by family. It’s passed on hereditarily. You know, it’s really easy to gloss that as a family farm. And a lot of them do function very well. I don’t want to paint them all with a broad brush. But I also want to point out there’s huge potential for mischief with the system. I want to give it something kind of like a more neutral flavor. I just call it a state system. It’s private estates, some estates big, some are small. So the collaborative approach is something that I’ve actually seen work really well in real life. And it’s not something we talk about because it’s not family farming. We can’t romanticize it the way we do with family farming. And so people don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know it exists. Kind of two groups of people that do this in the United States. One is a lot of Native American operations, which is like a huge group of people to lump together a very diverse group of, you know, like Native American tribes and different parts of the country are not very closely related at all. It’s kind of like saying Ukraine and England are exactly the same because they’re both in Europe. But you have a lot of tribes and nations and organizations that have managed to hang on to a lot of land. And they’ve they’ve either always been agricultural because that’s a very long tradition for for some peoples. And the other ones, they just kind of started doing it and had been really good at it because they’re farming with a bigger number of people and actually visiting a native operation, kind of doing an audit. There was kind of a big aha moment for me. You know, just kind of doing the thing. You go to all these family operations and it’s there’s kind of really a day late and a dollar short. Almost all the time, because you’re working with a loon and other people live in a number of resources. That’s just the nature of the thing. That’s not a criticism, anybody. That’s just how it works. So when we have family farmers in the state system, people always talking about how they’re under-resourced and it’s bad, like maybe we should take that seriously, like those complaints are telling us something about that system, you know, because you go to these operations that are there are bigger scale that have more people. So people are able to kind of specialize in a task. You’re not stuffing a jack of all trades because there’s one or two of you on that operation. There’s a couple dozen. 

So it makes this this arduous work more evenly distributed, essentially. 

Yeah. And then not every operation does this, but it also gives you some more potential to diversify. So the other group of folks that do this is the Hutterites. I don’t know how familiar folks are with them. They’re kind of like they’re an Anabaptists religious groups. So they’re kind of like, I call them Amish. 

Jason, you mentioned them in the piece. So listeners can read about it there. 

Yeah. So like the Amish, I think we kind of know them for for kind of doing their more on the East Coast or Midwest. So they’re just there’s more people around to see them. Right. How a farm. They kind of do it. Old timey fashioned, but they all each have their own individual homestead. The Hutterites kind of do it reverse. They use modern technology, but they they own a farm community. They have a village of 50 to about 150 people and they all farm together. So instead of farming one thing or maybe two things, like a lot of family farms do, they’re able to grow a bunch of things. So you’re a Hutterites village will grow like they always grow grain, and then they’ll often grow some kind of livestock like pigs, you know, turkeys, chickens, eggs, dairy herd, that kind of thing. At least you grow a bunch of different kinds of livestock. So what that means is they’re not dependent on one or two commodities. And if you’re hearing this, you’re probably thinking, oh, yeah, diversifying like family farms used to, which is that’s a thing we talk about a lot. Right. Everybody should diversify. That’s just how it works. We don’t acknowledge the fact that it takes a lot of people. We have this labor Seeb equipment, but you still have to do like the mental work behind it, you stuff to do financial planning. You still have to make your orders, you stuff to do your sales. That’s another person’s job. And if you have a small number of people on a site, you’re just not going to be able to get there. So it’s really easy to say you need to diversify. But we need to understand there’s a human system behind that. There’s a human structure behind that that needs to be more complex. 

Do you think I mean, when people say that that’s what family farms did. How do you think that that could play out in if agriculture looked differently, sort of the way that you think that it should look for what you call it, sustainable? And I am always a little wary of using that word because of what it means to people, or does it mean to people are how clearly they’re thinking about it. But the way you mean sustainable is with regard to not only resources but land ownership and labor and all of this. Right. 

We kind of have this mythology that family farms are diverse and that’s why they’ve survived so well. That’s not really what happened. They were by and large, they were almost always cash cropping, wheat or cotton or corn. They were cash cropping something. When people went out to start a homestead, they weren’t doing it to be self-sufficient. They were doing it to get a toehold and climb the property ladder. It’s why we have starter homes today. Nobody wants to live in his home, you know, but that’s where you have to start. Self-sufficiency was just a thing that you had to do while you’re establishing yourself. It wasn’t people’s goal and cash cropping was the ultimate goal and then diversifying. That’s not just a buzzword that is very important from an economic sustainability perspective. You just need to do that to survive, which means you hit you need to have enough people to pull off to survive. I think in the long run and I think the Hutaree communities are really huge testament to this. They farm about half as many acres per capita is neighboring family farmers because there’s so much more efficient with her time. There’s a mass impression. I think the Hutterites don’t pay taxes and they don’t pay salaries. And that’s why they can do all this stuff. Well, they do pay taxes and they have to. I mean, they have to support people even when they’re too old to work anymore. They have to pay for children, you know, which if you’re hiring migrant farm laborers, you don’t have to do that. Right. So they actually have a lot of costs. You know, they pay taxes and they have a lot of costs. The family farmers don’t. 

And there’s still way more competitive to the point where there’s actually some hostility between neighboring neighboring farms and Hutterites owned lands. 

Yeah, we talk about them like they’re the Borg. 

What do you think? It’s it’s posing a threat to their way of farming, essentially. Right. But what you’re also suggesting that this that agriculture could take lessons from the Hutterites and actually implement them. Is that what you’re saying? 

Right. Yeah. Like, if you can’t beat them, join a man. Like if obviously they’re doing something. Right. Right. And it’s I mean, they’re very conservative religious groups. So one of the things that always comes up when I talk about Hutterites is like, you would want to be a woman if you’re a runner. 

You know, you’re like you take all of the lessons from me. 

Like I have a lot of kids, which you don’t have to do if you don’t want to. And I kind of feel like some of the way they divide work along gender lines wastes a lot of women’s time. So if you didn’t do it that way, you’d actually do better. That’s OK. I feel like it’s almost like Islamophobia in the same way, like women’s rates suddenly come up when money’s on the line. Right. 

Yeah. Wow. You make all of these fascinating connections and then when you say it, you’re like, oh, yeah, makes sense. So I would love to. I would love to stay in touch and pick your brain. Of course not. I’m not asking for a free work, but I’m at least following you on Twitter because I know you’re in high demand. But yes. So where can people find you and your work and your podcast to sort of to follow what your what you’re doing and what you’re talking about and agriculture. 

So I’m on Twitter at Sarah Tabor. Underscore B W-W. I have a podcast at firm to Taber. If you Google it, it should come up. It’s on SoundCloud. It’s on. It’s got its own Web site. I’m writing a book and it is taking a while because as you’ve noticed, there’s a whole lot of stuff to sort through. So just figuring out how to structure it. It’s been a nightmare. 

Thank you so much, Sarah. That was fascinating and disturbing as what we do. 

Yeah, that’s what you have to grapple with if you if you really want to solve complexity. Right. It’s true. It’s hard stuff. 

This has been your host Kavin Senapathy. Please share with anyone who loves podcast and has an interest in science and skepticism. Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry CFI as a final one. C three charitable nonprofit organization whose vision is a world in which evidence, science and compassion guide public policy. 

You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org, where you can listen to all of our archived episodes and support the show. And CFI is nonprofit advocacy work. And remember to subscribe where available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and your favorite podcast app. Thanks again, everyone. And I’ll talk to you again in two weeks. 

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at various outlets including Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, her "Woo Watch" column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and more. When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured. Follow her on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook.