Food and Community

Aug 16, 2013

In July, NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported on the Farm Bill. Legislators failed to pass the bill before vacation, which angered farmers who sell food locally. The bill contains the “Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act.” This act marks an important policy shift to promote local foods. Supporters argue that locally grown foods are healthier and better for the environment. Less discussed is the importance of local food and farming for building community and strengthening democracy. In the aggressive quest to increase production and lower cost, US agriculture has forgotten the social and political roles that agriculture plays in creating a good society.

The local food movement can be seen as a development of a political philosophy with a long tradition, agrarianism. Thomas Jefferson famously championed agrarianism. Agrarians, like Jefferson, emphasize the value of local farm and ranch life for developing citizens who can make strong contributions to a healthy democracy. The “[new] agrarians stress the importance of living as much as we can within local economies, economies that keep the loop between production and consumption as small as possible.” The local food movement cannot be easily dismissed as a fad, something for neo-hippies and well-heeled shoppers. Paul Thompson notes: “The ideal of a local food community is a very new kind of agrarian ideal… [one that] orients hope toward the sustainability of the soil, the earth, that binds our practices together.” Local foods and farming can contribute to creating sustainable agricultural systems and a strong democracy.

There has always been a tension in American life between the individual and the community. Communitarianism is a school of philosophy that focuses on the importance of community to moral and civic life. Communitarians criticize individualism for elevating the freedom of personal choice to the highest good. This over emphasis on personal choice, they say, leads to selfishness, fragmentation and isolation. The philosopher, Michael Walzer identifies geographical and social mobility, which are sanctioned by individualism, as contributing to the loss of community. The new agrarianism is in part a response to these trends.

More people are choosing to move from place to place during their lives. As a consequence, they are less likely to identify with a particular place as their home or community. This leads to a loss of sense of place, which in turn can lead to a loss of sense of community. Communities are often geographically and ecologically located. A particular landscape can be a key factor in creating a person’s identity. The geography of Montana helps create Montanans.

The agrarian writer, Wendell Berry, comments:  “community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.” Farmers and ranchers cannot move around a lot. They must invest their labor in the land for the long term to be successful. This commitment to a specific place creates citizens who see their self-interest as being tied to the health of the local ecology, economy and community.

For those who have been denied social mobility, liberal individualistic philosophy has been a great ally. However, increased social mobility does have trade-offs. Rural agricultural communities are aging and in decline. Many children are choosing not to stay on the farm to continue the family business and to contribute to the local culture. The passing on of vocations and customary ways from parents and the larger community to children can be important for creating a rich moral and political identity.

Further, when the family farm is passed between generations there is continuity. In agrarian thought, this continuity gives rise to virtues that sustain the community and keep the land healthy. These virtues are lost when young people no longer see life on the farm or ranch as economically viable and personally enriching.

While the philosophy of liberal individualism should be embraced for helping free people from oppressive social and political structures, it is a mixed blessing. There is a palpable “underside of sadness and discontent” that accompanies the loss of community. Food and agricultural policies may be a place where the government has an interest in favoring polices that help build new kinds of communities through local foods.

Food and farming provide a natural focus for bringing people together and strengthening the bonds of family and community. One need only think of the dinner table, family celebrations, harvest festivals, farmers markets, and the like, to realize the role that food can and does play in building community. New agrarianism and the local food movement should be seen as a corrective to the excesses of individualism. It seems wise for the Farm Bill to finally turn its attention to supporting local farms, food and jobs. US agricultural policy needs to remember the important social and political roles food and farming can play in creating a good society.