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New Agrarians: Local Innovators

“New Agrarians: Local Innovators” was written in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Wendell Berry’s classic work, The Unsettling of America. It is one of a series of essays in the new book The Essential Agrarian Reader: Cultivating Culture, Community, and the Land, edited by Norman Wirzba and published by the University of Kentucky Press, 2003.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America presents an opportunity to consider the nature and promise of Agrarianism in these changing times.

The events of September 2001 have helped end the lingering enchantment with the monoculture of the global economy. The consequences of our dependence on the products of a relatively few international corporations are now more visible, including the concentration of ownership of the means of production The consumption patterns of a small number of countries account for most of the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources. Environmental degradation occurs out of sight of the end consumer, and so the responsibility for restoration goes unheeded.

Instead of addressing the conditions of poverty, the global economy has only exaggerated the intolerable discrepancies in income and distribution of goods around the world. The poor are even further impoverished when, following the promise of available jobs, they are enticed into the enclosed compounds of corporate factories with the accompanying loss of the social fabric that had nourished them. The cultural life and traditional skills of the village are left behind—skills that if cultivated could provide the basis for a richer local economy in which the production of the basic necessities of food, clothing, energy, and shelter could better be met. These glaring discrepancies breed resentments and hostilities, creating volatile conditions that are used to justify increasingly powerful and dangerous forces of repression.

But quietly and surely around the world, new attention is being focused on the renewal of village economies. In village after village, leaders are appearing whose roots run deep in their local community. They do not need outside consultants to show them the natural riches and human skills available to shape new patterns of local production and local trade. They are using their imagination to craft new local institutions to support this renewal. It is these villagers, both rural and urban, who are the new Agrarians, creating the basis for a new peace while champions of the global economy are risking the lives of us all by fostering the conditions for a new war.

What are the characteristics of these new Agrarians and their village economies? In his book Why the Village Movement? Gandhian economist J. C. Kumarappa addresses the women of the villages with these thoughts:

You, my sisters, perhaps it is your husbands who earn the money for your family, but it is you who are determining how that money is spent; in so doing you are deciding the fate of your village. You may choose to buy the beautiful silk made in France or Belgium, or you may choose the khadi cloth made by your sister and your neighbor. When you choose the khadi cloth, you are investing in more than cloth—you are investing in your neighbor, her children, and your village. As you watch the children walking to school in the morning, fed by the earnings of their mother, you realize that you and they are woven together through the cloth. You and your village are richer in proportion to the number of stories that unite you.

Across North America, in region after region, citizens are banding together in their role as consumers to work with producers, sharing the risk of production costs in order to help shape the kind of vital local economy that incorporates social and ecological objectives. I believe that the future of Agrarianism lies with these regionally based producer/consumer associations.

In 1986 in my own Jug End Road neighborhood of the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts, Robyn Van En founded the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in the United States at her Indian Line Farm. In a CSA, consumers guarantee the yearly production costs of the farmer through a shareholder fee. Working in collaboration with shareholders, the farmer determines an annual operating budget. Ideally, the budget is then divided by the number of shareholders to determine the cost per share. CSA members pay in advance so that funds are available to the farmer during the growing season. In return they receive a weekly share of the harvest and the security of a local source of organically raised vegetables. Because of Robyn’s initiative there are now over a thousand CSA farms around the country.

CSAs provide an excellent model for consumers sharing the risk of yearly production costs with the farmer. Yet the question remains: how can young farmers gain affordable access to land in the first place? Again Indian Line Farm provided a model. When Robyn’s farm came up for sale following her untimely death in 1997, the sale price was too high for entering farmers. A farm income alone could not carry mortgage payments and still maintain responsible farm practices.

It was the cost of the land that put purchase price out of reach. This problem is typical of regions close to urban areas or deemed valuable for vacation homes. The market value of the land reflects the demand for house sites, frequently second-home sites, rather than the social benefit of maintaining a local farm. High purchase costs of the land and the pressure of mortgage payments on that purchase can drive a farmer to employ unwise farm practices and production methods beyond what is ecologically suitable for the land. If the citizens of the Southern Berkshires wanted Indian Line to remain an active farm producing vegetables for local sale, they would have to partner with the farmer to purchase the farm.

The community, working through the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires and The Berkshire Taconic Landscape Program of The Nature Conservancy, made a one-time donation to purchase the land. The Community Land Trust holds title to the land, and The Nature Conservancy holds a conservation restriction. This has enabled two young farmers, Elizabeth Keen and Alexander Thorp, to purchase the buildings and enter into a ninety-nine-year lease on the land, the use of which is determined by a detailed land use plan.

The individuals who donated to the project needed the incentive of knowing that the Community Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy would not be coming back next year to the donors to refinance the same farm—that this one donation would keep the farm actively farmed and affordable for future farmers. Ownership, after all, is only a bundle of rights. It was simply a question of what rights the donors, working through the two non-profits, wanted to retain in return for their role in purchasing the land; put another way, how many rights would the farmers require to preserve the incentive to farm with all their heart and strength?

The Nature Conservancy used the legal tool of a conservation restriction to protect the ecological quality of the land for future generations. The Community Land Trust used the legal tool of a lease to ensure that community objectives are maintained. The lease has the following requirements:

  • The buildings are to remain owner occupied. They cannot become rental property or vacation homes for city people.
  • The land must in fact be farmed. The lease requires a minimum yearly commercial crop production over and above household use; however, the lease does not specify what kind of crops should be grown. This is the private affair of the farmer, based on his/her evaluation of local markets.
  • At resale the buildings must remain affordable to the next farmer. The lease requires the leaseholder to offer all buildings and other improvements back to the community land trust for resale. The price can be no more than the current replacement cost of the buildings, adjusted for deterioration.
  • The farmer is to employ organic practices and meet the conditions of a land use plan developed to respect the specific ecology of the site.

All other ownership rights belong to the farmer, including the ability to pass on the farm to heirs through the transfer of the lease.

The lease arrangement does not guarantee that the farmer will farm well. Such skills are cultural and acquired over many years; however, by taking away the burden of land debt, the community land trust does give farmers the opportunity to ply their craft under more favorable circumstances. As land prices continue to rise in regions surrounding cities, it will be ever more important for citizens to utilize such enabling methods to ensure a local food supply.

The basic achievement of the community land trust legal documentation is to separate the value of the land from the value of buildings and other improvements on the land (fences, soil fertility, perennial stock, etc.). Land, a limited natural resource, is removed from the market and held in trust by the democratically structured, regional non-profit. The value created from labor applied to the land (agricultural crops, buildings, etc.) is securely the private equity of the person creating the value (the farmer) and is exchangeable in the marketplace.

The private, non-profit community land trust is thus a flexible tool for a community to determine its own goals for land use and distribution. As a result of the success of the Indian Line Farm model, several conservation land trusts in the Berkshires and nearby Connecticut are in the process of initiating their own community land trusts in order to have a complex of legal tools at hand with which to protect not only open farmland but the affordability of homes and farm buildings for the future farmers working the land.

Affordable access to land for homes, small businesses, and local production is key to vibrant local economies. During the next two decades we will see community activists ever more engaged in land reform issues. One important model for this reform is the work of Vinoba Bhave, the trusted associate of Gandhi. In the 1950s Vinoba walked from village to village in India seeking a way to alleviate the widening social disparities he saw. Wherever he went, crowds gathered to listen to their beloved spiritual leader. Vinoba asked boldly, “Those of you with more land than you need, would you not give your excess to my brothers and sisters who have no land to build their homes or cultivate their crops?” Moved by the man and his appeal, wealthy villagers deeded their land to Vinoba so that he could reconvey it to the landless.

In this way the Bhoodan, or Land Gift, movement was born. But soon Vinoba saw that the poor, who did not have the money to buy tools to work the land and seeds to sow it, simply sold the land back to the wealthy. They then wandered into the even greater poverty of the cities; therefore, Vinoba changed the Bhoodan movement to the Gramdan, or Village Gift, movement. The land was given to the village, and villagers were given use rights. They were not tempted to trade the land for quick money. If they left the land, it was redistributed to those who could use it.

The Gramdan movement was introduced to this country by Robert Swann, founding President of the Schumacher Center. A carpenter by trade, he used his skills during the civil rights movement of the 1960s to help rebuild bombed churches in the rural South. There he met Slater King, president of the Albany Movement in Georgia, and other civil rights leaders. From them he learned that African-Americans were being prevented from gaining access to land. It was a pressing problem that fueled the civil unrest.

Bob worked with Slater King to adopt Vinoba’s model. New Communities in rural Georgia was the first community land trust in North America, formed to provide access to land for African-American farmers. There are now more than one hundred community land trusts around the United States in both urban and rural communities—started by church groups, community development corporations, concerned citizens, conservation groups, and state agencies. As each new initiative breaks ground in its region, develops a land use plan, provides a lease, and secures a mortgage, the understanding that there are alternatives to private land tenure grows.

The Agrarian writers of the 1930s as represented by the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, considered private land ownership a cornerstone of their policies. They wished for a society characterized by a widespread distribution of usable property. But the exchange of land, a limited resource, in the marketplace has led inevitably to speculation in land and the resulting accumulation of large holdings in fewer and fewer hands. I would argue that the community land trust model offers greater opportunity to achieve the Agrarian vision of small landholders beholden only to the soil and the community surrounding it. A community land trust is a non-governmental, citizen-based approach to achieving this vision. It uses the resources and good will of the local community to gather parcels of land held in private ownership and transfer them into public trust. Applying these village-based economic tools successfully will demand our finest skills as human beings. It will require imagination, local knowledge, entrepreneurship, a long-term commitment to place, and strong working relationships with others—all characteristics of new Agrarians.

In many ways it is easy for us to become passive consumers of the products of global corporations, in part because the manufacturing process is invisible. Creating vital local economies requires our active engagement and tests our convictions. A community land trust is not a government tool for reallocating land, it is a citizen-based tool. But it is only as effective as the will of residents of a region to become involved in the process. It requires looking beyond home economics to community economics and understanding that the health of the community is part and parcel of our own health and vibrancy—a vision Wendell Berry so beautifully articulated in The Unsettling of America.

Broad-based democratic access to land is only one aspect of an agrarian economy. A credit system that favors small locally owned businesses is also essential. The Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy (SHARE) in my home region of the Berkshires provides a model for consumers to share the risk in the start-up costs of small businesses. The objective of SHARE is to make productive loans to people who are unable to secure normal bank financing but who have the kind of small, locally owned enterprises that produce quality goods and services for local consumption. SHARE members open savings accounts at a local participating bank, and these accounts are used by SHARE to collateralize loans. This kind of lending requires that the community separate the functions of banking: the bank makes the loans and handles the accounting, but the lending decisions—based on a set of social, ecological, and financial criteria established by SHARE—are made by the community of depositors.

SHARE has collateralized loans to a goat-cheese producer for the stainless steel equipment in the milking room, to a home knitter for a bulk supply of yarn, to the owner of a working draft-horse team for materials for a barn, to a kite maker for a quantity of waterproof fabric, and to a music teacher for a piano. The payback record on SHARE-collateralized loans has been 100 per cent, both because of their scale and because of community support for the loan recipients. SHARE members help maintain this perfect record by recommending these small businesses to their friends.

The SHARE loan-collateralization program is simple to operate and easily copied. Similar programs have started around the United States, using the model created in the Berkshires. It is the “grandmother principal” which has made SHARE a success. When people without credit histories decide to go into business, they frequently turn to a family member, such as a grandmother, for help. Instead of lending directly, the grandmother might offer a savings account as collateral for a bank loan. The SHARE program simply extends “the circle of grandmothers,” creating a family based on place.

In Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank, a widely replicated model for making small loans. Borrowers come as a group to the bank, agreeing to share financial responsibility. The bank makes only one loan at a time to a member of the group. The unwritten social contract among neighbors, rather than a formal bank contract, helps ensure the loan’s repayment. Both SHARE and the Grameen Bank depend on the availability of savings deposits—the excess funds of others—to make their loans. This dependence is a limitation. In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the regional planner Jane Jacobs offers another approach: she describes local currency as an elegant tool for providing credit for regional businesses.

Jacobs views the economy of a region as a living entity in the process of expanding and contracting, with a local currency as the appropriate regulator of this ebbing and flowing. She advocates the creation of import-replacement businesses so that the goods and services consumed in that region are produced there. Local currencies can be placed in circulation through the making of productive loans. Productive loans are those resulting in new goods available in the economy in excess of the value of the loan itself, such as loans to a farmer for seeds in the spring that generate a bountiful crop of fall vegetables. The interest rate on loans made through the issue of local currency can be as little as zero per cent because the issuing community is not paying interest to a group of depositors such as in the SHARE program. Reducing financing charges encourages the development of small local manufacturing enterprises or renewable-energy generating plants that currently are not economically competitive. Eventually a community-based organization issuing local currency could untie its currency from the federal dollar, establishing a local backing such as cordwood or a basket of commodities—corn, soy beans, and wheat, for instance. Then currency would retain a constant local value related to a natural resource and would make visible once again the connection between the health of a local economy and the health of the land.

There are currently twenty-one communities in the United States and Canada experimenting with local issue of currency, and the movement is growing as so-called developing countries learn that they do not need to borrow from the International Monetary Fund to generate local businesses. They are freeing themselves from the global economy to focus on their local economies.

We can start the process in very small ways. Deli Dollars, issued in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1989, were a way for customers of a local restaurant to support a popular business as it prepared to move to a new location. Consumers purchased Deli Dollars for eight dollars each and then, after the move was complete, cashed them in for ten dollars’ worth of sandwiches and coffee. The Deli Dollars were dated over a year’s time to spread out the redemption period. This local scrip, which was transferable, turned up around town, including in the collection plate of the Congregational Church because the parishioners knew that Pastor Van ate breakfast at the Deli.

The concept of these local economic tools is simple: by sharing in the risk of production and acting creatively, consumers can ensure that local businesses remain and thrive in their communities.

As we work in our own communities to bring about healthy regional economies, we are not working as isolationists, securing only our own future and our families’ futures, but rather we are working in solidarity with villagers around the world who are seeking ways to revitalize their own economies. It is important to share the stories of our successes. A vigorous local economy for the Buryats in the Olkhon region on the western shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia, for example, will certainly look different from a more self-sufficient Kentucky Bluegrass economy, but it will grow out of the same love of place and community.

The publication of The Unsettling of America awoke us to the crisis in our rural communities. Wendell Berrry described how the loss of a way of life rooted in agricultural traditions led inevitably to cultural loss, multi-dimensional in its effect. Yet The Unsettling of America is more than a series of astute observations on the loss of rural life; it is at the same time a statement of active love for the observed. This is characteristic of all of Wendell Berry’s work and defines his greatness: embedded in his observations is the moral imperative to defend what is being lost. The Unsettling of America leads us to seek an authentic resettlement and re-inhabitation of the place we call home.

In The Unsettling of America and the stories, essays, and poems which followed it, Wendell Berry speaks from his particular experiences with the people, land, and community of Henry County, Kentucky. His writing helped spark a new generation of writers who—instead of leaving their homes to find their literary voices as expatriates in European capitals—returned to their roots, their birth cultures, to explore the process of repatriation. In telling well the story of each particular community, this new generation of writers is helping to give voice to those hundred thousand villagers in thousands of villages around the world. It is these villagers, both rural and urban, who are defining a new Agrarianism as they learn through trial and error to shape their local economies and communities. In this work they are building the basis for a new peace. Let us celebrate them and join with them as responsible citizens working creatively with local producers to fashion the future of our own neighborhoods and regions.


Publication By

Susan Witt

Susan Witt is the Executive Director of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which she co-founded with Robert Swann in 1980. She has led the development of the Schumacher Center’s highly regarded publications, library, seminars, and other educational programs, which established the Center as a pioneering voice for an economics shaped by social and ecological principles. Deeply engaged … Continued

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