The following is from Jean Toomers poem “Harvest Song”:
I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All of my oats are cradled.
But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger.
I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.
I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger.
These two stanzas speak with accuracy to the history of farming in this country on a number of levels. More immediately, though, I have been thinking about the hard task of working the land, and thought the lamentations of Toomer’s imagined reaper conveys the drudgery inherent to agricultural labor.
Last weekend I was bone tired. I slept excessively, my neck and back were sore, and I went about about chores with a longing for the next opportunity to sit down and rest. At first I was worried that I had contracted a tick-borne illness. But when my energy returned and my neck muscles relaxed after a stretch of languid non-activity, I realized that perhaps my body was only adjusting to and expelling three weeks of exhaustion from the constant, repetitive physical motions of farming. Granted, unlike the rest of the Sylvester Manor farm crew members, I only work in the field three days a week, with the rest of my time going to to my research and writing for this project. But as an individual with a chronic health condition, I have to contend with a different set of challenges when I am in the field.
Yet I have voluntarily taken on the responsibility of working as a member of the farm crew, while for the vast majority of farm laborers in the world right now and throughout human history, agriculture has been anything but voluntary. In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott distills the findings of the last 20 years of neolithic archaeology to demonstrate that human societies’ transitions to decidedly sedentary, agricultural means of organization was almost always accompanied by the coercive powers of a centralized state. Intensive fixed-field agriculture devoted to the production of one or two cereal grains – the type first practiced by the kingdoms of Mesopotamia – was associated with shorter life expectancies and lower overall health, greater inputs of intensive labor, and less individual agency than the diversified pastoralist-horticulturalist-hunter gatherer lifestyles of the region’s pre-state populations. Moreover, it is generally recognized among researchers that the latter lifestyle yields a greater caloric return upon energy invested than the former agricultural lifestyle, regardless of what region of the world one is examining. With this historical background in mind, it is little wonder that from its inception in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain until well into the 19th century, the modern agricultural state has leaned heavily on the sweat of slave labor.
My point here is that when we lionize farming and a “return to the land,” even in the context of small-scale organic agriculture, we must do so while being mindful of what exactly we would like to return to. The Jean Toomer poem I quote at the beginning of this piece was written in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement born out of the cosmopolitan centers of New York and Chicago at a time when whole communities of African Americans were leaving behind the impoverishment and state-sanctioned tyranny of the rural South. Toomer himself never worked in agriculture, but wrote ‘Harvest Song” in an attempt to capture the body- and spirit-crushing work of farming to which his enslaved African ancestors were bonded. Toomer is in fact writing about spiritual disenfranchisement, and nothing denies the humanity of an individual quite like staring down a chattel worker in a mono-cropped field and working him or her like a common beast.
The uncomfortable questions raised by the toil of agriculture extend beyond the slavery of yore. Today hundreds of millions of rural farmers in China and India are abandoning the countryside en masse in an attempt to elbow their way into the middle class, while farmers from Vietnam and Bangladesh to France and the United States are grappling with unprecedented rates of suicide. There are uniquely modern factors involved in this agricultural crisis: the demands of a globalized economy and social isolation, to name a few. Yet these unique 21st century challenges are only additional to age-old problems that have bedeviled farmers since the palace officials of Akkad and Shang Dynasty China established the world’s first state granaries. As Dr. Mike Rosmann writes in the journal Behavioral Healthcare, “Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers.” In an increasingly complex world where ever greater portions of our lives seem to be at the mercy of opaque bureaucracies and computer generated algorithms, we can’t blame the millions of used-to-be-farmers who have given up a way of life that is so thoroughly shaped by outside influences.
When we bemoan the emptying out of rural communities, we need to be clear-eyed about the drudgery inherent to agricultural life in many parts of the world. So, when small community efforts and organizations like Sylvester Manor Educational Farm set out to revive rural economies and ways of life, it is paramount to determine what was missing in the past. With that question answered, a life based on farming and that beloved character of “closeness to the land” can be reoriented around joy, justice, inclusion, and nourishment of both body and the soul.