The gentrification of sharecropping
September 10, 2020 3:47 PM   Subscribe

The NYT publishes a romantic story about a couple escaping to the countryside to start a farm. (alternative link) The excellent Dr. Sarah Taber explains how, by treating it as a design & style story instead of a farming one, they inadvertedly exposed the whole thing as just hipster sharecropping – as shitty and exploitative as it was in the Jim Crow era – and how this is a recurring problem in the "sustainability" movement. As another mefite remarked: Everything “disruptive” is just “how do we undo a century of progress on labor rights.”
posted by Tom-B (56 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
I unabashedly love Dr. Taber's feed. She's so insightful, knows so many random little facts, and is consistently interesting about things I never knew I was curious about.
posted by nevercalm at 3:57 PM on September 10 [13 favorites]

I guess I had no real idea of the economics of Jim Crow style sharecropping. The NYT article made it seem more like they were Jeffersonian gentleman farmers. In any case how is "improving the land" different from improving the company?
posted by geoff. at 4:21 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]

I am a longtime fan of her podcast, Farm to Taber. Every episode is a deep dive into an important issue on agriculture, the economy, sustainability and how they all connect.
posted by seasparrow at 4:26 PM on September 10 [11 favorites]

Wow, that was a really interesting read. I can see this going on around here (California central coast) because of the high cost of land. We urban dwellers benefit greatly from it, because there are large numbers of idealistic young people willing to grow delicious vegetables for not enough money on someone else's land.

The chart showing tenancy rates was particularly revealing. California was worse than everywhere in terms of the ratio of Black to White tenancy rates. California is in so many ways a Southern state, in terms of adopting some of the worst aspects of that region.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 4:26 PM on September 10 [7 favorites]

I don't think you can have "Jeffersonian gentleman farmers" without hidden unpaid labor, unfortunately. Even most family farms that didn't have enslaved or indentured workers relied on large numbers of children who had no hope of enjoying the proceeds in any real way, since the chances for any one of them inheriting the farm was small.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 4:48 PM on September 10 [20 favorites]

In any case how is "improving the land" different from improving the company?

When the company tries to avoid labor law by e.g. treating drivers as independent contractors and paying them by delivery no matter how long the delivery takes, then it's not.

Otherwise, if you're an employee and being paid a wage then of course your employer hopes to make a profit off your labor which exceeds (and sometimes greatly exceeds) what you're being paid. That's capitalism, a system which most voting Americans still seem to believe in.
posted by Slothrup at 4:57 PM on September 10

So, this is indeed very interesting, but I'm trying to read that alternative link and it's really odd. Is it auto-translated or something?

Also, I'm really interested in Dr. Taber (especially after seeing nevercalm's comment above), but she seems to communicate most often in formats that aren't that friendly to me - Twitter and podcasts. Does anyone know of a blog or other outlet she contributes to regularly?

Thanks for posting this, Tom-B - the Threadreader link is really great.
posted by kristi at 5:19 PM on September 10

So ... in looking for more of Dr. Taber's writing, I went ahead and read this other Threadreader thread about rural brain drain ("Spoilers: this thread has SOLUTIONS in it, keep scrolling : ) " ), and that was really great, too.
posted by kristi at 5:32 PM on September 10 [11 favorites]

Not sure why I should care all that much. We're talking about an arrangement the entities mutually agreed to, are we not? As they say, "a fool and his money..." The thread kind of meanders around, and yeah, sure, sharecropping is a pretty crappy way to eke out a living. But who am I to say no to people with the resources and determination to rediscover the math for themselves? And as far as I can tell, there, understandably, really aren't too many people willing to go this route.

I think there's much criticism the "sustainability movement" deserves, some of which seems rooted in romantic notions of farming as a profession, or perhaps vocation. Having good intentions counts for nothing as far as I'm concerned. There's no shortage of people more than willing to declare how the agriculture industry is doing it all wrong, because and article said so or some such thing. More rare is to have someone actually in the business to offer insight into the hows and whys of common practices. Which often makes for a less satisfying narrative.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:40 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]

This sentence from the alternative link is amazing:
"To take that curiosity a step additional, Mr. Kwak, 40, an architect and assistant professor at Farmingdale State School on Lengthy Island, started fantasizing"

Lengthy Island!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:44 PM on September 10 [8 favorites]

Eh, it’s no Foulness Island...
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:02 PM on September 10

Cultivating land you don't own kind of sucks. I've known small scale farmers here in SoCal who have to rent or have weird arrangements because land is so expensive. You lose everything except your reputation and knowledge when a landowner changes their mind. As far as I know, no land owner ever proposes paying for the materials and especially not the labor required to nurse soil to good health.

I appreciate a lot of what Taber does but also find her approach a bit too Slate-esque. Reading that Vox link about imperfect produce and seeing that she is a consultant places that grow indoors/in greenhouses sort of clarified for me why she clearly tends to do "you're wrong abouts" related to traditional outdoor farming.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 6:06 PM on September 10 [8 favorites]

“Following an extensive interview process, they offered the lease to…”

“We put our entire savings — and borrowings — into starting the farm”

Love to see how you’ve got to really want that serfdom more than the other wouldbees.
posted by rodlymight at 6:26 PM on September 10 [10 favorites]

> I appreciate a lot of what Taber does but also find her approach a bit too Slate-esque. Reading that Vox link about imperfect produce and seeing that she is a consultant places that grow indoors/in greenhouses sort of clarified for me why she clearly tends to do "you're wrong abouts" related to traditional outdoor farming.

I listen to her podcast and it's clear that:

- She's also worked as a food safety inspector in outdoor farming, and has good things to say about some farming practices.
- She is equally critical about a lot of indoor farming hype, and basically subscribes to "stick to best practices, don't reinvent the wheel" also there. Example: she comments that greenhouses and growhouses are already mature in the Netherlands, but American companies feel the need to develop new tech they can patent, as they want to sell to indoor farmers, not do indoor farming.

I don't know what you mean by Slate-esque but, in broad strokes, here are her most frequent targets for criticism:
- the negative legacies of slavery and expansion to the West,
- how the mythical "farmer" in scare quotes, the "homesteading family for generations" is a political narrative which poisons policy and understanding of where food comes from and how it's made.
- racism and mistreatment of labor
- the fact that "unskilled labor" isn't, and most white farmers think they're running their farms but they would go under not just immigrant labor, but immigrant expertise in managing crops, etc.

My father farmed at a couple of points in his life, and I frequently learn things from Dr Taber that illuminate aspects of my lived experience, even if her viewpoint is mostly US-centric. I think she's pretty great.
posted by kandinski at 6:43 PM on September 10 [31 favorites]

We're talking about an arrangement the entities mutually agreed to, are we not?
Well, sure, but so was indentured servitude. We need labor laws, enough with labor suggestions.

Yeah, I sorta think they're getting suckered, but that's not mutually exclusive with the tenant-farming-is-a-shit-deal-and-virtually-immoral-just-look-where-it-came-from thesis.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:44 PM on September 10 [26 favorites]

Sometimes I get MeFi whiplash, topics pop up frequently, I think about them as I dig into a thread, and then I forget them for a while, and -- FPP! -- back again.

NYT style pages is one of them.

Dr. Sarah Faber is another. (previously, again, and again)

This intersection of the two has makes me realize, more clearly than ever, which one deserves to be a relegated to 'whiplash' status (sure, I love me some scheadenfraude comments, but...), and which one needs mainline access to my media feeds.

Faber FTW.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 7:02 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]

Nthing that Sarah Taber is brilliant! I want her to write a book so bad.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 7:28 PM on September 10

In any case how is "improving the land" different from improving the company?

Arguably, it isn't, and that is a real problem with capitalism: you work your guts out to make things go better, in your organisation, but the owners get most of the benefit. I think a Marxist would call that alienation of labour.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:46 PM on September 10 [14 favorites]

In any case how is "improving the land" different from improving the company?

I'm pretty sure it's because they don't own the land, so the land isn't part of the business. The land was literally not farmland before them - they had to clear brush and remediate the soil. Now it is farmland. But the business, these two people, can be evicted, and they can't take remediated soil with them. They've made like 100k in capital investments that they literally don't own and can't take with them.

Compare that to normal businesses renting a storefront or an office or lab space.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 8:56 PM on September 10 [11 favorites]

I was raised on a dairy farm. When someone I know knows someone who is beginning a farm or an urban farm my first question is "how hard are they willing to work" and "how long can they last" These answers aren't in the spreadsheets.

Apricot Lane Farms is a good example. They are known via the documentary that they produced "The Biggest Little Farm" On paper it all sounds good (biodynamic farming, etc) until one realizes that there is probably a huge amount of outside investors in this project. It was documented from the get-go, they do rely on "interns" and "volunteers" (which I am guessing leads to a very high turnover) They are currently looking for a "herdsman" (one who essentially manages the herd including breeding and records, minor veterinary issues, animal raising, etc) They are offering an hourly wage for this (absurd) of $18-$23 and hour (insane) And this includes teaching and training apprentices, etc.

So we'll see. Investment requires returns which is always dicey on a farm. There are reasons why small farms in the past had to scale big. It was the only way they could make money and stay in business. Their products are wonderful. I am unsure if their long term success is feasible.

I look forward to reading/listening to Taber and Mocks work. Besides working on the farm I worked several years at Los Angeles farmers markets where and have seen how some have grown into mini-industries.
posted by goalyeehah at 8:58 PM on September 10 [4 favorites]

Nthing that Sarah Taber is brilliant! I want her to write a book so bad.

Super news for you: Book!
posted by purpleclover at 9:23 PM on September 10 [4 favorites]

Great post. That the economics are not talked about is an interesting inisght. My great aunt runs cattle on some land that has been on the family for generations, but from what I understand raising cattle is only paying the property tax. She live on her teachers pension. She is now getting a little old to do all the work, but the econmics/ scale don't allow her to hire someone. So she is going to tey to rent her pasture.

I have some distant cousin who do corn and soy beans on a large scale. Back in the early 90sI was excited to vist and drive a tractor, only to discover that the big equipment was worth hundreds of thousand a dollars and high automated. I was also suprised that the had a satellite internet connection to the Chicago comodities marketplace, and a lot of the farkers work was aparently dealing with comodities contacts.
posted by CostcoCultist at 9:52 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]

My sister married a guy who's a complete and total farm nerd. Like, his joy & his passion is getting up way too early & spending the next twelve hours putting all the plants where they need to be in relation to the ground. Like, the physical weeding conference is the highlight of his year. His parents, a chemist and a social worker from the Chicago suburbs, are quietly, tolerantly mystified by having inexplicably produced such a creature.

Enter my sister, who is persistent & driven, process & marketing-minded, & whose passion is community & feeding all the people always. They spent their early marriage farming for other people, then put everything into a small farm of their own on land they rented from a pick-your-own-strawberries operation. (Which IIRC created some issues due to nitrogen they had to work around? But that's a side drama)

They tried running it as a diversified vegetable CSA in the Wisconsin town my sister & I went to high school in, which is... very white, kind of shitty, a little run-down & methy since one of the two big plants closed. What it had going for it: a small contingent of hippies & Wiccans & foodies centered around the Unitarian church, and most importantly, it wasn't a completely saturated market like Madison & Milwaukee were.

The first few years were all right, then as they hemorrhaged members, it became clear the CSA model in this town with this economy wasn't going to pay the bills, so they expanded the operation to farmers' markets, which added a disproportionate amount of labor but kept the lights on. (People in Brookfield will straight up shiv you over a parking space, incidentally. Milwaukee suburbs are so beautiful in the summer & home to just the worst human beings. But that's another side drama)

They also did home deliveries for a while, to a different wealthy Milwaukee suburb. (I drove the van.) Like the CSA, it went well until it didn't -- there was a handful of rich women who loved the vegetables, loved having them delivered, and would evangelize for us, but ultimately it wasn't enough. (They also tried reaching out to restaurants to contract Indian/Chinese/etc. peppers & things that were hard to get fresh locally; that operation never really got off the ground.)

The strawberry farm stopped renting land to them & they found another situation -- I'm not sure if there are distinctions that make this different from the tenant farming under discussion, but they started renting land from a non-farming couple who owned a large plot of land that they rented to various types of farmers. There was a flower-growing operation, and a permaculture couple who lived biodynamically & shit in a bucket.

The deal came with a shared farmhouse that was too moldy for my sister to be in there more than a few minutes at a time, so she slept in a tent until they were able to have a tiny house built, then she & her husband slept in a loft bed a couple feet away from the ceiling, which would occasionally give him claustrophobia attacks while sleeping & he'd try to punch through the window, but it was an improvement over the tent.

They had a rent-to-own agreement with the husband of the landowning couple for the patch of land they were growing on, across the street from the tiny house and their neighbor's biodynamic shit bucket. Then the couple got into an argument on the farm Slack (another side drama, but a detail I enjoy) and emerged from it wanting a divorce.

The land they were renting to eventually buy? On the wife's side of the parcel. Did she want to take over their agreement? No, she wanted to sell off in bulk for a million dollars, which they definitely did not have.

That was the final nail in the coffin for having their own farm. They'd been optimistically working around bullshit obstacle after bullshit obstacle -- please note that there was no point in this whole debacle where both of them were not working themselves into the ground -- but the prospect of recovering after this one was too much.

(They're okay, my brother-in-law got a job working for a co-op farm that might be similar to the thing Sarah Taber was talking about but then she categorically denied that it was anything anyone reading her tweets could think of so maybe it isn't? My sister got out of farming completely & is grant writing for farmers, which is a fun novel kind of working herself to death, so that's nice.)

Anyway, I don't want to be the yum yucker, but I don't think I like Sarah Taber. Her opinion of why farms fail seems to be "They're not using their VAP grants, they're not being smart, they're not doing their marketing correctly, they're legacy farmers who have no idea wtf they're doing, and they deserve to fail."

When my lived experience is, sometimes you super know what you're doing (you better believe my sister was working those VAP grants) and you fail because you have to construct a niche in capitalism where the free market will allow you to keep existing. If my sister & her husband had their perfect existence, he'd happily get up every day & farm the vegetables, she'd develop an efficient universal distribution system for the vegetables, and bam, people got vegetables.

I do like her point that you're more welcome in a community when you bring jobs, I'd just like to see more of an anti-capitalist focus & less shitting on farmers. (Maybe 99.9% of all farmers are horrible right-wing assholes? But I know a few who are not.)
posted by taquito sunrise at 10:12 PM on September 10 [55 favorites]

Oh wow taquito sunrise.

I knew a pair of farmers who thought they were okay when they were picked to farm on some kind of Farmland Forever rights-protected land, and rolled with having some of the neighbors object to non vegan farming, and then got thrown off for using blue tarps. (By rumor, the land is now used by a fail child of one of the neighbors, who is growing no-till organic native seasonal wildflowers.)
posted by clew at 11:35 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]

The article reads very strangely in places, like it's been auto-translated, so when I saw Ms. Ko's pre-hipster-farming occupation described as 'chief folks officer' I assumed a vagary of the process. But then I looked around the internet, and it is apparently a real thing.

So what on earth is a 'chief folks officer'? Is it someone who encourages the staff by dancing round the office playing the mandolin on Monday mornings?
posted by Cardinal Fang at 11:37 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]

and then got thrown off for using blue tarps
oh my godddddddd
posted by taquito sunrise at 11:55 PM on September 10

Anyway, I don't want to be the yum yucker, but I don't think I like Sarah Taber. Her opinion of why farms fail seems to be "They're not using their VAP grants, they're not being smart, they're not doing their marketing correctly, they're legacy farmers who have no idea wtf they're doing, and they deserve to fail."

My impressions is that Taber's target of scorn are "landowners without qualifications", who fail _despite_ owning the land for all these reasons. The implication for me was always that if you don't own the land, you don't really get a fair shot from the start, so the main take-away for me from reading her is "the wrong people are owning the land".

Like, current landowners should be blamed for their failure, because they could succeed if they were smarter, but since your sister and her husband didn't own the land, that doesn't apply to them. They failed because they didn't own the land, not because they weren't smart enough.
posted by sohalt at 12:19 AM on September 11 [9 favorites]

The alternative link is lovely. "Are you aware I’m a metropolis lady?"
posted by Bektashi at 12:22 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

We're talking about an arrangement the entities mutually agreed to, are we not?

Well, sure, but so was indentured servitude. We need labor laws, enough with labor suggestions.

As far as anyone can tell, these are people with agency. Not helpless victims with no options. I'm not so sure about labor laws that prevent you from doing what you really want to do. Despite Taber's rant, they may be completely happy with the arrangement. Taber actually has no idea how they feel about it all. She, like us, is looking in from the outside and wagging her finger. They don't seem to be stupid people. It's entirely possible they knew exactly what they got into.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:34 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]

Side note: That professional architect designed a really ugly house that looks exactly like all the cookie cutter gentrification houses being built in Atlanta right now.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:02 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

As far as anyone can tell, these are people with agency. Not helpless victims with no options. I'm not so sure about labor laws that prevent you from doing what you really want to do.

I'm not sure if you realize just how much you sound like every evil capitalist of the past several hundred years, but "if they don't like this deal they can just find another one!!" is like, Evil Landlord 101. Turns out, when everyone says "if you don't like it then go somewhere else," all the available options are terrifically exploitative! And that's why we had a whole ass labor movement about it!
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:22 AM on September 11 [57 favorites]

in the ugly food one my quibble is that she seems to be talking solely about big money giant operations with the kind of mega options that being an "economy of scale" allows, all out west somewhere. Whereas I'm in Florida shopping at the tinymart.

The problem with food waste is that there are already all the tools out there to fix it. There are farming grants and loans. There are also tools like marketing cooperatives; farmers can build their own cooperatives to handle marketing on their own terms
hah? they all do seem to write their own website yack and scrawl "goat chops" on their whiteboards and then cross that out when the goat chops all get bought before I get there. So far that is what I'm seeing.

instead of letting brokers

do it all for them. They could also build value-added processing, like packing houses, salsa kitchens, to handle their ugly produce either as individual farms or co-ops, using those grant loan resources.
Aaaahahahaha, they could, could they? I submit that no, unless they're already rich beyond belief, they absolutely are not going to get a loan to build a kitchen. (And who's working in those kitchens? They're already presumably paying workers to plant, tend, and harvest the ugly produce to supply the kitchens? Using I guess more loan money? And now they're paying salsamakers and salsapackers, too? I guess by cooperating with the many brother and sister farms that abound all around in a landscape peppered with gigor corporate cattle operations, phosphate mines, and condominia, hahayeah, the famous smallindependentfarming cooperatives! You can find them at the end of the rainbow surrounded by their pots of leprechaun gold! hahahahahaaaawe'reallgoingtostarve...)

They just ... don’t.
Yeah! No shit they don't! The cottage food laws demand that your salsa kitchen for the salsa that you're selling to the 200+/- people willing to schlep to the county market to buy it every week be up to the standard set by Tostito's and no amount of applying for farmgrants'n'loans will allow for somebody to build a salsa kitchen of the required scrupulosity that would pay for itself and allow them to recover from the enormo-debt they would incur doing that. The one powerhouse farming couple at the market that did run a cottage kitchen so they could sell "value-added" stuff that didn't have "By law you can't eat this! Pet food only! If you eat this you will die!" scrawled all over it, who owned their land and had greenhouses and sold tons of plant starts and probably to boot found ways to exploit everybody who worked for them (they were major Trumpists), who bullied their way into two market stalls for the price of one in the most high-traffic corner of the place still ended up abandoning farming to instead drive corpses around the state because it paid enough to allow them to pay their various mortgages.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:45 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]

Maybe I'm missing something in the article, but I don't see how it is sharecropping. (Tenant farming, yes.) The only financial arrangements mentioned are the apartment rent (supposedly discounted), a free 30-year lease on the farmland, and that all the land improvements are the responsibility of the people leasing the farmland.

I'm not in a position to say exactly how good or bad that arrangement is for the aspirational farmers, but it is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the situation of sharecroppers 80-100 years ago. I agree with Taber that the author of the piece was not in position to ask the most interesting questions, but some of her criticisms seem out of place to me.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:56 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]

Maybe I'm missing something, too. How is it sharecropping if the farmers get free land and don't share the crop, that is, share the proceeds of the crop, with the land owners? Certainly the farmers are at risk of losing their investment in improving the land, but in what circumstance would they have that risk? Maybe if they were rich enough to buy land outright without borrowing, but then wouldn't we be mocking them for being rich trust fund farmer wannabes?
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 7:39 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]

I know people who have small farms, homesteads, hobby farms. They are: (1) a guy who inherited property and hired a farmer to run a CSA there after retiring to the property. (2) A hard working couple who rented on a property for decades before having to move and start over at another similar place. (3) A family that saved up from day jobs, bought several acres of woods, built their own house (and again when it burned down), still have day jobs. (4) A couple that have a couple acres and a mortgage, she keeps a big garden, chicken and pigs and he works in tech full time. I live in a rural area but not the cheapest prices for houses and property. Farther away from civilization it gets a bit more affordable. I also sometimes watch some of the Justin Rhodes circle of YouTube farmers and most of those people are some combination of: bought really affordable land (and live in a pretty affordable region) after working day jobs and saving a lot (and having to do a lot of work on land and buildings), possibly inherited land or bought it from family members for a good deal (Rhodes), or have other sources of income (e.g. YouTube, making products, selling ebooks or whatever, etc.)
posted by thefool at 8:25 AM on September 11

Anyway I hope the folks in the NYT article either eventually buy their land (unlikely) or at least have the wherewithall and time to disassemble and take their buildings and fencing with them when they move. Still will never get the real physical and mental and emotional investments in the property back.

I have several acres and a mortgage and (had) a tech job making good money. Maybe someday I will do more farming type stuff but it takes a lot of energy every day. And I need to go back to work again and pay off this mortgage and fill my retirement account back up. This is hobby farming, and it's one of the only ways to do very small scale farming for yourself.
posted by thefool at 8:29 AM on September 11

The sharecropping part came up more in the Twitter thread than in the article proper (the “joint venture” thing). Renting land for cash and farming on it is tenant farming; paying with a share of the crops is sharecropping.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:38 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]

Her opinion of why farms fail seems to be "They're not using their VAP grants, they're not being smart, they're not doing their marketing correctly, they're legacy farmers who have no idea wtf they're doing, and they deserve to fail."

You could get that impression from a smallish sample of her writing, but as someone who is anti-capitalist and first encountered Taber on an episode of an anti-capitalist podcast (highly recommended), I can confirm that her take on the economics is coming out of a much broader systemic analysis (and not blaming individuals, although she's snarky and it can sound like that). She's not a Marxist because she doesn't think the problem is ultimately just capitalism, but (as she partly explains in the episode) even older economic relations going back to feudalism.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 9:07 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]

There's always been a segment of the bourgeoisie who romanticizes farming and farm life. In ancient Japan the aristocracy often kept "farms" that were showpieces for them to visit and play act like they were farmers. The French aristocracy likewise maintained fake farmhouses and farms where they could go "enjoy the simple life" when things got too stressy being all rich and powerful.

So it doesn't much surprise me that some of the modern American bourgeoisie are getting into the same thing. Hell, Sen Devin Nunez pretends to be a farmer. It's part of that cult of American authenticity so many right wingers get into for him, and part of the cult of naturalist authenticity for the more left leaning rich hippie types.

It's also entirely American that the more aspirational rich rather than actual rich would try to make their play acting as farmers into a money machine and fail miserably losing all their upper middle class to lower upper class money to a predatory upper upper class type person.

For the people like taquito sunrise's family who actually want to farm and do a good job of it but are ground down by capitalism and the fact that basically all the farms are already owned by megacorps, I've got sympathy. For the bourgeoisie who want to play farmer and get skinned by a bigger predatory capitalist than they are I've got the Nelson laugh.
posted by sotonohito at 9:53 AM on September 11 [7 favorites]

The people who believe in "doing what you love" and "passion" are often taken advantage of by the much more numerous, but much quieter "make money, but preferably with someone else's labor" segment of the population. Never forget if you're an owner or an employee.
posted by meowzilla at 11:37 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]

The bourgeoisie playing farmer are not the only problem here, I think, and neither are the megacorps. My dad grew up on a farm five minutes from where we live now. His brother took over the farm, and they've always been very close. (My uncle is not one of the failsons the rest of this comment will be about). We're not in the USA, but reading Dr. Taber, I still often find her analysis applies.

The thing is, the farmers where I live, those are mostly what Taber would call legacy farmers - families who've been at this for generations. They're not at all owned by megacorps. And they're mostly doing not too shabbily, as far as I can tell, which is, actually not at all - because it's really difficult for an outsider like me to assess which of these farms still work as a viable business, and which of these families are actually living off real estate deals. It's a matter of heated debate around here. There are some heuristics the "real" farmers use (used to use) to distinguish themselves, and they're all about owning the land - the farm has to sustain the land, not the land the farm; you only ever _trade_ land for land, you never actually _sell_ it; if you need more cash in a pinch, you take on a second job.

But that's the theory, the practice can be quite different. In fact, farmers here have been selling quite a bit of land, and they've been doing that for some generations too. The stories my dad tells of squandered fortunes, when he gives me a tour of the area! That thing Taber criticizes, where farmers misinvest in expensive toys like the newest tractor, when there would be more urgent investments in other areas - my dad could name a number of failsons in his personal acquaintance who were quite susceptible to that. But they just sell off another piece of land, and that apparently works for quite a while - if you, at some point, owned enough land to start with. But farming is a tricky business, and you aren't automatically cut out for it, just because you were born to farmers. Being born to farmers, however is one of the key requirements for owning enough land to have the required margin of error. And that's were the mismatch comes in.
posted by sohalt at 11:50 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]

I did a soil science course in California, with several classes joint between several UC campuses including Davis so I had a lot of children-of-CA-farmer classmates, and definitely what sohalt describes applies there. The "last crop" of suburbia pays a lot. This despite my classmates being by definition a next generation interested in farming, which not all farm families have. Oh, they were torn singly and severally between defending farming practices against criticism and wanting to learn the new stuff so they could run the farms more safely, it was emotionally fascinating and really complicated. The runoff, etc of one farm can be a hell of a problem for the next, which farmers generically didn't seem to have a theory of -- they're used to arguing that food production requires and justifies runoff, but if one farm's runoff is damaging food production on the next, ?? (This is where we get to Systemic Solutions Required, e.g. in Taber on phosphorus.)
posted by clew at 12:09 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]

I don't really get the hate for this piece and these landlords. The renters have a 30-year free lease, and what the article claims is below-market rent for the area for their apartment. It is true that they appear to have sunk a bunch of money into land that they do not own, but if they were starting a restaurant or some other type of small business, they'd likely have to do the same thing. It might well be a stupid idea for them financially, but they seem like the kind of people (well-educated, with some experience working in agriculture) who are making an informed calculation about the financial risks versus the potential upside, financial, sustainable, and otherwise.

Comparing this directly to sharecropping, where less-educated people were forced into exploitative situations because they needed to feed their families feels a little extreme.
posted by Aizkolari at 12:22 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]

Somewhat relevant: the Land Act of 1881, which involved distinguishing between the capacity of the land and the improvements made by a tenant in setting (in courts) a fair rent.
posted by clew at 12:39 PM on September 11

Seconding Aizkolari, if that's a really solid free lease on the farmland for 30 years, that is MUCH more security than sharecropping and other tenant farming had. It could be worth more than the improvements they're putting in. I think that's the linchpin justice arguments turn on for this case. Is it a blue-tarp lease? Or a real one?
posted by clew at 1:07 PM on September 11

I'd have to read the article again, but I don't think there is any mention of whether or not the tenants share crop profits.

I'm curious to know the terms of the 30 year lease, especially what happens if the land owners decide to sell before the lease it up.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 4:19 PM on September 11

and then got thrown off for using blue tarps

I'm sure I'm missing something, but can you explain this a little?
posted by kdar at 4:21 PM on September 11

Not sure if this is the reason, but some people find blue tarps trashy. I've had (housing) landlords specifically say they cannot be visible.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:00 PM on September 11

California is in so many ways part of the United States, in terms of adopting some of the worst aspects of that region.
posted by Maxwell's demon at

posted by eustatic at 8:20 AM on September 12


Dr Sarah Taber
BTW, Jim Crow sharecropping wasn't "a Southern thing." It was a nationwide system.

Here's a tenant in 1936 Iowa, moving their portable shack to the next farm. Tenancy is a trap bc the work you do to improve land belongs to the landlord.

posted by eustatic at 8:22 AM on September 12

I'd have to read the article again, but I don't think there is any mention of whether or not the tenants share crop profits.

Not sure where rent would come from except from crop profits.

And of course rent is a pass through of property tax. So I've never really understood the point of having an owner of property doing the job of, uh, owning it and nothing else. But it's a slightly different or more exaggerated thing in the case of farming because the land itself is capital equipment.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 10:34 AM on September 12

Taber's comments about sharecropping aren't connected to the NYT article, it's a situation she relates to make the point that sharecropping is still practiced, which may be news to her readers.

She does. Not. Suggest that the situation in the NYT equals sharecropping. She suggests that it's on a spectrum of exploitation, a spectrum which includes sharecropping.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:36 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

Blue-tarp lease: the farmers I was talking to who had lost their lease *definitely* believed it was because the complainer thought blue tarps, any plastic tarps, looked unattractive. They might have been formally objected to as non-recyclable. I cannot remember, and am really curious in hindsight -- was this kind of objection written into the definition of farmland? Why did the neighbors have standing? It's very possible that the protected farmland was meant as grace-and-favor land plus an aesthetic buffer with tax benefits for the neighbors. It's also possible they got public money to pay for all that -- the farmers only talked to me after I expressed my cynicism about the place this happened in.

When you have that kind of arrangement, the farmers have to pass aesthetically too, which is a hell of a filter on looks and class and race and not being some bring-down like a single mother on her third career. It's not totally unlike being a vanlife star, come to think of it. So -- to get back to the NYT article -- if the tenant farmers' lease is sound enough, it's not an injustice to them, it's an injustice to people who would have been better farmers but are less appealing as neighbors of bobos. The relevant novel is Valley of the Moon, not The Grapes of Wrath.
posted by clew at 2:13 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

California is in so many ways part of the United States, in terms of adopting some of the worst aspects of that region.
posted by Maxwell's demon at


Yeah, I wasn't trying to imply that creating and exploiting a class of people by land-owning elite was a uniquely Southern thing in this country, but you have to admit it was carried to quite an extreme there. California is similar, in that most of the productive land has been in a small number of hands for generations, and has mostly been worked by people whose path to becoming part of the landowning class is pretty much nonexistent.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 2:05 PM on September 16

kristi asked:
Also, I'm really interested in Dr. Taber (especially after seeing nevercalm's comment above), but she seems to communicate most often in formats that aren't that friendly to me - Twitter and podcasts. Does anyone know of a blog or other outlet she contributes to regularly?
A couple years ago I made a FPP collecting links to a bunch of her writing, mostly on Twitter but also some articles in the "Additional recordings and articles" section at the end.

As purpleclover mentioned - she is writing a book! I have seen the title referred to as "Root Causes" (although that may have been a working title). She got the book deal in March 2019 and the plan is for the book to be published in 2021 by Metropolitan Books (part of Henry Holt and Company, which is part of Macmillan).
posted by brainwane at 3:17 AM on September 27

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