by Jon Magee
“When are you going to start your own farm?” For young farmers, the issue of farm ownership is a loaded one. We hear that more of us are needed to take over from retiring farmers, and many of us long for the independence and status that ownership confers. In the current back-to-the-land movement, we have an informal map toward ownership: from humble beginnings as an apprentice, to middle management, to full management, and finally to ownership. By this path we supposedly become established and achieve independence, the way our forebears did before us.
This career path hearkens back to the ‘agricultural ladder,’ a framework that gained currency around 1920 and shaped debates on farm tenure until 1950 or so. First proposed by R.T. Ely, the ladder laid out a bright future for the hard-working farmer, rising naturally from unpaid family labor to wage work as a field-hand, to tenancy, and finally to full ownership of a farm enterprise. This career path lined up perfectly with the Jeffersonian Creed, which honored the free and independent yeoman farmer as the ideal citizen. According to the ladder scheme, if a laborer was diligent and industrious, he would attain that final, noble state.
Today many non-profit and governmental organizations are once again devoting significant attention to connecting younger farmers with ownership opportunities, to ease the looming retirement of half of America’s farmers. With that effort in mind, we would do well to revisit the agricultural ladder as it was theorized back in the last century, particularly because the model was a resounding failure—both in its attempt to describe tenure patterns and in its prescriptions for policy.
Looking back at the period since 1900, “hard work and frugality on the part of the rural landless in the United States did not, by and large, result in upward tenure mobility.” Despite our national affection for personal advancement, there was little opportunity for non-owners to improve their lot: workers faced an entrenched class of landowners, low wages, limited access to capital, and a market and government hostile to the small-scale farm. Yet, contrary to the mounting evidence that class mobility was insignificant at best, the idea of the ladder persisted.
For the ladder extended the life of the Jeffersonian creed which exalted agrarian virtue and dispersed private property as the underpinnings of democracy…in a period when agrarian dissatisfaction was turning increasingly radical. (ibid.)
The effect of the ladder was to pacify workers and drive them to greater diligence, while implying the inferiority or laziness of those workers who couldn’t reach the ladder’s top rung. The class structure of rural America had become rigid, but to admit as much seemed to be admitting the failure of our ideals. At a time when many farmers were being driven out of agriculture for lack of livelihood, the agricultural ladder served as a smokescreen for an agrarian transformation, a daydream for bureaucrats and commentators, and an empty promise to generations of rural people.
Many of us who have moved through the ranks of farmworkers and apprentices can still feel the boundaries of this silent class struggle, and even today it feels terribly impolite to speak of it. This has been a learning experience for those of us from urban, middle-class backgrounds. Part of the excitement behind the back-to-the-land movement is the thrill of jumping between worlds: if we can take an airplane between continents, surely we can move out of the city and become a farmer, right? This presumed mobility speaks to the privilege of our position—though we may move in circles where college degrees, social advancement, and a family safety net are commonplace, most people in the world do not have these advantages. The reality of class is more complicated, and most of the world’s people have limited mobility and options for advancement. To paraphrase Alessandro Portelli, the more that our society assumes total mobility, the less we are able to see the real barriers that exist.
Even today the promise of the ladder suggests endless opportunity, but experience suggests otherwise: few people in the back-to-the-land movement have the resources or connections to establish their own farms, while the rest struggle to find steady work. This is not for lack of effort on the part of the newcomers.
Neither is life so simple for those farmers still-on-the-land: some landowners and businesspeople have weathered the storms of foreclosure, consolidation, and encroaching development and come out prosperous, while contract farmers labor in peonage to distributors and meatpackers, and hosts of marginalized farmworkers escape notice. Retirees, landlords, developers, and investment funds all buy up farmland to rent or hold. Yet we cannot forget those no-longer-on-the-land, the many farmers, tenants, workers, and their families who lost their livelihoods, quietly left their homes, and sought refuge in cities. By and large, this last group have been excluded from debates around agriculture just as they’ve been excluded from farming itself; and given how many millions of people have been forced out of the countryside since the founding of our nation, their unexplained absence points to a gaping hole in our understanding of recent history.
Unsurprisingly, most public commentators failed to account for those who were not climbing upward, since the ladder model was just another formulation of an ideology with much deeper roots. Thomas Jefferson was one in a long line of thinkers extolling private property and personal industry, stretching back to Martin Luther and John Locke. These intellectuals—and they are legion—left an indelible mark on modern religion, economics, law, and government. It’s little surprise, then, that talk of personal success and property slips easily into moralizing and judgment. During the 1930s tenant crisis, for example, government committees concluded that farm ownership, as opposed to renting or wage labor, was “definitely related to character and patriotism. It is conducive to high character and good citizenship.” In this commonly-held view, ownership and economic success are signs of virtue, while poverty and failure are shameful by implication. The dark underside of this ideology has often been aired by the politicians, businessmen, and commentators who felt “that poverty was the result of shiftlessness and incompetence,” who had “no confidence at all in any scheme to cure these faults of character.”
Claims of “character and patriotism,” when uttered by politicians, are often mere pandering to moneyed and propertied interests. However, these ideas are not voiced strictly by our public servants but feature prominently in conversations about agriculture across the political spectrum. For this reason, I devote the rest of this essay to unpacking ownership itself, raising several questions: First, what does it mean to own a farm today, and what has it meant historically? Secondly, if we as a nation have always prized the family farm, what have these agrarian values meant in practice? In other words, is there a gap between rhetoric and reality when we voice our love for the family farm? Present food movements often promote smaller farms as the key to a more ecological agriculture, but are small farms more economically just? To answer these questions we turn to the theory and the history of farm ownership.
______________ Jack R. Kloppenburg, Jr., and Charles C. Geisler, 1985. “The Agricultural Ladder: Agrarian Ideology and the Changing Structure of U.S. Agriculture,” Journal of Rural Studies.  Donald H. Grubbs. Cry from the Cotton: the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the New Deal. Rexford Tugwell, 1959. “The Resettlement Idea,” Agricultural History 33:4.  Rexford Tugwell, 1959. “The Resettlement Idea,” Agricultural History 33:4.