What is Agrarianism?


Photo Courtesy of Alex Loach

Not everyone who believes in the importance of farming has to live on a farm. Recognizing the importance of stewarding the land and caring for animals well does not require anyone to wake up and milk cows. This is true because a distinction exists between the rituals of farm life and the ways in which we think and talk about them.

This distinction became even more apparent to me a while back when someone on twitter asked me what the difference between an agrarian and a farmer is. It’s a good question and one about which I suspect there is bountiful confusion. The answer, fortunately, is fairly simple.

Farming is a whole set of activities usually devoted to food production for commercial purposes. Farmer is an occupation. Agrarianism is a philosophy, a way of thinking, especially about social and political structures.

Like all schools of thought, agrarianism has endless permutations. It has been twisted and tweaked in a thousand directions. Most of these, however, have a couple of assumptions in common. When I identify myself as an agrarian, I mean that I hold these two assumptions as a starting point for thinking about the social world.

First, agrarians assume that farming and farms matter. Even more, agrarians assume that agriculture is the foundation of society. Hence, the health or sickness of farms is a good predictor of the health of the overall society.

When agriculture is neglected, when land and livestock are mistreated, agrarians assume, the rest of society follows suit. Poor stewardship in agriculture creates poor uses of resources across the board.

Second, agrarians believe that while it’s not necessary for everyone to live on a farm, the patterns of living close to the land contribute to human flourishing. So, while not everyone is going to farm for a living, mimicking an agrarian lifestyle as much as possible even in urban settings is likely to create increased stewardship of personal resources, greater health and well-being.

The urban-dweller, for example, who routinely seeks contact with nature, who maintains connections with the sources of his food, who applies to her personal life the principles of stewardship inherent in good farming will harvest harmony much more often than those who do not.

Because agrarianism is a philosophy, one need not be a farmer to embrace it. Agrarianism can be held and advocated in Manhattan as easily as it is from the haymow. In theory at least, a person could recognize the truth of agrarian claims and never even have set foot on a farm.

That’s a possibility, but not likely. Agrarian philosophers tend to be drawn to examine what it is they talk so much about. So, more than likely, you’ll find them hanging around the barnyard, at least once in a while.

On the other hand, living and working on a farm doesn’t guarantee an embrace of agrarianism. For some people, I’m sure, farm work is just a job. While, of course, some degree of reflection on our work and why we do it is always valuable, not every farmer needs to be a philosopher.

But, farmers and philosophers need one another. Lasting positive changes to our food system requires they work together, and that each values the other’s work. Though the farmer and the philosopher have different roles each must contend for the necessary changes in their own way, but in tandem,as a team capable of cutting a furrow in the hard ground we face.


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