Last winter when I interviewed farmer and author Sharon Astyk of upstate New York, she said, ”The land requires better stewardship than human beings have given it in a long, long time. Human beings are about to pay the price that they have been deferring. We must ask, what does the land require from us if we are to have a future?”
Astyk and co-author Aaron Newton strive to answer that question in their new book A Nation of Farmers. In it they call for a return to widespread, small-scale, clean agriculture in America. Doing so, Astyk recently told Voice of America, would ameliorate the negative effects of both peak oil and climate change. It would also help to renew democracy by reducing our dependence on corporate interests and re-orienting us towards the Jeffersonian ideal that the US should be “a nation of farmers.”
Agriculture, once the most common of human activities, must move back to the center of our lives, Astyk and Newton write, advancing the proposition that the country needs up to 100 million new farmers — 25 times more than now.
On her website, Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk notes that this isn’t a move-to-the-boonies-or-starve ultimatum. In fact, many people are ideally positioned to become farmers right where they are…Suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime U.S. farmland. NASA’s ecological forecasting research group reports that the people living there already water about 30 million acres of lawn, three times the land planted in irrigated corn.
Astyk says that growing as much of one’s own food as possible can be a cornerstone of sound household finance, and that the necessary land and water are already in the same places as many of the people who now participate only in the demand side of agriculture.
Women are a Key
Even in the US, Astyk notes, the only fast-growing segment of agriculture is that of independent women farmers. She says the average farmer in the world is a woman, farming 4 1⁄2 acres, growing 15 different crops on them. They own no tractor and do most of their labor by hand.
“Many of the new farmers will also need to be women,” Astyk told me. “People will need to grow food for themselves more and more, and that’s going to press the job toward women…
“…The link between farmers and eaters needs to be emphasized. Farmers can’t say what people are going to eat. They have to respond to consumer demand. Women do most of the shopping and cooking…To change the agriculture system means changing the way we eat…Ultimately it will be women who decide whether we create a better system, or a disaster.”