Agrarian Trust

Building an Agrarian Commons: Learning from Farmers & Community Organizers

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Agrarian Trust staff had the pleasure of meeting with farmers, landowners, and organizers at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY and The Watershed Center in Millerton, NY in late October. We learned a lot from our colleagues in the Hudson Valley and reflected on the economic and social aspects of our beginning agrarian commons work. Above all, it was an honor to spend time with organizations and people engaged in such compelling and inspiring place-based work with larger justice implications.

Towards a New Reconstruction: Land, Racism, and Economic Emancipation

While in New York, we attended the 38th Annual E.F. Schumacher Lectures in Great Barrington, MA. The birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington was an ideal place for these lectures and discussions. W.E.B. Du Bois is a hero to the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, the host of this lecture, whose mission is to envision a just and sustainable global economy, apply the concepts locally, and share the results for broad use.

(To add an interesting footnote to this history and Du Bois’s work, Agrarian Trust’s Director, Ian McSweeney, told us of the personal connection an ancestor of his had to Du Bois. Ian’s great-great grandfather’s brother, Edward F. McSweeney, was a collaborator with and supporter of W.E.B. Du Bois. Edward F. McSweeney wrote the introduction to “The Gift of Black Folk,” corresponded with Du Bois, and advocated for increased immigration.)

The lectures celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Du Bois, who was the first black man to receive a PhD from Harvard, a founder of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, author of massive scholarly works and books, and a steadfast advocate for the rights of disenfranchised people. On a cold, rainy day in Great Barrington, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities built on the legacy Du Bois left this world by speaking about cooperative structures, equitable land access, and black economic development. Penniman works to end racism in the food system, and Whitfield is committed to developing non-extractive finance models and investment structures that enable community self-determination and supporting reparations.

Photo courtesy of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics

Economic Justice & Redirecting Community Wealth

“We need not think our task is expansion of capital but expansion of community wealth,” Whitfield shared during his talk. By understanding and identifying how community wealth has been generated and managed, he suggested, we can redirect it to elevate the quality of life for all. The Southern Reparations Loan Fund, where Whitfield is a board member, is developing a “financial commons” to enable democratic access to non-extractive financing. Non-extractive financing works by providing working capital to enterprises that build local wealth through worker ownership without collateral or debt. Instead, models like Southern Reparations Loan Fund provide coaching with the capital, and loans are paid back when a project succeeds. This way, financial capital is a tool for communities and workers, rather than the other way around.

For decades, Whitfield has shown an unflagging commitment to true and lasting economic justice for all. What does this kind of justice look like? Is it that we can choose what kind of fast food we want or that we can afford to choose healthy food? Whitfield has no problem with questioning everything, even old parables that we often repeat without thinking, in order to uncover deeper truth and more meaning. (See, for example, this video from the New Economy Coalition: “Ed Whitfield on why the ‘teaching a man to fish’ parable is a lie.”)

Whitfield cautions against “compromising with a corrupt system [which] takes away our humanity.” He asserts that we must organize to create new models and shift our paradigms to ensure that every person has a chance to be fully human, which includes a chance to benefit from the product of their labor and be productive, expressing their dignity through their work. Our collective work must be an engine for social equality and justice, where the wealth that is created elevates the quality of life for our communities.  

Last year, I read Ed Whitfield’s piece at Fund for Democratic Communities called “Nevermind Guaranteed Income, We Want the Cow.” It is bold, and I was glad when he readdressed the concepts during the lecture. The cliffnotes are that guaranteed annual income serves to give citizens more access to consume. In doing so, it greases the wheels of capitalism and enables those with power and resources to obtain more through the same system, changing nothing about how labor is organized or how wealth is distributed. Whitfield illustrates with a story from Rev. Bugani Finca who played a role in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts. The story goes that Tabo, whose cow was stolen, gets an apology from Mr. Smith, the thief. After reconciliation, Tabo says, “Well, what about the cow?” To which Mr. Smith replies: “You are ruining our reconciliation. This has nothing to do with a cow!” Without the means to produce (the cow in this case), power and resources are simply retained by the Mr. Smiths. Disparities increase between those who’ve taken the resources and those whose resources have been stolen.

So, what does all this mean for our work at Agrarian Trust? First, we will listen to those “thrown away,” exploited, excluded, and otherwise oppressed by the old economy and commit to working together to build a new economy that works for all of us. Land held in commons will also serve as a base, a shared resource for this new economy and for disenfranchised people.

“Once the earth belonged to us all, but it is now ‘owned’ by a few who exploit its resources and determine the conditions for its use. They own the community’s wealth that was generated by the labor of us all,” says Whitfield. We whole-heartedly agree when he affirms that “land is foundation, water is life, air is essential, life on earth is sacred. Everything else is human social production which should be instrumental to the sacred. Somehow, though the expansion of capital has used up the air, water, and earth. We’ve got it backwards. It’s stupid!” Using community wealth to regenerate the earth and enrich all that is sacred, our humanity very much included, is how an agrarian commons will sustain itself and its communities.

The Facts of Food Apartheid: Our Food System Isn’t Broken—It’s Working Just As Intended

Our food system needs a redesign if it’s to feed us without perpetuating racism and oppression. After decades of discrimination by the federal government, Black farmers have lost almost all of our land. Reparations for past harm are the first step to justice. Ultimately, we are working toward food sovereignty, where all people exercise the right to control our own food systems—including in cities.”

– Leah Penniman, “4 Not-So-Easy-Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System, in YES! Magazine, April 2017

Penniman began her talk by sharing how she was not one for theory without practice or without very physical, tangible work. Anyone who hears her speak can discern that a deep ethical framework informs her labor, but it’s also reinforced with on-the-ground effort and the love she puts into her work. Her connection to her community and ancestors plays a central role in her organizing and her many expressions of both written and spoken word. As she says, [it is] Western to wonder who THE person with THE idea was—it’s a community always.”

With this spirit, she asked us to reflect on how our accomplishments and capacity came from those before us, inviting us to name an ancestor whose efforts, big or small, enabled us to be here. Penniman grounded us further by acknowledging the original stewards of the land that the place we call “Great Barrington” today is a part of—the Mohicans. We then traveled briefly through our history to explore some of the repercussions that are still with us today in the United States. To name just one major influence of our colonial past, consider that Manifest Destiny, or the Doctrine of Discovery—the ridiculous and life-threatening notion that wherever you plant a flag, the land is yours—is still very much in play today. Even recently, a Supreme Court case (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York) held that reacquired land, bought by the Oneida Indian Nation, could not return to reservation status and tribal sovereignty due to the standards of “federal equity.” This is especially ironic considering the legal meaning of equity in civil procedure in this case. Our historical memory suffers from amnesia across the United States, so it is no surprise that these repercussions are largely allowed by those in power.

We also traveled to Africa, where Africans were kidnapped to be slaves in the colonies. Those that were kidnapped were often people with deep knowledge of tropical and subtropical agriculture. They were the agricultural experts that the captors needed to make their plantations profitable in the American South. We then moved through the Jim Crow era (and the rootlets of the New Jim Crow today) where people continued to be enslaved for petty crimes, some of which weren’t real crimes at all. Not having a job was considered a crime in the 19th century in some jurisdictions, and therefore, newly freed black people could be imprisoned and then leased out to plantation owners. Money from the leases went to the states, keeping the southern economy intact during the Reconstruction era. Scholar Douglas Blackmon refers to this practice as “slavery by another name,” in his Pulitzer-prize winning book and PBS documentary by the same title.  

Despite this neo-enslavement, black people still managed to save enough money to purchase 60 million acres of land by 1914. Now this land is almost gone. When so much of what was lost hasn’t been recognized, or even understood by most Americans, the past will continue wreaking havoc on attempts to create equity today. When what was lost is almost entirely controlled by white families—98% of U.S. farmland is controlled by people of European descent—it is no wonder the wealth gap continues to widen dramatically, reaching a ratio of more than 13:1 in the white to black median net worth of households.

At the peak of black land ownership, white supremacist violence escalated. Violence and intimidation was targeted at black landowners, typically during harvest time. That way, black people could be arrested and leased to white farmers during harvest. The Great Migration north of 6 million black people seeking to escape this violence was, in fact, as Penniman reframes it, a refugee crisis. For many black people, it was not a choice to leave the land; it was necessity. What they met in the north was insidious—redlining, an inability to secure loans, both de jure and de facto segregation, deeply entrenched patterns of racial discrimination. How does one keep the product of her labor or realize its full value without the fundamental basis of wealth in the U.S., property ownership? How can the wealth gap numbers stop widening when so much of what was lost hasn’t been returned?

Today, both producers and consumers, including all of us, participate in maintaining a food system that relies on stolen land and stolen labor. Many aspects of industrial food production, processing, aggregation, and distribution are so dehumanizing that we have internationalized and turned to ‘cheap labor’ to prop up injust, unsustainable industries. Not only is industrial agriculture dehumanizing, but it can be dangerous. The highest level of workplace injury and death in agriculture is from pesticide exposure. Predictably, the food this system produces is harming all of us, too. Despite the U.S. having enormous wealth and resources, including the largest economy in the world, diet-related diseases are at an all time high. Many communities live in what have been called ‘food deserts,’ but food apartheid, a concept described by farmer/activist Karen Washington, is the proper term for what we see in communities as a result of our current food system. It’s human-created, not naturally occurring. To paraphrase Penniman and her retelling of the Iroquois origin story involving Sky Woman’s gift of corn to humanity, “we are taking the gift and turning it into a weapon [through monocropping, GMOs, corn syrup, suing indigenous farmers over seeds, and more].”

Just as racism and violence have ripped families and communities apart since colonial times in this country, there has been strength, wisdom, morality, and innovation countering it, ever seeking to create something new and life-giving. Much of this counter-narrative and practice has been nurtured from within black culture and communities. As Whitfield says, “As long as oppressive systems and concentrated power exist, we will always have to do some resistance and advocacy work, but we need to remember that the goal is for us to organize ourselves to be the power within our own lives and communities. We must create the world we want to live in by doing for ourselves.”

Just in the past century in agriculture: George Washington Carver was the first professor to teach organic agriculture, very much like we know it today. Booker T. Whatley developed innovations that led to the CSA and pick-your-own models before they were well-known. A history of cooperatives isn’t complete without Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and many more.

Building the Agrarian Commons

How can Agrarian Trust operate responsibly to undo the practices that our country’s history has enabled? How can our models be adapted to the needs of displaced and marginalized people seeking to reconnect to land?

This process of inquiry and action will start by listening to and working alongside those directly affected with an understanding that our humanity and liberation are bound together. Part of this process requires that we also consider our organization’s own demographics. Agrarian Trust currently has a small staff of four white people who live and work primarily on the East Coast and in the Southeast. We work in collaboration with many other organizations, large and small, many of which are also geographically widespread and racially diverse. It’s important for us to deeply and routinely think through how we can best play our roles individually and as a team in building racial equity and supporting social justice.

We believe in creating a world we all want to live in, a world that serves the well-being of all of humanity and the earth. Our agrarian commons models seek to provide opportunities for communities to be productive and build wealth and collective power through mutual interdependence. In other words, we believe in securing the cow, not just a supply of butter. An agrarian commons can contribute to democratizing community wealth, enabling communities to be their own “community developers.”

Specifically, we are working toward many local “Agrarian Commons” throughout the U.S. where local communities collectively hold title to land and grant equitable, long-term tenure to farmers. Creating a structure to return equity and self determination to communities, individuals, and the land itself, our commons example includes Boards comprised of local communities, farmers holding tenure on the farms held in commons, local stakeholders, and other local community organizations. Agrarian Trust believes we must use our position and power to create local land holding justice that begins to address inequities.

It’s a constant process of inquiry to create a new story, a new economy. But we can’t change the story, and all the policies and actions that stem from it, until we ask the right questions and uncover the truth. Thank you, Leah Penniman, Ed Whitfield, and the communities that support you, for sharing the truths that will inform our collective work.

Further Reading & Resources: