Making a Living, Making a Life

By Aubrey Streit Krug

As I intern at the Center for Rural Affairs, I’m learning about how the agricultural economy we have now is not inevitable. It can be changed.

Our ag economy is human-made. It’s been shaped by incentivizing and spurred by subsidies. It’s a sticky global system that often entangles the small and leaves loopholes for the large. It’s a way only a few people can make a living. For people in rural places--and for me, as a person with roots and family in a rural place--it’s at the root of dramatic conflicts.

Take these two scenarios:

  1. A rancher has been renting the same pasture for decades when her landlord dies, and the property goes to auction. She is outbid by a local incorporated operation, a pair of siblings. Afterwards the siblings explain to her that the land was simply too good an investment opportunity to pass up. The rancher tries to understand, because to hold a grudge would damage long-standing relationships in this small community.
  2. A landlord has two tenant farmers. One gets high yields off his land, and the other gets low. The landlord concludes that the low-yield farmer is lazy or is trying to cheat him. To make up the money, he decides to raise the price of renting his land. And, to be fair, the landlord raises the rates for both of his tenants. The high-yield farmer doesn’t protest this, because he doesn’t want his landlord to decide to rent to someone else.

In these stories, the rancher and the farmer both choose to keep silent about any outrage they might feel. They justify their choices with the reason that they don’t want to incite conflict.

One way to read their justifications is in cultural terms. The farmer and the rancher have been taught that the right action--for them and for their community--is to preserve the relationship. Their choices show that they believe it's best to stay on good terms with your new neighbors and your old landlord, even if you disagree with their actions.

Another way to read their justifications is in economic terms. The farmer and the rancher are still farming and ranching because they know how to navigate the business of acting in their own self-interest. Preserving relationships is a strategy that enables them to protect the opportunity to do future business with the siblings and the landlord.

Do the rancher and the farmer make the right choices? I don’t know.

What I do know is that though we might like to separate ranchers and farmers into categories like the “entrepreneur” (who cares about money, the economy) and the “yeoman” (who cares about traditions, the culture), these scenarios show that it’s more complicated than that. Culture and economy are cut from the same cloth. They’re different ways of looking at and talking about the same thing: the survival of a human community.

As Wendell Berry's work teaches us, an agricultural economy is both how we make a living and how we make a life. It's an agriculture, after all.

Our current system doesn’t have room or need for good neighbors or tenants. But by being those things--and by challenging the human-made policies that have written dramatic conflicts and injustices into the system--we can change it.

We have the power to make a better agricultural economy, one in which more than a few people can make a living and make a life in rural places.