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The allure of the peasant in organic farming

Idealizing pre-modern life has a long history in western culture. When Europeans discovered the vast new world of the Americas, new visions and possibilities arose in their imagination, not just of the Native Americans that populated the new continent, but of Europeans themselves. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes understood Native Americans to live in a pre-civil condition, savages ridden with violence. Sharing the same humanity in common with Europeans, he argued that humans avoided this condition only by absolute sovereignty, such as held by an absolute monarch. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined Native Americans as peaceful utopians, practicing free love, devoid of property claims and thus devoid of violence. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a republic of yeoman farmers independent from degenerate courts and large cities who served as the future’s best hope for the newly minted United States. The allure of the peasant has endured to our present day in many forms. The organic farming movement, in particular, channelled these ideals of peasant simplicity into modern urban culture in the twentieth century.

Organic farming evolved in response to industrialization and the globalization of foodstuffs. The loss of soil fertility that accompanied industrial farming in the latter part of the nineteenth century also led to the perceived loss of nutrition in the food that farms produced. To organic farmers in the mid-twentieth century, the protocols devised by Albert Howard, the founder of the organic farming movement, did more than merely restore the soil. It meant recovering the simplicity of life that they imagined went hand in hand with a pristine, natural, and healthy peasant life. Organic activists contrasted the healthy peasant life as an antidote to canned milk, canned food, adulterated bread, and crops raised on “chemical dope.” To a growing army of savvy consumers, organic farming represented a connection to a lost way of life and to vanishing spiritual values. This ideal of peasant virtue transmitted seamlessly into the environmental movement from the 1940s to the present.

Critics rightly claim that the idealization of the peasant is allied to the myth of the “noble savage” and to a form of Orientalism, that is, to imagining peasant societies found in the East (and elsewhere) as exotic. But it would be a severe misreading to characterize the peasant ideal as merely looking down on the “other”. Rather it was clearly admiration, if oversimplification, of rural living. The founder of organic farming, Albert Howard, along with his second wife, Louise Howard, pointed to the Hunza valley in the western Himalayas as a place where peasants lived in spectacular health and whose natural farming techniques protected the fertility of the soil. The Hunzas served as an antidote to industrial farming and consumerism. Much like the myth of Shambhala valley, later popularized as “Shangri-La” by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, imagining a peasant paradise served as a needed refuge from the stress of an unnatural modern lifestyle.

Image credit: Fair Trade Laos Coffee by Fair Trade Laos. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Today, when one walks into a coffee shop in an American or European city, one will often find coffee posters on the walls picturing a smiling Latin American coffee farmer with a weathered face. Often the farmer is holding coffee beans in his outstretched hand, as if to show you that he produced it just for you. These pictures persuade consumers to buy coffee that is “fair-trade,” ethically sourced, or sustainably produced, and thus is fairer to the worker and better for the environment. Although it is easy to write these pictures off as crass advertising that “green-washes” idealized peasant life, the pictures are also powerful indicators of the persistent allure of rural values in an industrialized urban world.

Myths and symbols are still important to organic farming and to modern consumers. Just as the myth of a pristine peasant life gave a sense of natural authenticity to organic protocols, small farmers today have become a totem of authenticity in a globalized, homogenized, and increasingly monotonous corporate market. Urban consumers live in suburbs and cities far removed from the location where colourful bananas, coffee, and chocolate are grown. Coffee advertising, which changed significantly from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century, is a good example of this detachment. Only in the last few decades have marketers in the United States linked quality coffee with certification schemes to highlight an ethical relationship between consumer and producer.

Today, the romanticizing of the small farmer reflects the cultural and economic dynamics of post-colonial globalization. It also reflects the remarkable allure of the peasant image that has endured as part and parcel of the western, and now global, heritage.

Featured image credit: agriculture asia countryside cropland by Pixabay. Public domain via Pexels.

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