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77 3 The Rhetorics of the Farm Crisis Toward Alternative Agrarian Literacies in a Globalized World Eileen E. Schell Food is our most basic need, the very stuff of life. —Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply If you eat, you have a stake in agriculture. — In his often-quoted Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson portrayed the yeoman farmer as the embodiment of American character , arguing that the agrarian ideal should serve as the backbone of American society: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth” (290). As argued here and in chapter 4, Jefferson’s yeoman farmer continues to be a powerful image that shapes many Americans’ views about farmers and rural people even as the number of small family farms and farmers1 has declined precipitously in the latter part of the twentieth century—a situation that many have come to call the “farm crisis” (see Davidson).2 The term “farm crisis” refers to the fact that U.S. small farms, many of which have been in “families for generations[,] are going under, and rural communities are facing economic devastation” (“Fair Prices”). Although the causes are complex, three main factors are responsible for the farm crisis: “Chronically low prices that have plagued all crops in all regions around the country” • The Rhetorics of the Farm Crisis 78 “The breathtaking consolidation of agribusiness and the retail food industry,” which “has taken away the bargaining power of farmers to get a fair price” “International trade policies,” which “continue to benefit global agribusiness companies at the expense of family farms, local businesses and rural communities” (“Fair Prices”) In spite of these shifts in agricultural production, a romanticized image of the small family farm still holds iconic sway in American life. Although family farms and farmers continue to decline in large numbers, for instance, many urban and suburban Americans still believe that most rural people make their living from family farms. In actuality, farmers make up only 2 percent of the rural population, addressed in the 2001 W. K. Kellogg Foundation study (“Perceptions”), and nationally , family farms account for only 565,000 of the 2 million farms in existence and 44 percent of all farmland (“Family Farmers”). In general, the situation of agricultural production and agricultural life is often shrouded in mystery or misinformation—one might even say “myth-information.” The majority of popular press accounts of the demise of the family farm follows two predictable lines of argumentation : the pathos-driven rhetoric of tragedy and the logos-driven rhetoric of smart diversification. The tragedy rhetoric participates in what Jacqueline Edmondson calls “traditional rural literacy,” a literacy that “reads rural life through nostalgia for the past and efforts to return rural communities to the way they once were” (15). In rural communities, traditional rural literacy can lead, on the one hand, to protection and preservation of traditions and, on the other hand, to the “language of despair” as it becomes “more difficult, if not impossible , to retain traditions and conditions of the past” in a globalized world (15). In extreme cases, within rural communities, traditional rural literacy can lead groups to try to keep others out and to maintain homogeneity and isolationism, a rhetoric practiced by hate groups like the Aryan Nation, which has deliberately located its base of operations in rural Idaho and now in rural Pennsylvania (15).3 Traditional rural literacy is also appealing to those living in metropolitan areas as it allows urban people to see rural areas as repositories of history • • The Rhetorics of the Farm Crisis 79 and “traditional values” and as bucolic landscapes full of quaint small towns and picturesque family farms where people live “simpler lives.” When reporters, novelists, and documentarians interpret the farm crisis through the lens of traditional rural literacy, urban readers and viewers often end up feeling “sorry” for family farmers and mourning their loss and obsoleteness rather than considering how the farm crisis is affecting their own lives as consumers of food. The focus on the quaintness and traditions of rural culture aligns traditional rural literacy with Henry Shapiro’s discussion of preservation , as addressed in chapter 2. As Kim notes in her discussion of Shapiro, the...


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