L’homme à la houe by French painter, Jean-Francois Millet (1863). I hope I don’t have to point out the extremely negative depiction this painting gives of the small scale farmer.

My grandfather, Frank Zarembka, was of Polish peasant background. The word “peasant” is usually used pejoratively as it means “a poor smallholder or agricultural laborer of low social status (chiefly in historical use or with reference to subsistence farming in poorer countries).” There is a long history of degrigating such farmers. Unfortunately I think this has a major relevance to the present political climate in the United States. Hilary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election with her description of Trump supporters as “deplorables”; this elitist attitude is one of the reasons that Trump and the Republicans are popular in rural America.

When I was a child, my Mom had a copy of the book, 101 Famous Poems. Among the “famous” poems was this one (stanzas one and three):

The Man with the Hoe

By Edwin Markham, 1898

(Written after seeing the picture above by Jean-Francois Millet.)

    Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
    Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
    The emptiness of ages in his face,
    And on his back the burden of the world.
    Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
    A thing that grieves not and that never hopes.
    Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
    Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
    Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
    Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

       What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
    Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
    Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
    What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
    The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
    Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
    Time’s tragedy is in the aching stoop;
    Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
    Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
    Cries protest to the Powers that made the world.
    A protest that is also a prophecy.

Since the Nineteenth Century in American and European culture there have been attacks on the small-scale farmer. As a result there is a cultural zeitgeist against these farmers with the need to glorify large-scale commercial farming. This cultural negativity is part of the approach of educated people who consider themselves superior to the small-scale farmers. This then leads to the disastrous mistake after mistake of promoting large mechanized agricultural schemes.

Another negative “Man with a Hoe” picture from an unknown artist in 1902.

Let me give some counter-examples from the United States. I have a friend named Karl Meyer who lives in Nashville, TN. He bought a run-down house in a declining section of the city and rehabbed it. He now grows all his food in the front and back yard of his house. The Nashville city government took him to court over the gardens in his front yard as it was expected to be green grass only. He persevered. Think of all the front and back yards in the United States that could be used for growing food. Consider all the fertilizer, pesticides, and weed-killers put on that grass and the pollution from gas lawn-mowers that have to keep that grass short.

On the other hand I have many friends who went “back to the land” in western Massachusetts, Maine, and Virginia. One can read Compact Farms: The Proven Plans for Market Farms on 5 Acres or Less by Josh Volt (the son of long-time Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Executive Secretary, Joe Volt).

From 1971 to 1985 and then from 1988 to 2007 when we moved to Africa, I frequently traveled between first Pittsburgh and St. Louis (where I grew up and my parents lived) and then Washington, DC and St. Louis. This is the American corn belt (note that the corn grown in the US in not fit for human consumption unlike the “maize” that is grown in Kenyan that is eaten by people). This is a “wasteland” of corn and soybeans. There aren’t hardly any people. There are small declining towns here and there between the large cities.

About 40 percent of this corn is turned into ethanol to be blended with gasoline and much of the rest is fed to pigs, poultry, and cattle. It takes 26.5 pounds of corn to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. This could feed a Kenyan for a month. One of the best methods of feeding the world’s population would be a drastic reordering of American agriculture. The massive environmental degrading from this commercial, corporate farming is another concern.

This 1930 painting is called American Gothic by Grant Wood. “It was thus seen as part of the trend toward increasingly critical depictions of rural America, along the lines of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 Main Street, and Carl Van Vechten’s 1924 The Tattooed Countess in literature.” (Wikipedia)

Imagine if the whole US corn belt, some of the most fertile, well watered land in the world, was full of small farms growing food for people. As we drive through the monotonous corn/soy fields, I often say to Gladys, “What would some good Kenyan farmers do with all these fields? Wouldn’t they produce so much more food and repopulate the countryside with farms, communities, businesses, and a lively social society?” Gladys always agrees. Do you?

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David Zarembka

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