What Can I Say to Farmers?

The Tenant Farmer’s Rent, attributed to Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, 1660 – 1668. Courtsey Rijksmuseum.

What Can I Say to Farmers?

By   |  Oct. 28, 2015

Note: This is written for the second national conference on “Rural Development” held in Beijing by the Department of Governance, and will be delivered in person.  Although there is still the possibility that China will follow the American example of turning almost all agriculture over to industrial agriculture, there is now a strong counter-movement hoping to save most of China’s villages. At the “Seizing an Alternative” conference in June of this year, Sheri Liao addressed this topic.  For years she was a rather lonely worker toward this end.  Now at least some important parts of the national bureaucracy are joining her.   — John B. Cobb, Jr.

I have been told that many of you in this gathering are farmers.  I hope that is true.  In your hands now lies the destiny of the world.  I would like to speak directly to you.  But I know that I know very little about farming.

When I was a boy I thought I wanted to be a farmer.  My uncle had a small farm in north Georgia, and I visited there from time to time.  I accompanied my cousin on his chores, and he tried to teach me to milk a cow and plough with a mule.  Sadly, I was not a good pupil.  I did not immediately give up my desire, but I developed a little practical wisdom about myself.  I was not likely to make a good farmer. 

Of that I am now quite sure, and it is just as well that I came to this realization early.  I envied my cousin who made these tasks look easy.  But they were not easy for me.  Since I gave up the idea of becoming a farmer because it was too difficult, I have never minimized the intelligence and skill it requires.

Yours is the most important profession in the world.  It has been that for thousands of years.  Prior to harnessing fossil fuels for industry, farmers produced most of human wealth.  Unfortunately, almost everywhere, they were exploited by others.  Feudal lords or plantation owners or military governments took from them most of the produce that was not needed for them to survive and reproduce.  The great monuments of the ancient world were built by wealth that was confiscated from farmers by others.  Sometimes their labor was also demanded for the construction.  Often they were conscripted to fight wars that were of no importance for them.

Because most people were farmers, their rulers took them, their knowledge, and their skill, for granted.  Soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, merchants, and traders, whose lives were made possible by the farmers, had greater respect.  City dwellers looked down on country folk. 

The skills and knowledge for other professions often required schooling, so schools developed in cities.  The knowledge farmers needed was learned by working with skilled farmers.  The vast lore needed to farm well was transmitted from one generation to the next by working with parents and participating in the life of farm communities.  This was excellent education.  Schooling was not needed.

Schools became more and more important in cities; so schooling was increasingly prized and more of the city’s children went to these institutions.  They required a considerable sacrifice of time and often of treasure; so schooling was even more prized.  Those who were schooled had many special privileges, and their attitude toward the unschooled became even more condescending.  Most farmers continued to belong to this latter category.  Their exploitation, now often by the schooled, continued.

The history of farming in the United States was somewhat different.  Europeans took vast lands away from the indigenous people and offered them to European settlers.  Since many of these thus owned the land they farmed, and because they were not subservient to nobility or other landowners, they were not exploited in the way that I have described.  Instead, they became the backbone of an experiment in democracy.  In my view, when much of the United States was characterized chiefly by family farms and small rural villages it was socially and politically at its best.  

To avoid romanticizing, I should say that this system of independent family farming never characterized the whole country.  I come from the South, and there much of the farming was done by slaves on large plantations.  When slavery ended it was often replaced with a sharecropping system that did not greatly improve the lot of the farmers.  In the American West, the farmers were often in a conflict with cattlemen, sometimes violently.  Those who controlled the process of getting agricultural produce to markets often took advantage of the farmers. Nevertheless, in my view, China can avoid most of these problems and will be at its best when there are tens of millions of self-reliant farmers living in relatively self-sufficient rural villages.

I think it may be well to think about how the system of small farms decayed in the United States, and now has virtually disappeared.  One factor was political naivete among the farmers.  They organized what was called the Farm Bureau to represent their interests in Washington.  Its leadership was taken over by rich people who wanted to have much larger farms.  But the ordinary farmers did not understand what was happening, and they were persuaded to support bills and budgets that in fact benefited large farms at the expense of small ones.  Small farmers often had to sell their farms and stay on as workers on large ones or move to a city.  It is my hope that China can avoid this problem with its land ownership policies.

There were other pressures for consolidating small farms into large ones.  The machinery developed in order to save labor was often designed for large farms and made these more efficient in the sense of producing crops more cheaply.  The problems of small farms can be resolved by cooperative arrangements among them, but in the American context, they were more often resolved by small-farm bankruptcies. 

The combination of financial and technological change has led to the disappearance of small towns and to transforming farming into industrial mass production. The workers on these farms actually lack the knowledge and skills of farming.  They have only the knowledge of factory workers.  If China copies the United States, people like you will cease to exist. 

The disappearance of rural America has been accompanied by a worsening political climate.  Our democracy has never been perfect.  Although in recent decades we have made progress in extending the right to vote, the actual quality of democracy has declined.  The decisions made in Washington are determined by corporations and financial institutions and those who profit from them.  They are not in the interest of ordinary Americans.  Democracy often works best at the level of villages and towns, and now there are few of those left.  People with no experience in local self-government are not good citizens of a democratic nation.

 You Chinese have a chance to experience democracy and experiment with it in your villages.  If these villages can avoid concentration of wealth in a few families, China may be able to avoid what most corrupts democratic governments.  Villages can discuss what is in their common interest and develop policies and practices to put their conclusions into effect.  I hope the Chinese government will work to empower the people to do this.


I have said that yours is the most important profession.  It has always required a great deal of knowledge and skill.  Now I say that meeting the challenge that lies ahead makes it the most difficult and demanding of all professions.

Obviously none of us knows what the future will bring.  Civilization may destroy itself with a nuclear war.  Those who control our destiny may fail to act on climate change until it is too late to keep the planet habitable.  There is no way to prepare for catastrophes of this magnitude.

But let us assume, optimistically, that we avoid that kind of war and check global warming before it totally destroys us.  It is for this kind of future that we can do something to prepare.  It is a future that will be marked by many unfavorable changes, and some of these will come in unexpected ways.  But others are readily predictable. 

Globally, the land available for agriculture will diminish.  Most obviously, this will occur as ocean levels rise.  For example, much of Bangladesh, even if it is not actually covered by the ocean, will become unproductive because of salinization.  The combination of the rising level of the ocean as the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland glaciers melt and the increasing severity of storms will drive hundreds of millions of people inland.

Meanwhile, the deserts that are already growing will probably grow faster.  Most of the aquifers that have been so important to agriculture will continue to decline.  The Tibetan glaciers, from which most of the great rivers of East and Southeast Asia are fed, will be gone.  The snowmelt that is the basis of California agriculture will be greatly reduced.  In general rainfall and temperatures will be increasingly unpredictable.

Further, the agricultural methods that have already destroyed half the original farmland are destroying it at an accelerated pace.  Obviously, this cannot continue.  In this context, we are asking global farmers to feed an increasing population.  We are not “asking” casually.  Our lives depend on it. 

What we are asking of you farmers may be impossible.  It may be that we must adjust ourselves to massive famines in which hundreds of millions of people starve.  But I believe that you can rise to the occasion.  This will require a knowledge of science tied to realistic understanding of particular patches of land.  It will require flexibility and creativity and experimentation and readiness to learn from the creativity of other farmers all over the world.  It will require new developments in technology, but there will be no magical “technological solution.”  Producing food under these highly unfavorable conditions will require intensive labor.  It will require the cooperation of universities and governments, but this must be a humble cooperation that looks to you farmers for leadership. 


To prepare the next generation for the most important and the most demanding of all professions obviously requires education.  Farmers must learn from biologists and chemists.  They need to be able to establish networks of communication around the world.  They need a realistic understanding of how the economy works and of other aspects of society, including the political.  It will help if they know enough history in general to take the long view. 

These needs may lead you to think that your children should have the “best” education they can get.  That could mean that you want villages to have the sorts of schools found now in the great cities.  Chinese society is in position to give you that.  But I worry about the outcome.

Today’s supposedly “best” education teaches individualistic competition.  Children begin studying even in kindergarten to succeed in the examinations that determine their class status.  A better income is the result of success, and they learn that this is of supreme importance in their parents’ eyes, so important that they must sacrifice childhood pleasures and normal growth to study. 

Today’s supposedly best education also alienates students from the land and from all the nonhuman creatures who live on it.  It does not include actual connections with the natural world.  This study contributes to making children more comfortable in an artificial environment with their computers to tell them about nature than in direct contact with it.  The graduate is more comfortable sitting behind a desk than planting seeds in the soil.

This is part of the reason that the more years one has of schooling the less likely it is that one will be a farmer.  Schooling began in cities and was designed to help people play their role in urban life.  When well-intentioned people take schooling to rural villages, they often measure their success by the number of the school’s graduates who have gone to the city and gotten jobs there.  Many are hardly aware that urban condescension to rural society is all too effectively communicated by schooling people for urban life. The net effect is to deprive rural communities of potential leaders and leave fewer of the most capable children to continue the farming of their parents.

Farmers of the future need schooling.  But China borrowed its schooling system from the urban capitalist West.  It is not the schooling that farmers need to succeed in the most difficult and demanding of all professions.

I might add that in my opinion current Chinese schooling does not prepare people to be good citizens of a socialist society, much less of an ecological civilization.  The experience of children is not good for them as full human beings. I hope that China will develop a truly humane and ecological education for its rural citizens and then adapt that to urban education.  If China is serious about an ecological civilization, it will need a different school system.  In this and in other ways, I hope that Chinese farming villages will take the lead.  They give to China its great opportunity to lead the world into ecological civilization.

John B. Cobb, Jr. is founding chairperson of Pando Populus and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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