Farmers, Fairness & the Farm Bill

where issues of producers, policy and equity converge

A Collaborative Research Project with Rural Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition & American University's School of International Service (Washington, DC)

The Social Contract Between Farmer and Non-Farmer

Is there a social contract between U.S. farmer and non-farmer today? Is it being fulfilled?

Social contract theory

According to Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, humans begin in “the state of nature,” a state before civil society, without order or government. Social contract theory is the model in which people in the state of nature surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the majority rule and authority of a government. In exchange, that government protects the natural rights of the people. The government creates laws to protect the people’s rights, and the people are expected to obey those laws. The theory suggests that each individual of the public will voluntarily submit to the social contract because it is to their own advantage. By being a member of society, everyone is implicitly signing this invisible contract.

What does this have to do with farming?

Now instead of a contract between people and a government, let’s think about a contract between farmer and non-farmer, producer of food and consumer of food, steward of the land and citizen of the land. In this case, one end of the contract is the farmer, and the other end is not only the people at large, but also the government and the institutions of civil society.

When Hobbes describes the state of nature, farming does not exist because it requires social cooperation and therefore a social contract. He explicitly labels farming as “a social good,” something guaranteed by the social contract and a concept I will explore in another post about farming as a public good. Hobbes’ assumption makes sense: since the production of food is crucial for an organized society, and since it requires political infrastructure and support, it certainly would fall under the terms of the social contract and even warrants one of its own.

terms of the contract

First, let’s look at what’s expected of farmers. The obvious one is food. Non-farmers in the U.S. (98% of the population) depend on someone else (the farmer) to grow their food.

Next, non-farmers expect environmental stewardship by farmers. According to the theory, protection of the environment is part of the original social contract, and applying that idea to this new social contract in the wake of climate change, environmental expectations of farmers may be higher than ever. Non-farmers expect farmers to produce healthy and wholesome food, use safe and moral practices (guaranteeing animal’s rights and fair treatment, etc.), and solve climate change all at once. It’s true that farmers hold a lot of power to make environmental changes. They are stewards through caring for the soil and its microorganisms, promoting biodiversity and agrobiodiversity, managing their water consumption, mitigating water contamination, reducing agricultural emissions, and so on. But they can only utilize this power given sufficient resources, in other words, if non-farmers keep their end of the contract as well.

So what are non-farmers responsible for? In line with the expectation of farmers to grow food, the non-farmers are expected to buy food. Farmers depend on non-farmers to support them financially through buying what they grow. And depending on the farmer, they may expect more than just buying food; they may want the non-farmer to appreciate the food as well (appreciate its quality or purity or the care that went into growing it).

But if non-farmers expect ethical commitments from farmers (environmentally sustainable practices, moral animal treatment, non-toxic food, etc.), then non-farmers are responsible for more complex commitments too. These include political and social support for farmers, governmental financial assistance where needed, infrastructure and reliable markets, and more ethical responsibilities such as seeking to understand farmers’ needs and advocating for farmers’ rights. On a more intimate level, farmers expect non-farmers’ “help rethinking and preserving their livelihood,” because while it may feel like a simple business exchange for non-farmers when they buy food, it’s often much more than that for the farmer growing the food: it is her livelihood.

Are both parties meeting the terms?

Loaded question, I know. But there are certainly ways we can get a sense. The fact that there are so few new farmers may be a sign that the contract is not being met by non-farmers in a way that makes farming attractive right now, that non-farmer society has created inhospitable conditions for new farmers. For example, lack of land access is the number one barrier for new farmers; land is too expensive for young farmers who want to get into the field, and there’s not enough policy supporting them, which is scary considering they are the future of American agriculture.

Aside from low land accessibility, the industrialized business model of food has degraded agriculture to a source of cheap food: it is no longer seen for its fundamental role in society. Roots of Change, an organization working in the sustainable food movement, discusses this concept in a thoughtful and comprehensive article designing a new social contract between agriculture and the public. Their analysis suggests that this reduction of agriculture threatens civilization itself, since it is so foundational. Their version of the social contract has 10 terms, most of which set expectations for the farmer, notably the environmental responsibilities of the farmer. This contract sees today’s growing environmental crisis as an opportunity for farming to become a fundamental characteristic in the nation’s identity again. And the growing “good food movement” in recent years is progress in the right direction.

While the expectations set for farmers in the contract might seem too demanding and unrealistic, they also might be a positive change agent by bringing agriculture back to the center of everything. According to Roots of Change, seeing agriculture “as a primary solution to many problems faced today creates the basis for a new social contract.” And a new social contract for farming is exactly what the U.S. needs. Roots of Change sees this new contract as one that stops defining agricultural products as commodities, sees food as valuable (which means it shouldn’t be cheap, so farmers don’t have to externalize costs), and provides more financial support for farmers (especially to incentivize environmental health).

Where does the Farm Bill fit in?

Since the non-farmer population includes everyone that is not a farmer, we can look at the government and policymakers in particular and not just the public at large. That separation being made, it’s important to remember that the public also affects farm policy by voting, participating in civil society, influencing policymakers through activism, and acting as conscious consumers and eaters. In the new social contract, the non-farmer has the responsibility to support the farmer (therefore supporting society as a whole, since farmers are foundational) by working to improve the Farm Bill. A non-farmer may see the Farm Bill as irrelevant and distant public policy that affects someone far away on a farm, but it affects everyone, non-farmers included, so every American should care.

The Farm Bill is at the crux of the non-farmer’s end of the contract. If the non-farmer expects the farmer to meet all of the expectations set in the contract, then he needs to ensure that policy will support those expectations. Farm policy currently pays too little attention to small farmers and the environment, but farmers want to be environmental stewards; they just need the policy to support it and make it attainable, and that support has to come from non-farmers.

A Financial Contract

Earlier I mentioned a monetary component to the social contract between farmer and non-farmer: the farmer grows food and the non-farmer is expected to buy it, offering the farmer a dependable market. But when the non-farmer spends money on food, how much of it really goes to the farmer? Not as much as you’d probably expect… Only 7.8 cents of each consumer dollar actually goes to the producing farmer.

In addition to the social contract, farmers are also engaged in various legal contracts with non-farmers: production and marketing contracts through contract farming. In these kinds of contracts, a buyer makes a contract with a farmer to buy a certain amount of food that they will then sell to the public. While this is not a direct relationship between the farmer and the public, buyers are nevertheless non-farmers, and the public is connected down the line when it buys products that the buyer sourced from the farmer. With that in mind, members of the public can act as conscious consumers (otherwise known as political consumers), choosing to buy or not buy products from certain companies or sources based on their policies, ethics, and practices with the goal of changing industry norms.

At the end of the day…

We are all party to the social contract between farmer and non-farmer. And it is our civic duty as Americans and as eaters to support farmers. Through consumer behavior, policy, and civic engagement, non-farmers can make this new social contract the norm and give farmers the support they need to keep their end of the contract. If the current political situation with scarce support for farmers where they need it is the state of nature, let us all sign this new social contract. After all, as Hobbes would say, it’s for our own good.

Community partnered action research on and for U.S. agricultural policy