Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: The New Peasantries

The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg came to me highly recommended by a friend I respect a lot. And it lived up to all of my expectations... but I have one major complaint. In some places this book is so difficult to read, I have no idea what the heck it's even saying. That will go on for a half a page or a page, and then I'll pick up what the author's talking about for a bit and agree wholeheartedly with him about it, and then lose him again a page or two later. But other than that, it's a tremendously important book that has helped me better understand what I've observed both at home and abroad. In particular, it's an interesting framework to view the food safety bill debate through, although my primary purpose for reading this book was to help me understand foreign agricultural aid and the lives of subsistence farmers, primarily in the Global South.

Van der Ploeg begins by defining what he means by a peasant. In his definition, a peasant is a very modern identity (although obviously peasants have existed for much of human history) and peasants are not even necessarily poor. I realized as I was reading that some of the people whose farms I've visited in the United States are peasants, and often they have extremely successful farms. As you read through the quotes and examples below, you'll begin to understand where any idea you have that being a peasant involves backwardness might have come from... any why those ideas are wrong.

In his words (and all the emphasis is his):

Central to the peasant condition, then, is the struggle for autonomy that takes place in a context characterized by dependency relations, marginalization, and deprivation. It aims at and materializes as the creation and development of a self-controlled and self-managed resource base, which in turn allows for those forms of co-production of man and living nature that interact with the market, allow for survival and for future prospects and feed back into and strengthen the resources base, improve the process of co-production, enlarge autonomy, and, thus, reduce dependency. Depending upon the particularities of the prevailing socioeconomic conjuncture, both survival and the development of one's own resource base might be strengthened through engagement in other non-agrarian activities. Finally, patterns of cooperation are present which regulate and strengthen those interrelations. p. 23

Clear as mud? I'll explain.

Peasants are defined most of all by their drive for autonomy and their avoidance of the market when possible. That doesn't mean that peasants never interact with the market, but they certainly interact with it less than "entrepreneurial farms" and what van der Ploeg calls "capitalist farms." A peasant is more likely to use family labor instead of employing outside labor than the other two types of farms. A peasant may work off the farm, get some money, and buy new equipment for the farm, but at that point they own the equipment - they did not finance its purchase with a loan - and thus they do not need to achieve a certain yield each subsequent season in order to pay down the loan. A peasant is more likely to grow feed for his or her animals and to use manure instead of commercial fertilizer, as these practices avoid purchasing inputs on the market. And peasants often barter, without using money in their transactions. You've got a strong son who is available during part of the year when I need help, and I've got a piece of a equipment you need to borrow. So we trade.

Co-production, as defined by van der Ploeg, is "the ongoing interaction and mutual transformation of man and living nature." (p. 24) The way people live and farm is shaped by nature, but at the same time, nature is shaped by people and their activities. And hopefully this occurs in a mutually beneficial way. Consider, for example, rotational grazing. By managing when and where livestock graze, the farmer improves the land and raises healthy livestock to eat and to sell. But it's nature that determines when and where the farmer moves the livestock in their rotations, as the farmer cannot force nature to grow the grass back quicker.

By slowly improving the quality and productivity of the key resources - land, animals, crops, buildings, irrigation, infrastructure, knowledge, etc. - and by means of a meticulous fine-tuning of the process of production and a continuous re-patterning of relations with the outside world, peasants strive for and eventually obtain the means of enlarging their autonomy and improving the resource base of their farm units. - p. 25

He also notes that the end products are not the only outcomes of the peasant mode of farming. If you consider my chickens, for example, a "capitalist farm" (i.e. factory egg operation) would only get eggs from the chickens. I'll get eggs from my girls but I'll also get pest control, waste product removal, fertilizer, and enjoyment from them. I won't be able to sell these things, most likely, but they will improve my operation as a whole, and I'll have better soil to grow my plants in as a result.

The peasant condition, according to van der Ploeg, is not absolute. There are degrees of peasantization. These classifications are fluid, as sometimes peasants will become entrepreneurial farms or capitalist farms, and sometimes entrepreneurial farms will experience a "repeasantization." Repeasantization occurs both when entrepreneurial farmers make the shift to peasant farming, or when peasants move deeper into peasant practices. He also describes "deactivation," which means leaving agriculture altogether (by selling your land to a real estate developer, for example).

In this era of globalization, van der Ploeg shows several examples of how peasant farms are doing better than entrepreneurial farms. Many of his examples come from Europe, which he says has recently undergone a massive repeasantization. For me, the best example I've observed here in the U.S. is in dairy. With the crisis in dairy pricing over the past few years, the dairy farmers who rely on the most external inputs (grain, fertilizer, fuel) have had a hard time when prices went up dramatically, and a harder time still when the price paid to dairy farmers for milk went down. During this time, the price paid by consumers for milk did not plummet like the price paid to farmers did. A farmer I met who had set up their own processing plant to pasteurize and bottle their own milk survived, as did another farmer I met who made all of her milk into ice cream and sold it at a roadside stand. Both of these farmers grazed their cattle on grass and thus had no need to buy grain. (One commented that she used to supplement the cows' feed with grain but these days it wasn't worth the money.) They had relatively small herds, and they did not have Holstein cows (the dairy breed you see on all the large farms). The farmer I met who had the largest dairy, an "entrepreneurial farm," who had very high tech equipment, fed his cows grain, and hired Mexicans to milk the cows was struggling and losing money.

Van der Ploeg has a section that shows why Green Revolution technology, such as high yielding varieties and breeds, are inappropriate for the peasant mode of farming. He says:

Entering dependency relations, even if this might help to construct something that looks impressive, macho, and powerful, is deeply distrusted. And related to this is a mistrust of immediacy and its inherent temptations. Immediacy is suspect in nearly all peasant cultures, whether in the developing world or highly developed countries. Immediacy means that things must be taken at face value. In the peasant world, though, questions are continually asked about what underlies immediate appearances. Does a high-yielding cow indicate highly successful breeding strategies and competencies within the farm and keenly maintained networks with other farmers who are providing 'new blood'? Or is it about the costly acquisition of cattle bred elsewhere, high input levels of expensive concentrates, high veterinarian expenses and short longevity? p. 27

Another important term van der Ploeg uses repeatedly is Empire, which he defines as follows:

The other highly centralized pattern is constituted by large food processing and trading companies that increasingly operate on a world scale. Throughout the book, I refer to this pattern as Empire. Empire is understood here as a mode of ordering that tends to become dominant. At the same time, Empire is embodied in a wide range of specific expressions: agribusiness groups, large retailers, state apparatuses, but also in laws, scientific models, technologies, etc. Together these expressions - p. 3-4

'Artificialization' versus co-production

Here's a passage I found significant:

Co-production requires - and equally results in - a specifically ordered type of knowledge, referred to in the French tradition as savoir faire paysan (Lacroix, 1981; Darre, 1985) or art de la localite (Mendras, 1967, 1970). Respect and admiration for, and patience with, living nature are mostly an integral part of such knowledge (Kessel, 1990).

Entrepreneurial farming differs from this is several respects. Although 'nature' remains an unavoidable ingredient (it composts the required 'raw material'), development in the entrepreneurial mode is focused on increasingly reducing its presence. 'Nature' is too capricious - it excludes standardization of the labour process and thus becomes a hindrance to accelerated scale increase. It also limits (or retards) increase in productivity. Therefore, the presence of nature within the agricultural production process is reduced and that which remains is increasingly 'rebuilt' through an all-ebracing process of 'artificialization' (Altieri, 1990). - p. 114-115

He follows this with a few sentences that I find worthy of sharing: "In the entrepreneurial pattern, the processes of agricultural production are progressively disconnected from nature and the ecosystems in which they are located." (p. 115) and "Partly as an effect of the 'artificialization' of the agricultural process of production, the entrepreneurial mode of farming is characterized by an elevated degree of externalization - that is, many subtasks of a once integral process of production and labour are shifted towards and taken over by external institutions and market agencies. Once this occurs, new dependency relations are created between these institutes and agencies and the farms involved." (p. 115)

Entrepreneurship vs. craftsmanship

On the following page, he discusses the peasant appreciation for "craftsmanship." He then notes:

The entrepreneurial mode of farming represents a strong contrast in this respect. Here, entrepreneurship becomes the central capacity - that is, the capacity to pattern the labour and production processes according to market relations and prospects becomes decisive. Whereas within the framework of craftsmanship internal indicators are normative (e.g. 'What, regarding the behaviour and history of a particular cow, is the ration that best fits her'?), external indicators become the main beacons within the framework of entrepreneurship ('Given the relations between the price of milk and the costs of different feed ingredients, what is the best ration?'). Based on these external indicators, day-to-day farm operations are constantly modified, at least in so far as entrepreneurial practices are concerned. Peasants would hesitate or be unwilling to do this: 'By doing so you'll only ruin your cows; they need what best suits them and they need continuity as well.' - p. 116-117

One great line by van der Ploeg is that "globalization eats its 'own children' (the entrepreneurs)" - which he follows up by saying that "globalization and its consequences can only be responded to in a resilient and sustainable way through peasant modes of farming." (p. 149)

He elaborates on Europe's repeasantization (which he says is taking place alongside industrialization and deactivation). He describes this repeasantization by citing more farmers diversifying their farms and doing on-farm processing or selling to local consumers, "farming more economically," "regrounding farming upon nature" (what we might call farming more ecologically), "improving efficiency of I/O conversion" (input to output conversion), and "new forms of local cooperation." He notes:

Farming economically... was perceived by many as a step backward, especially when combined with a regrounding of farming upon natural resources. And within the modernization paradigm, which centres on the embodiment of scientific progress in industrial inputs and new technologies for farming, such a combination would be seen as an outrage. Pluriactivity [working off the farm] was likewise assumed to be something for the periphery; and new forms of local cooperation were thought to be unnecessary as long as the state and key farmers' unions ordered the sector properly... Improving the efficiency of farming... was understood to be the exclusive role of science and associated expert systems. p. 154

The examples van der Ploeg gives are quite wonderful, and they help make sense of some of the abstract explanations here. In one, he talks about a European dairy giant that went bust because it was entirely built on debt. Of course, he classifies this dairy giant as "Empire" and explains at length its usefulness, since all it really did was take resources that already existed and pattern them in such a way to profit off of them. The farmers lost out, since they were not paid terribly well, and consumers did too, since they were sold an inferior product at inflated prices. Some of the schemes to sell inferior milk products are quite remarkable, and none more so than the product Italian newspapers called "simil-latte." This was sold for years as UHT (ultra heat treated) milk but it was actually "imported massive quantities of waste products, among them milk that had passed its durability and milk powder to be used for animal feed, etc." (p. 108) This stuff was not only microfiltrated, it was also treated with ammonia. Fortunately, it seems that the Italians actually arrested the criminals behind this one. But, while this is an extreme, there are plenty of other examples given (and no doubt you can name a zillion yourself) of foods that are entirely disconnected from time and place by Empire, so that it doesn't matter where or when something is produced anymore, so long as it is produced where it is cheap and sold at a profit elsewhere.

What I found most interesting was when he spoke about Empire's need for control, for which they often use the state as a tool and science as a justification. The specific example given was the Netherlands' Manure Law, which did a rough (but inaccurate) calculation of how much manure (and thus, cows) any given field could handle and limited the number of cows to that number. In doing so, the law failed to take into consideration the differences between individual fields, soils, grasses, climates, and breeds of cows, and often limited farmers to fewer cows than their land could actually handle.

The entire discussion in the book reminded me of the food safety debate here. Whereas Empire has a major food safety problem, by and large, we aren't experiencing national recalls from the nations' peasant farms. Where craftsmanship and pride in a beautiful farm drive the production of food, food safety due to the gross criminal negligence we've seen in major national recalls is just not a problem. Furthermore, interference by the state with food safety legislation on these peasant farms can actually interrupt their activities and make them unable to survive financially. And, if the food safety bill in particular does not do this (and let's hope not!), then perhaps other regulatory schemes will. (Consider requirements for commercial kitchens, USDA- and state-inspected slaughterhouses, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, bans on raw milk, the requirement for almond pasteurization, etc, etc, etc.) The government regulation in these cases is often needed to regulate "Empire," but at the same time, Empire benefits from the regulation as peasants or small-time competition is driven out of business.

So perhaps it is no surprise that van der Ploeg says "In its relation to Empire, the peasantry increasingly represents resistance." (p. 265) And, having now met with peasants in several countries, I would certainly say that is the case.

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