Food, Community, and Economics in the 21st Century
Is the agrarian tradition of any real value to our society?
Lon Inaba’s grandfather, Shukichi Inaba, arrived in Harrah, Washington, on the Yakama Reservation, in 1907. The reservation was billed as the land of opportunity for Japanese immigrants, says Inaba, and his grandfather broke land out of sagebrush and grew potatoes and hay.
But suspicion and fear of the Issei among Caucasian residents led to the alien land law of 1921. Even though the Washington constitution already prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land, many warned of the Issei threat to white residents. According to Tom Heuterman’s Burning Horse, Wapato attorney Joseph Cheney in The Wapato Independent warned his fellows that Japanese Americans would work for less than Caucasians “because they could live for less, maintain the lowest standard of living, pay higher rent for land, and slave to make money.”
The new law prohibited Japanese Americans from even leasing land. So Shukichi Inaba became a sharecropper. “That’s when he got into vegetables,” says Inaba. “There wasn’t enough in the hay and potatoes to be able to pay a share.”
The Inabas farmed in Harrah until World War II, when Inaba’s father Ken and his family were sent to an internment camp in Hart Mountain, Wyoming. His mother’s family was sent to Minidoka, Idaho. “Most people don’t know it,” says Inaba, “but guys in this area weren’t supposed to be evacuated. It was supposed to be west of the Cascades.”
But the Grange lobbied heavily to extend the incarceration into a secondary area that bordered on the Columbia River.
“Dad’s family didn’t expect to get moved out.” So they planted their crops. The day after they were evacuated, the neighbor harvested the Inabas’ peas-and pocketed the proceeds.
But incarceration and xenophobia are not what Inaba wants to talk about.
“I want to talk about community,” he says.
Perhaps living well is indeed the best revenge. After Japanese Americans were allowed to return home, Inaba’s father reclaimed his land and built a very successful produce business. When his children went off to college, most of them to Washington State University, he didn’t expect them to return to Harrah to farm. In fact, Lon ’79 initially went to work for Battelle. But then he took some time off to help his father build a warehouse, and he never left again. Now, he is the farm manager. His brother Wayne x’80 handles sales. Brother Norm ’81 handles the payroll.
Today, Inaba Produce Farms grows sweet corn, onions, peppers, melons, tomatoes, asparagus, and many other crops on 1,200 acres. At the height of the season, they employ over 200 people, most of them Hispanic.
Inaba figures 20 percent of them live in the area year round. The rest move back and forth from Mexico.
The Inabas are known as good employers. Working with a Washington state program, the Inabas built four housing sites for their employees. As we drive along an irrigation canal bordering one of their fields, Inaba points to a double-wide mobile home, which belongs to an employee.
“We provide him septic and water and a place to put his trailer. So he plans to work for us for a while. There’s the kind of guy we want, that has a future with us. We’ve had seasonal guys coming back for 20 years.”
And that’s what Lon Inaba thinks about a lot. Continuity. Roots. Community.
But like many other rural towns across America, Harrah, Inaba’s hometown, is a ghost of what it once was. First the bank went, then the hardware store and the pharmacy. And then, the roof on the only café collapsed under a heavy snow during the winter of 1996.
The café is often the heart of a small rural town. It’s where people meet not just to visit and drink coffee. “There’s a lot of business done there,” says Inaba. If the heart goes, so does the community.
So Inaba, hop grower Gary Morford, Dale Meshke, and a number of others formed a 501c3 nonprofit corporation called “The Friends of Harrah” and started calling people. Within four hours, they raised $10,000. Eventually they raised more than $60,000 in cash and in-kind donations. They set up the old pharmacy as the new café, hired back the former manager, and now meet for lunch, and do business, in Harrah’s new heart.
But even such a dramatic effort cannot halt the impetus of change. Rural towns disappear not just because Costco offers a better deal on groceries in the nearby city, but because people are leaving. Farmers get tired of competing with Chilean asparagus and Mexican strawberries and beating their heads against an economic wall. They give in to inevitability and sell the place to a bigger neighbor, or a developer.
“It’s sad to see your neighbors go out,” says Inaba. “They’ve been in there for generations, and all of a sudden they’re gone.
“That’s kind of the way everything’s going, you know. Everybody wants cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. I don’t see how the American farmer is going to be the least-cost producer.”
No matter who or what you want to blame—predatory pricing, vertical integration, foreign competition, globalization, urban sprawl—the fact of the matter is, rural America is packing it in. At least the rural America of our memory, or imagination.
“It used to be that rural areas were thought of as stable and unchanging,” says WSU rural sociologist and demographer Annabel Kirschner, who tracks population trends in Washington state.
In contrast to many areas in the Great Plains, Washington’s rural counties for the most part are not dramatically losing population overall. Retirees and urban refugees love the low cost of living in Ferry and Okanogan counties. But no matter how civic minded, no matter how good they are for the tax base, there’s one thing that retirees don’t add to a community. Youth.
One trend that concerns Kirschner is the out-migration of young adults. It used to be a kid from Ferry or Adams or Okanogan county would graduate from high school and go off to Washington State College to get his degree. And then, like the Inabas, he’d go home and help dad farm. Or work at the family elevator or hardware.
And some still do. But now the farms are larger and more mechanized. There just isn’t a need for as many new farmers.
There’s an interesting genre of writing that has gained visibility of late. Led by farmer/professor Wendell Berry, the genre extols the virtue of local agriculture. The genre is often inspiring and vital, sometimes sanctimonious and needling, always intriguing. Some critics are calling this the new agrarianism. I call it pastoralism.
The pastoral in English literature seems to resurge whenever there is a migration from country to city, says WSU Shakespeare scholar Will Hamlin. Shakespeare, who presented the pastoral so well, wrote at a time of enclosure in England, when the rich landholders fenced their fields, eliminating the commons, driving many peasants to the city.
Hamlin perceives two primary themes in pastoral literature, nostalgia and social criticism of the city and the court. Pastoral works often extol the good old days, a better place and time, a golden age, a green world of greater harmony, when you could eat good cheese made by a local shepherd and pick your fruit right from the tree, a time when kids worked hard on the farm and loved it and all the neighbors looked out for each other and everyone went to church on Sunday morning and politicians were statesmen instead of crooks.
It’s not only a literary genre that reflects this pastoral impulse. Master Gardeners, with its emphasis on building community, has turned into something of a social movement across the country since its inception at WSU 30 years ago. Also, people flock to farmers markets. Seattle now has 14 farmers markets in addition to Pike Place Market. Spokane residents flock on weekends to the Greenbluff area north of town to experience a little rural life, pick apples, drink cider, observe real farm animals, talk to real farm people.
But fewer than 2 percent of the American population makes a living in farming or agriculture-related business. At the turn of the last century, it was 40 percent. When Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtue of the yeoman farmer in his Notes on Virginia, it was far higher (though it must be noted that Jefferson’s slaves helped boost the rural percentage).
Despite his belief in the strength of a republic of independent farmers, however, even Jefferson foresaw a point where American farmers would produce more than we need. Once farmers started producing a surplus, he suggested the unneeded farmers become sailors or manufacturers. But not merchants.
Although a growing number of innovative farmers, such as Karl Kupers ’71, of Harrington (see Washington State Magazine, winter 2004-05, page 10) have abandoned surplus commodities for more innovative marketing, not every farmer is sufficiently entrepreneurial. So the question remains, is the agrarian tradition of any real value to our society? You hear a lot of Jeffersonian pontification about the independent farmer being the core of our democracy. Judging by dominant buying habits, however, a good many Americans seem perfectly content to have “our” farmers living in Mexico, China, and Brazil.
There’s also the matter of perspective. “You’ll get a very different answer from a historian than an ag economist,” says WSU agricultural historian David Coon. “An economist would see this as very much part of the natural process, that fewer farmers isn’t necessarily a loss. The ones who remain are much more efficient and up to date in terms of management. Rather than having more people living on the margins in rural areas, it’s better to move them off to the towns and work at Boeing.
“Historians will give you a different view. There’s a tremendous loss there. It’s not just a matter of efficiency, but a matter of culture. By taking people off the land, you’re not only reducing the number of rural people, but also hurting the towns and hurting the schools, the community institutions, the churches and social organizations.”
“Part of our training,” says ag economist Richard Carkner, “is looking at economic efficiency. . . . I spent a good share of my career trying to help farmers adapt to technology and looking at scale impacts, advising them on management schemes that allow them to expand. But in the last three years of my career, I started thinking some of these other values are ultimately more important than economic efficiency.”
Carkner underwent something of a conversion during a sabbatical year with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome. He was impressed by the markets in Rome and that food was produced locally. But mostly he was impressed by the potential of that local production and its markets for building community.
Carkner believes that economists should start thinking about the impact of scale not on the profit eked out per bushel of wheat as production increases, but on rural communities, families, and churches.
“I should have studied sociology, I guess.”
It is early October, and the weather at the Lake City farmers market in Seattle is drizzle interrupting sunbreaks interrupting drizzle. The crowd is light today, says Polly, who is selling organic cheese for Samish Bay Cheese. But the intermittent rain doesn’t seem to have any effect on people’s enthusiasm for the regional products available here. Perhaps 40 vendors are selling a tantalizing variety of seasonal produce: beets, greens, apples, gourds, and honey.
Cindy (Rappuhn) Roodzant ’84 has driven over from Startup, just east of Monroe, with her daughter to sell organic pork, free-range chicken, and beef that they grow on their small farm. Business seems good, but she says her husband Brent ’83 still works off-farm 30 hours a week to support the family.
We talk briefly about their hogs, Durocs, a good meaty breed, and the taste of pork from hogs that have been allowed to play and luxuriate in pasture, in contrast to the factory-farm pork in the supermarket. But another customer beckons, so I drift back to talk with Polly and sample her cheese as she extols the seasonal range of flavor in their products.
Polly is trained as a wine steward and formerly worked in the wine section of DeLaurentis at Pike Place Market. She talks with much familiarity about the regionality of wine and cheese, from Tuscany to Washington.
“I’m borderline passionate about organic farming,” because of the environmental benefits, she says. “But I’m passionate about the quality of food.”
Could this be a key to what people are looking for? Is it really rural culture they want, or just good tasting food, preferably grown nearby?
In Seattle, over breakfast, Chris Feise, director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture, picks up the thread. We didn’t choose to get there, he says, referring to the current market system that is increasingly consolidated, squeezing smaller producers out of the system. “Things got larger,” he says. “As they got larger, we overproduced.” At a certain point, overproduction requires export.
“The export model only serves certain folks. But the real contradiction is, is it really serving the wheat growers, even if they’re farming 30,000 acres? No, without [federal price supports], they’d be busted. So who’s it serving? ADM and Cargill. They’re making money.
“What a goofy thing! Why should we pursue this model that’s basically undermining our community?”
Even in the early days of our country, things weren’t quite as pure and agrarian as we like to think, writes WSU anthropologist John Bodley in his Power of Scale. Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison feared not only a powerful central government no better than the British monarchy, but that a large government would be undemocratic. They wanted the United States to remain a nation of small independent farmers. However, writes Bodley, “Just as with the signers of the Declaration of Independence, urban interests and large wealth holders were clearly overrepresented among the delegates [to the Constitutional Convention]. There were sixteen large planters, but only two small farmers. Delegates were predominately large property owners, merchants, and professionals.”
By the early part of the 20th century, borne by the momentum of mechanization and the internal combustion engine, industrial agriculture had firmly entrenched itself. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, writes Bodley, set up the first farm subsidy programs and “was heavily influenced by commercial interests that favored large farms over small.
“By 1987, the hundred largest corporate farms produced more than 10 percent of all farm products. Concentration characterized the United States’s entire food system. By 1997 there were only 1.9 million farms, far below the peak of 6.8 million in 1935, and the largest 70,000, the top 3.6 percent, produced nearly 60 percent of total agricultural sales. The smallest 963,000 farms (50 percent), produced only 1.5 percent of sales.”
At the Harrah Café, I am enjoying some of the best stuffed peppers I’ve ever had. (Click here for the recipe.) Of course, they’re Inaba peppers. Inaba grows beautiful peppers. As I eat, farmers come and go, and I wonder if this really means anything to those urban folks at the Lake City farmers market. If Harrah just disappeared, would anyone notice?
A giant crop sprayer sits parked across the street. Some of the guys in the café farm thousands of acres. But they still consider themselves “small” compared to the giant corporate farms of California’s Central Valley. And regardless of their place on the economic scale
, these guys are the Harrah community. Is this part of the vision those farmers market shoppers want?
And what does it matter? Isn’t economics economics? Are we after all just swept along with a historical tide, unable to make and choose what we want and need?
No, says Feise, along with many others who believe passionately that rural community is vital to American culture, and that its continuance is possible.
“Washington agriculture needs to be in the business of taking a fresh look,” he says. “We need to keep looking for different ways of operating within the paradigm. Maybe we need to create a new paradigm.
“It’s not going to be the same old family farm that Jefferson envisioned. It will be a different kind of thing. But is it possible to design rural societies in ways that are viable and healthy and don’t have these (economic) leaks?
“I think it is.” He thinks a moment. “I mean in theory it’s possible.”
Kennewick demonstration garden photos by George Bedirian
Galleries of Washington communities – Photography by George Bedirian