Young farmers: Anybody want to be a serf?

Young Farmers

More and more of today's unemployed college grads would like to become farmers. But if they can't get their own land, could they wind up at the bottom of a new family feudalism? Photo: Teddy Ruxpin2.

“I don’t know a single person under 30 who doesn’t want to own a farm,” wrote Fran Korten in an issue of YES! Magazine devoted to jobs and alternative careers. “A growing segment of people don’t want to just buy organic, healthy food. They want to grow it. This new lust to farm seems to cross class, race, and politics.”

This farm-lust probably doesn’t feature the ambition to become a penniless laborer bound to some rich guy’s estate. But the nation’s leading advocate for young farmers thinks that something like serfdom could be in the future of young people who are leaving the city to till the soil, if they’re not careful.

Greenhorns or neo-peasants

A couple weeks back my wife Lindsay and I ran into filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming. After three years in production, she just put out a documentary called The Greenhorns, which she jokingly refers to as propaganda for her non-profit organization of the same name, dedicated to helping a new generation of back-to-the-landers find land to go back to and then work it successfully once they get there.

Her latest concern?

That wealthy people are busy buying up farmland to provide them with food after the peak-ocalpypse and that they’re trying to recruit young people to work these new feudal estates as low-paid hired hands.

Von Tscharner Fleming herself farms land that she rents in the Hudson Valley.

We met the farmer-filmmaker as she was tearing down her booth at the Heritage Harvest Festival, a local food- and gardening-palooza held this September for the fifth year in a row on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s estate in central Virginia, Monticello.

We introduced ourselves, telling her that we ran Transition Voice and that our local Transition group, about an hour’s drive from Jefferson’s home, had recently shown her film.

She recognized Transition as a movement for peak oilers.

Then, she told us that she had met hedge fund managers in New York who were so worried about peak oil that they were trying to turn their paper wealth into rural real estate that could stand them well if the economy collapses in the near future and takes the industrial food system down with it.

They seem to imagine that, like feudal lords of old, they’ll be able to feed their families and produce food to support a community of retainers.

And those neo-feudal estates would require young farmers with empty pockets and strong backs, the same promising young people that von Tscharner Fleming is trying to empower with their own land and independence from today’s terrible job market as well as the uncertainties of tomorrow.

To prevent the resurgence of sharecropping, serfdom and other regressive traditions of binding people without wealth to the landed estates of the rich, von Tscharner Fleming is planning a new film. She told us that her research would include a talk with Monticello Director of Gardens Peter Hatch to learn about how workers on Jefferson’s estate fared.

Most of Jefferson’s field hands, of course, were slaves.

Friendly feudalism

If you want to make something un-capitalistic sound scary, of course, just call it socialism. Or, if it’s vaguely old timey, dub it feudalism, giving it that particularly menacing touch.

Especially to the modern American mind, nothing as much as feudalism reeks of the Old World constraints that our ancestors left behind when they landed as huddled masses at Ellis Island, gazing up longingly at the Statue of Liberty, yearning to breathe free.

“Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So, with his latest book The Wealth of Nature, in steps John Michael Greer with a bit of heresy: feudalism might not have been so bad.

When feudalism came along in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was certainly an improvement over the 24/7 loot-and-pillage party of life under marauding Vandal and Visigoth horsemen. But feudalism was also a step up from the corrupt crony economy of late Rome.

In its heyday, Rome enjoyed an economy based on sustainable village agriculture and sound money made from precious metals. But as the republic gave way to empire and empire expanded on the back of conquest and looting of subject peoples, growth bred greed. In the countryside, wealthy nobles bought up small farms and consolidated them into huge latifundiae — the large industrial farms of their day. The new owners became absentee landlords who milked these estates as cash cows.

The primary economy cracked as topsoil loss caused Roman agriculture to fail; attempts by emperors to remedy the situation failed in turn, and the Roman government was reduced to debasing the coinage in an attempt to meet a rising spiral of military costs driven by civil wars and barbarian invasions.

It’s impossible to miss the parallel here with today’s industrial agriculture, mining the land for a quick buck at the expense of topsoil and other natural values, as well as today’s American Empire in time of recession, military overreach and a growing gap between the rich and the rest. With high unemployment, home foreclosures and levels of financial inequity not seen since the late 1920s, the money economy is becoming increasingly corrupt and unworkable for anyone but the very wealthy.

When people lost faith in debased money at the time of Rome’s twilight, they turned to the things that had obvious value as the basis for a new and improved economy: land and labor. Land became the source of power and labor became the medium of exchange, from the peasant who worked a few weeks of the year for his landlord as rent on a small plot, to the landlord himself who gained control over his estate by fighting in his own overlord’s army.

And voilá, you had feudalism. As Greer writes:

It’s common in contemporary economic history to see this as a giant step backward, but there’s good reason to think it was nothing of the kind. The tertiary economy [money] of the late Roman world had become a corrupt, metastatic mess; the new economy of feudal Europe responded to this by erasing the tertiary economy as completely as possible, banishing economic abstractions and producing a stable and resilient system that was very hard to game — deliberately failing to meet one’s feudal obligations was the one unforgivable crime in medieval society…

As our own money economy, with Wall Street abstractions like credit-default swaps that would have made the most creative Roman money-lender’s head spin, starts to collapse under the weight of its own deep corruption and maddening complexity, simpler and more honest ways of doing business will inevitably arise to take the place of money and markets.

With less money (or less money that we can trust if there’s inflation), in the future we’ll all be doing a lot more bartering, exchanging more favors and gifts and making more of our stuff at home than we do today.

So, as things change  in the decades ahead, we need to keep vigilant in making sure that our new arrangements protect the civil rights and freedoms that our ancestors fought so hard to gain over two centuries of modernity, from women’s rights to racial equality. And we need to rejuvenate the venerable tradition of one-person-one-vote, watered down in today’s era of plutocratic control over government.

At the same time, we need to open our minds to old ideas that might be much better suited to a low-money, low-energy future than the complicated, wasteful ways of the market era that’s now closing fast.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    “So, with his latest book The Wealth of Nature, in steps John Michael Greer with a bit of heresy: feudalism might not have been so bad.

    When feudalism came along in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was certainly an improvement over the 24/7 loot-and-pillage party of life under marauding Vandal and Visigoth horsemen. But feudalism was also a step up from the corrupt crony economy of late Rome.”

    Oh Good Grief. Because Feudalism was a step up from the Slavery and Empire of Rome and the anarchy of the Dark Ages it “wasn’t so bad”?

    Methinks the Archdruid needs to stop imbibing his Potions and doing Magic and get a little real here. Feudalism was accompanied by non-stop Warfare between the Feudal Lords, and any of the current group of Wall Street Pigmen buying farms in addition to trying to hire up cheap ag labor from the recent crop of UE College Graduates better also hire up a small army of XE Mercs to defend the property as well. Then he better hope his Mercs are better than the Mercs of his next door neighbor, and both of them better hope they don’t get Swamped by a Horde of Visigoths out of Chicago.

    Far less likely than a New Feudalism in the near term is Ag Nationalization either in the Fascist or Communist model. You have to be completely off your rocker to believe that individuals will be able to own and protect their small farms or medium size Estates once the monetary system collapses. Why would anyone honor the “Title” to a piece of land purchased with funny money during a corrupt system of legislated theft? When Da Goobermint collapses, your land Title is as worthless a piece of Paper as the FRNs will be.

    John Greer is no Merlin, that’s for sure.


  2. Auntiegrav says

    One of the problems is how we use language to describe relationships. Not long ago, farmers had a bazillion children to sacrifice to the baler knotter gods and to divide up the farm as inheritance. It took a lot of labor to care for the land. Today, we have CSA models, where the consumers participate in much of that labor (when it works…often the farmer finds it easier to not let idiots wreck things). The smaller and more distributive the farming, the more farmers are skilled and caring for the land. Somewhere in between peasant farming and feudalism is a shared responsibility and reward system that we don’t have words for yet (Net Future Usefulness?). Capitalism doesn’t work on the farm because the farm itself becomes a resource, rather than the biggest stakeholder. Farms always exist in the capitalist system because people have to eat, but the land is not cared for in the best ways for the land itself.
    I have shared my land with young farmers starting out, and with gardeners. I think I will do so again. I like the arrangement, and it allows them time to grow and learn without the headaches of land ownership. New people help teach me more about my land than I would learn on my own. The obstacle is our current zoning/housing rules (minimum 35 acres to build a house), and how it prevents me from building ‘substandard’ housing (standards set by arbitrary real estate values, not basic sanitation or safety).

    I think RE has a good point: we can’t count on legal title in a failing empire. Unfortunately, it is the sporadic actions of that failing empire that are the biggest threats (nationalization, privatization, over-regulation, deregulation, over-reaction to food contamination and the exploitation of regulatory rules by corporations, which are really the feudal lords already). We need to stop being afraid of using the word “socialization”. ALL government, all corporations, and all human cooperative efforts are forms of socialism. It is only a dirty word to profiteers.

  3. says

    Here in the heavily populated Northeast, towns are buying land to preserve as open space, and non-profits are buying historic properties. We need someone with the vision and skill to pair up these landowners with the young people eager to steward some land, but without the means to buy their own.

    My husband and I have lived a frugal, homesteading life on a small farm and woodlot for over thirty years. We have had farm apprentices in the past, but now I am trying to share the knowledge of how to grow, prepare, and preserve food via a blog I call “Preserving the Harvest.” Check it out, and pay it forward if you can:

  4. morrna says

    I’ll grant the author that feudalism, despite the bad rap we normally give it, did have positive aspects and can be used in positive ways. Let’s not forget, though, how much power it places in the hands of the landowners, and how that power can be abused and the “serfs” involved exploited. Yes, we will need to adapt to a more tangible economy in the future, but trends like these underscore the need to keep innovations like democracy in place and adapt them to new realities. Ideally, I would like to see our current notion of land ownership changed, because after all we’ve just carried it over almost directly from the original feudal period. That’s a long ways off, though, so perhaps more realistic goals would be accountability for land holders or something like a farmer’s bill of rights. However we do it, we need to find ways to settle for a lower-energy lifestyle without settling for less liberty.

  5. modernserf says

    my experience working on a farm for another farmer in Jefferson’s home state was kinda like being a serf. no respect, verbal abuse, early mornings, late nights, living in an old barn. i did get paid finally after my servitude was up. my main lesson was that you better be the guy on the tractor shouting orders rather than the guy on his knees in the dirt or your life will suck.

  6. Darryl says

    I live in the Deep South and the classic model is serfdom/indentured servitude/ slavery. The south only really left this model in the 1970’s and as fuel prices rise and make mechanical labor more expensive, it will be replaced by physical labor. Physical labor in the south was often in the form of supreme repression and enforced under harsh conditions.

    This is one reason I want move from out of the south and to encourage my sons to have vocations that are not dependent on cheap oil. I want to give them a chance to have a middle class lifestyle (read skilled craftsmen in the 17th century) and not be landless and unskilled in a new and harsher economy. I would like to move to New England, which has a tradition of local democracy and individual rights.

  7. Angel D says

    This reminds me of a book club discussion on Kuntsler’s book World Made By Hand. While describing a post-peak oil village, Kuntsler lays out four potential (this is fiction after all) cultural ‘responses’ to life-with-less: the townspeople who are haphazardly organized (but recognizably interdependent), the religious cult, the violent anarchy on the dump-edge of town, and the feudal estate.
    I polled this group of women about which situation they would gravitate towards, and surprisingly (to me) half chose the feudal estate. When pressed most just said that a guaranteed outcome of food in exchange for hard work made the most sense. Not my choice, but…

    I work for food on a small family farm, and for me this is the best way to gain skills and build relationships with area growers. (Actually a few of us do this in my town, on different farms.) In addition to fresh produce and eggs, I contribute labor as a small token of my appreciation for how difficult it is to keep sustainable ag going. I would encourage more townsfolk to see this as one way to keep food production in the hands of farmers as we re-learn collaboration


  8. luckymortal says


    Very Entertaining. There are many in the Transition movement who are far more frightening than the plutocrats of today. Some, I suspect, are only involved because they think The Peak will give them a shot at living out adolescent Droit du Seigneur fantasies!

    But of course, that’s but one well-deserved perk for the Bold Baron de Transition–the noble savior to the landless and skill-less masses–for allowing the peasantry their lives, though certainly not their superfluous liberty nor pursuit of happiness.

    This does seem to be a common fantasy in the TM, at least in the United States: that the future will bring a White Feudal Craftopia, where those with land and skills will become a new ruling class, without the pesky limitations faced by today’s plutocrats, out society’s democratic and humanist values. Finally, the evil-doers, the “city-dwellers” (always a curious euphemism) and–most importantly–our children, may be coerced into a life-style WE approve of!

    Now, let me apologize for the harshness, but it is intended as a cautionary tale.

    I’m certain that JMG was not acting as advocate, but as oracle, with his normal arm’s length stand from the truth. And as usual, he’s right.

    But let us in the Transition Movement remember that when “control” or “power” becomes a part of our agenda, no matter how innocently, we justify those “visigoths out of Chicago.”

    In that future, all will be morally justified in taking what they need from those who claim “ownership” or “control” over it.

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