Rethinking the Peasant

by: Posted on: July 09, 2012

Photo: Andrew Rodman

By Andrew Rodman, Editor, In Good Tilth magazine, a bi-monthly publication from Oregon Tilth

Editor’s Note: Are we seeing a rise in peasant-like behavior?

With economic peril at our door, and the widening gulf of wealth between the haves and the have-not’s, I sense that we are entering a new feudalistic era.

The signs of it are everywhere, from our adulation of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, to our obsession with Hollywood elites. As economic times worsen, we venerate royalty. We are becoming neo-peasants with iPads, arcing away from the American Dream toward the Dark Ages.

I am not surprised at this correction to the social order. Feudalism has proven to be the most stable form of government in the human experience. Can renewed serfdom be far behind?

Arguably, this is a simplistic position. There is much that separates us from the campesinas of Latin America or the rice paddy farmers of Asia. No one is forcing us to swing a machete on a plantation in the hot sun (not yet anyway), and our education and cultural expectations grant us far greater lifestyle choices.

I was brought up thinking that sustenance farmers had no hope of advancement. That their lot was mud. Yet the more monotone my surroundings, the more GMOs spread on grocery shelves, the more I feel the urge to reconnect with the soil and reclaim my roots.

I am not alone. Now it seems everyone is relearning peasant skills, and striving for sustenance via sustainability. In the neighborhood I frequent in Portland, the sound of traffic mingles with the clucking of backyard chickens. On city streets, farm supply stores sprout like microbreweries, and Michael Pollan lectures are a hot ticket. Everywhere, gardens displace residential lawns, which are themselves a symbol of English nobility.

Meanwhile, peasant food has rissen to the world of haute cuisine. For a special occasion, I took my partner out to the rural chic Ned Ludd restaurant in NE Portland. The menu listed delights sourced from some of the finest organic farms in the region. The wood-fired brick oven cooked the food into a celebration of aromas and flavors, showcasing the wonders of a basic pre-industrial farmer’s repast. If peasant’s lives were nasty brutish and short, at least they ate so well that it is now considered an extravagance.

But what about all the servile drudgery that peasantry is heir to? Wasn’t industrialization supposed to liberate? It didn’t turn out that way.

From Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land.

Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year – 175 days – for servile laborers.”

So if you can look past the Dark Ages’ lack of medicine, high infant mortality rates, low life spans and witch burnings, things looked good for our muck-wallowing ancestors.

It is widely accepted that the Green Revolution (industrial farming post WWII) freed us from a life of servitude to the soil. This exodus from the land intensified under Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Butz’s was as anti-peasant as it gets. His mantra to farmers was “Get big or get out,” and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops “[f]rom fencerow to fencerow.” These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining viability of the small family farm.

Forget the 1 percent and 99 Percent, less than three percent of us are now engaged in domestic agriculture. Thank you Lord Butz. Yet increasingly we see a cross-demographic movement to get back to the land.

Some of the brightest and most creative people I know are grabbing hoes and sharpening their shovels for the future. This is vital, as a true organic revolution will require a drastic uptick in public participation in the craft of farming, at all levels.

Embracing aspects of the peasant lifestyle, from growing and preserving food and seed, to nurturing barter societies is a way to ensure cultural resilience in uncertain times.

Whether we identify as peasants or as The Free World, we are all at risk of the disruptions of war, shortages and recession. How other societies respond to emergencies can be instructive.

The “Special Period” in Cuba began in 1991, when the Soviet Union’s collapse halted vital supplies of food, fertilizer and machinery to the island nation. One legacy of the lean times was the desperate transformation of Cuban society away from industrialized agriculture to one of nationwide sustainable agriculture and small organic farms. Farmers commanded respect in this scarcity-beset society, and Havana erupted with green gardens. In the annals of modern sustainable AG, this mass transformation is legend.


During the Climate Change talks in Durban South Africa, in December 2011, there was a delegation from La Via Campesina on the streets. They hold the claim to being the largest movement of peasant farmers and artisanal food producers in the world.

Alberto Gomez, the director of the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations asserted the movement’s roots are entwined with the long history of agriculture, land reform, and social movements throughout the ages, and diverse forms of peasant farming continue to resist “The industrial, agrotoxic agriculture.”

Ricado Jacobs, with the Food Sovereignty Campaign in South Africa, points out that the threat to food sovereignty is land grabbing. “It’s no longer one colonial power coming over on ships. Now it’s China, it’s the Arab states, it’s Goldman Sachs. Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land?”

In the States, the land occupied was once food fallow; from suburban yards to city lots. In the grass seed fields of the Willamette Valley, beans and grains gain acreage and local mills are resurrected.

The organizers of the Occupy Our Food Supply day (February 27,) rallied against large agribusiness corporations, including Cargill, Monsanto, ADM and DuPont, while elsewhere, the Just Label It campaign targeted the FDA, demanding that genetically altered food be identified in the marketplace. The rabble is rising. We are telling the Haves “Not!”

Collectively, we are reclaiming our earth-wise heritage and becoming uppity peasants with muddy boots. Our villages are abuzz.


Andrew Rodman is the Editor of In Good Tilth magazine, a bi-monthly publication from Oregon Tilth promoting biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. See

2 Responses to “Rethinking the Peasant”

  • I think we need to get more information out there. I'm slowly learning to can and preserve. Growing food is a great start, but then learning to preserve it is the next step. It doesn't do any good to get a lot of people growing seasonal food and then having to buy the canned foods from the corporations because the food doesn't keep.
    by: Mary S.on: Monday 6th of August 2012
  • If you can leave the beans on the vine to dry, that's ideal, but my time is super limited so I took anatdvage and went for it. With bush beans, you can pull the whole plant and I hang them upside down in my garage to continue drying. With the trail of tears black beans, which are pole beans, I harvested all the pods that had turned purple. I left the green ones to mature a little longer. I laid the pods out in my garage and will let them continue to dry out in there. It's just that if it rains before you harvest, it complicates things b/c then they take even longer to dry. Good luck!
    by: Utkarshinion: Wednesday 29th of August 2012

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