Farm: A Term with Problems of it's Own

Farm: A Term with Problems of it's Own

Like "food," "farm" is a term that need attention in our time.

(This is Part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 is “'Food:' It's a Misunderstood, Misused Term.”

Like "food," "farm" is an important root term that needs to be understood in our time. In one sense, farm refers to what farmers do, as agriculture, in raising domesticated crops and livestock.

In my discussion of "food" I've emphasized that part of "farming," the "farming system," and the "farm industry," for example, is not food. It is, therefore, bigger than food. It includes feed, (animal food,) fiber (i.e. cotton, wool,) and raw materials for many nonfood items. Fuel is also part of all things farm, and has been for thousands of years. Today we think of biofuels (i.e. biodiesel and ethanol,) but farm fuel also has included, and still includes feed for draft animals, such as oats for horses. Draft power remains very important globally. So "farm" includes food, but is more. It's a bigger term.

In the “Food” piece I argued that when terms like "food industry" and "food system" are used, it's often really impossible to separate out the hidden non-food components, which can be produced by the same "food" processors in the very act of processing "food." The same can be true in reverse. From cotton, for example, we get cotton seed, which can have a variety of uses, including use as a "food" item. For example, in Eat Your Heart Out, Jim Hightower pointed out that that the brown stuff on Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars was (at that time,) made out of cotton seed, (with no cocoa or chocolate listed among the ingredients).

Unfortunately, the new "Food Movement" often seems to be rejecting the non-food part of all things "farm." It's sometimes suggested that "farms" should produce only "food." That's seems to be equivalent to rejecting a large number of the jobs people have, saying that they're invalid, and should be eliminated. It sounds a bit puritan, like putting a scarlet letter on things farmers raise that that are nonfood.

Tom Philpott suggested that 10% of midwestern farmland that's been used for corn and soybeans should be changed over to fruit and vegetable production. While that's a great "food miles" point, it would be devastating to farmers that grow vegetables and fruits. By my calculations, Philpott's suggestion, if implemented, would mean a 160% increase in the amount of U.S. land used for vegetables and fruits, (to 260%!), causing massive oversupply, with a devastating impact on vast segments of the farm and food system.

Another suggestion has been to stop raising livestock and use the land for food. That would lead to a similar massive overproduction, a similar devastation. (On these points see the Farm & Food Policy link below, and here and here

More generally, the Food Movement often simply erases the word "farm" from various kinds of usage. It's a "food industry" or "food system." It's "food justice," "food security," or even "food sovereignty." Likewise, recently we've heard calls for a "National Food Policy." While there is merit in talking specifically about food in some instances, for various reasons given here, that probably doesn't make sense most of the time, and the discussion of National “Food” Policy is a good example. What we need is an updated National Farm and Food Policy (

Globally, of course, 80% of the undernourished, (and 70% of the population of Least Developed Countries,) are rural, mostly farmers. For that reason, the call to "feed the world" with "food" is misleading and even seriously mystifying. The underlying problem is "farm" poverty and rural poverty, (poverty in rural economies). Much of this is caused by cheap farm prices caused by overproduction. So to "feed the world" with more food is to cause overproduction, cheaper prices, greater poverty, and more hunger and starvation. Instead we need to "pay the world," to fairly pay the world's farmers for growing both food and nonfood products. We need to more adequately pay the "undernourished,” the LDCs, rather than reduce their farm prices. Oversupply increases their poverty. Fair pay would powerfully create wealth and jobs in their rural economies.

In recent years the "Farm" ("Family Farm" or "Farm Justice") Movement has evolved into a "Food" Movement (under various names, such as "Good Food Movement" and "Sustainable Food Movement," & see more in Marion Nestle's "Food Politics," "Preface to the 2007 Edition"). Historically, (i.e. over the past 60 years, and also 150 years,) however, it was almost entirely a "farm" (or Family Farm) movement that did the vast majority of movement work in many of the categories of what are today called "Food Movement" work.

The farm-side of the Farm and Food Movement, (of which my family has been a part,) has often called for food-side help, (for example here, in 1985, []).

Note that I used the term "food" in the title to the video linked just above. I did that to get the attention of the Food Movement audience, even though it was really almost entirely a "farm" movement that did the activism in earlier decades. We didn't really see much food-side help showing up over the long decades of the recent phase of our fight (i.e. since the 1950s,) as most farmers have been run out of business. But then finally, in the 21st century, (miraculously!?) a huge food-side movement has come forth. Great!

Unfortunately, so far, the food-side of the movement doesn't seem to know much about it's farm-side history, or the farm-side issues that it advocates for. ( (Cf. the discussion of farm subsidies, farther below.)


The term "farm" and the term agriculture, like the word "food," are also used in compound terms, such as "farming system," "farm industry," "farm interests," and "farm lobby." Some of these "farm" terms are usually (I think,) used in misleading ways by agribusiness interests, by mainstream media, and by the new Food Movement. For example, what are called the "farm interests" or the interests of the "farming industry" of the United States are often not in the authentic interests of farmers at all ( We've seen that very recently in claims that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other 'free' trade agreements are good for agriculture. (See my post: “Reclaiming Farm Trade Terms,” []. Cf. [].)

Likewise, the "farm lobby" does not consist of farmers, except in relatively minor ways, and it does not support the views of most farmers. We see this for issues like "farm subsidies" and the Farm Bill. Subsidies are said to be wanted by farmers, but the majority of farmers have consistently opposed them, calling for fair market prices instead. (Would it make sense to lower wages, and then have the government write subsidy checks to all of the workers, for a small fraction of the reductions? Absurd!) We find, then, that in the Food Movement and mainstream media, farmers are thought to be politically powerful and allied with agribusiness, neither of which is true. The farm movement (Family Farm [or Farm Justice] Movement) that represents authentic "farm" or "farmer" interests has almost always lost the political fights on the big farm bill and trade issues.

Finally, the full definition of "farm" (or better "agriculture,") needs to be supplemented by the work of agrarians like Wendell Berry, for example in The Unsettling of America, where he discusses the larger meanings to human society of all things agricultural. He shows, for example, how urban environmentalists often take a negative view of agriculture, and sometimes buy farms and turn them back to nature.

Related to this is the negative use of terms like "farm" and "agriculture" in some new historical work on the origins of agriculture. We've been hearing this from Michael Pollan, who may be getting these ideas from Richard Manning in Against the Grain. Another example is Evan Fraser & Andres Rimas in Empires of Food. Paradoxically, they lump the "agricultural revolution" (peasants in villages) in with the "urban revolution" (cities, civilization, the power complex, empires). These then are criticisms of things "farm," in favor of things pre-farm (i.e. hunter-gatherer,) toward an environmental ethic. In contrast Lewis Mumford defined the differences between the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution quite clearly in The Transformations of Man, in the Myth of the Machine: v. 1: Technics and Human Development, and in The City in History. (Cf. Pollan and Manning, here:, and my comments to them. See a longer statement from Manning here,, plus my 2 comments.)

Amazingly, then, this simple question of the lexicon of "farm" is quite complex and quite contentious. I welcome peer review! Discuss.