Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.
Thomas Jefferson wrote those words in a letter to John Jay in 1785. I wonder if he would hold this opinion today.
I’m inclined to believe there’s still truth in it, provided we temper the superlatives. By and large I’d say farmers are vigorous and independent. Those who farm as we do tend to be libertarian (small “l”) in their thinking. As the producers of food, which is true wealth, they are valuable citizens.
But it’s easy to construct a rebuttal. Industrial farmers these days tend to be dependent on a mind-boggling list of government sponsored “programs” for their existence. Crop subsidies are the best known and perhaps most notorious, but there are a myriad of others, such as subsidized crop insurance, “disaster” relief programs that kick in every summer it seems, “cost share” programs that subsidize farm improvements, subsidized loans and the list goes on and on. These days the typical farmer is wedded to the government in ways Mr. Jefferson would never have imagined.
“Virtue” was extremely important to the founders, as they imagined how our young republic might fare. These days if we hear the word “virtue” at all, it is used in the sense of “morality.” But virtue meant much more than that in the late 18th Century. Characteristics of “virtue” were frugality, thrift, industry, moderation, self-reliance, duty and self-control. A society characterized by debt, dependency, overconsumption, gluttony and an aversion to work is not a virtuous society. Sadly most American farmers are burdened with debt and dependent upon the government. Many are as guilty of overconsumption and gluttony as the typical suburbanite. Mr. Jefferson would not consider such folks to be virtuous.
And these days a “cultivator” is a machine, not a person.
While there is still merit in what Mr. Jefferson wrote, I think to make it ring true in 2012 we would have to replace the word “are” with “should be.” Because I so strongly believe that farming sustainably and responsibly is an antidote to much of what ails us, I would replace the words “are” with “could be.”
Actually, being an optimist I would replace them with “will be.” Let’s try that out:
Cultivators of the earth will be the most valuable citizens. They will be the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they will be tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.
If Mr. Jefferson’s words were ever true, may they be true again.