Cultivators of the Earth

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.

Love Wins

6 comments on “Cultivators of the Earth

  1. I really appreciate your look at this quote with fresh eyes. I’ve had it in my notebook for a while now and look at it now and then wondering about its current meaning. I certainly hope your slight revision will become a new reality. I can’t help but believe there is no other way. When foreign countries are buying up our tillable soil, that should be a clue to any mildly discerning citizen that adjustments need to be made and sooner rather than later, which is quickly becoming sooner rather than never.


    • Bill says:

      Absolutely. As farmers age and die out they’re not being replaced by young farmers. Either their farms are turning into subdivisions or they’re being acquired by corporations, including multi-national corporations. When we most need to be producing our own food, our ability to do so will be compromised. We need to start turning the ship around very soon.


  2. C.C. says:

    Hello – I just wanted to share that my first thought before reading the rest of the first paragraph was, “worms.” these days i think in terms of the whole web of life including humans. I wondered if Thomas Jefferson had written about farming from a natural history perspective. Glad to hear his values and your 21st century savvy and reminder.


    • Bill says:

      I very much agree with you. Everything is connected.

      Mr. Jefferson was a student of natural history. His “Notes on the State of Virginia” is a classic in that field. You’ve reminded me that I need to go review some of the wisdom of that book. 🙂


  3. shoreacres says:

    From my perspective, and that of some of my farming/ranching acqaintances, one of the most distressing aspects of the Obama tax plan concerns estate taxes. Without action, the exemption will be dropped to $1 million and the rate raised to 55%. Family farms easily can be valued at over a million dollars by the time you add in land, buildings, equipment, livestock, and so on. Without allowances made for farming, some families will lose their farms. There are times when I think the government is determined to drive the multi-generational family farm out of business in favor of corporate farming.

    Here’s one story, picked at random. If farmers are to become more responsible and agriculture more open to sustainable practices, one of the first tasks is making it possible for farmers to keep their farms.


    • Bill says:

      It is sometimes a concern, but very rarely. The article is a little misleading. The exemption and rate change are a result of the automatic expiration of the so-called Bush tax cuts, not any Obama tax plan. The budget proposed by Obama for 2013 calls for the exemption to be $3.5 million per person (returning to the 2009 level), down from the current $5.12 million (which is the result of an automatic annual increase that has been in effect for a few years). No one favors returning to $1 million and there is zero chance that will happen, imho. Even if gridlock takes us over the “fiscal cliff,” Congress will retroactively raise the exemption, as it has done in the past. Since the GOP is advocating elimination of the estate tax and the Democrats are advocating putting the exemption at $3.5 million per person, my best guess is that the eventual compromise will leave it where it is now, which is a bit over $5 million per person.

      When I started practicing law the exemption was only $600,000, with a 55% rate on amounts over that. Many folks around here wrongly believe that if their estate is worth over a million dollars, then they will owe 55% of the value of the estate. In fact, if their estate is worth $5.12 million or less, they owe zero. If its worth $5,120,100, then they’ll owe $55.00, etc. (if they are single). Same math at $3.5 million or at $1 million. The concern of course is with illiquidity if there is any tax due.

      One thing that bugs me about this is how the discussion of the “death tax” always holds out farmers and ranchers as the victims of it–which is hardly ever the case. A friend of mine who did farmer consulting in the midwest told me that he has never seen a single example of a farm being lost because of an estate tax. I’m sure it happens, but the special interests who push opposition to this are, imho, protecting the interests of the ultra-wealthy who as a general rule don’t seem to give a rip about farmers when it comes to anything else.

      Sorry if I rambled on too long, but this is kind of sore spot for me. 🙂


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