In Praise of Peasants
Article from Commondreams found in http://www.energybulletin.net
Praise of Peasants
by Jim Goodman
"Our lives are dependent on the sacrifice of the Campesinos"- Cesar Chavez
On April 17, 1996 1,500 members of Brazil’s MST, the Landless Peasants Movement, having been evicted from their farms two years earlier, marched to the state capitol in Para to demand a return of their land so they could again feed their
families. Instead of meeting with government officials they were surrounded by police, who, using machine guns, killed 19 and seriously wounded 69.
Farmers, peasants, the indigenous and the landless are entitled to land only until the government or the corporate interests find a better use for it.
La Via Campesina, the international movement of the small farmer celebrates April 17 as the International day of Peasant’s Struggles. The struggle against the evictions, oppression and marginalization of the farmer. The commemoration
of the struggles of Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers and the indigenous peoples of the world.
Those who farm in the US distance themselves from the term peasant, thinking it connotes a tenant, sharecropper, a small farmer or mere farm worker. I am a small farmer, a peasant and proud of it. Remember, roughly half of the worlds
population are farmers who work the land and tend livestock. While I am a minority in the US, worldwide, I am part of the majority.
The vast majority of the worlds small farmers and farm workers continue to struggle against trans-national agribusiness corporations (TNC’s) that control the worlds food supply, they struggle against oppressive government policies
that wish to convert local farming to industrialized agriculture.
The peasant farmer struggles for the right to grow what they wish, for access to water, land and credit and for the rights of women farmers who grow most of the world’s food. They struggle for protection from subsidized foreign imports and
to protect their crops from contamination by Genetically Engineered seed. They struggle to eliminate food from international trade agreements, because food is different, food is a human right, not a commodity.
US farmers are ambivalent to this struggle, but are we really so distant from it? Do we really control our own destiny? An Iowa farmer notes that in his state most farmers own about 20% of the land they farm, they are tenants.
We have no control over our market prices or our input costs, but the TNC’s do. We have no control over land prices and government programs dictate what crops we will grow. We compete with farmers worldwide to see who can work the cheapest while the TNC’s eliminate local food production.
Americans are not so very different than the peasants of the world. We are all at the mercy of the TNC’s. When three corporations control our meat processing and four control the worlds grain supplies, who really decides what we will eat
and what we will pay?
Those who do not work the land are still connected to it and to the peasant. The farm worker grows our fruit, our vegetables and our livestock, without them we would all go hungry. Most of the world knows this, yet in the US we are slow to learn. Still, the White House garden, a window box in Brooklyn or a community garden in Los Angeles, we are catching on. We all have the farmer, the peasant, somewhere inside and we are destined to be part of the struggle.
There is no shame in being a peasant, a farmer, in struggling to control your destiny, for manual labor and working the land are not demeaning. Feeding your family, your community and resisting the globalization of food are the struggles
all farmers, all people must share whether they grow millet and rice in India, herd cattle in Africa, grow tomatoes in a Brooklyn window box or fish the North Sea.
We must control our food supply, we must decide what will be grown to protect our health, our culture and the environment. We are all part of the struggle, for we are all peasants, or, all in need of peasants. April 17 should, at the
very least, be a day to consider our connection to food and to those who struggle to feed us.
Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer and activist from Wonewoc, WI and a WK Kellogg
Food and Society Policy Fellow.
For Young Japanese, It’s Back to the Farm
Published: April 15, 2009
YOKOSHIBAHIKARI, Japan — A motley group of unlikely farmers descended on the
countryside here one recent Sunday, fresh towels around their necks, shiny boots
on their feet.
Ayumi Nakanishi for The New York Times
The New York Times
"This is harder than it looks," said Tatsunori Kobayashi, a spiky-haired janitor
from Tokyo Disney Resort, as he tromped through a mustard spinach patch with a
seed planter, irregular furrows stretching out behind him.
He is part of Japan’s 2,400-strong Rural Labor Squad, urban trainees dispatched
to the countryside under a pilot program to put Japan’s underemployed youth to
work tilling its farms.
Started last month as part of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s stimulus plans, the
program stems from growing concern about both the plight of Japan’s younger
workers and the dismal state of farms. In a play on words, the squad’s name in
Japanese — Inaka-de-hatarakitai — is also its rallying cry: "We want to work in
The predicament of Japanese in their 20s and 30s dates back to the lost decade
of the 1990s, when many failed to find good, stable work. Today, a
disproportionate number endure low-wage jobs — a potential portent for America’s
students and first-time job seekers plunging into a shallow job market in the
As the Japanese recession has worsened, younger workers have taken the brunt of
wage cuts and layoffs, especially in manufacturing. Now the government views the
slump — Japanese exports fell almost 50 percent year-to-year in February — as a
chance to divert idle labor to sectors that have long suffered from worker
shortages, like agriculture. Many young Japanese, for their part, have shown a
growing interest in farming as disillusionment rises over the grind of city jobs
and layoffs. Agricultural job fairs have been swamped with hundreds of
applicants; one in Osaka attracted 1,400 people.
"Young people want jobs, and farmers need the extra hands," said Isao Muneta, an
agriculture ministry official who coordinates the 1.3 billion yen ($13 million)
program, part of a larger stimulus package. "It’s the perfect match."
Whether it will save Japan’s deteriorating economy is something else. "Rural
communities could benefit from an influx of young people," said Masashi Umemoto
at the National Agricultural Research Center. "But it’s unrealistic to look to
agriculture as a solution to the country’s unemployment problems."
He added, "There aren’t enough farming jobs."
Like the French and the British, whose industrial societies have deep (if
distant) rural roots, the Japanese have long romanticized life in the
countryside. Only 4 percent of Japan’s labor force works in agriculture, but a
reverence for the country’s rice-farming heritage is strong. Japanese children
grow up with warnings not to waste a single grain of rice, out of respect for
farmers’ labor. In an annual ritual, the Japanese emperor makes an offering of
rice harvested from paddies within the palace grounds to Shinto deities. And in
international trade talks, rice remains the most sensitive crop for Japan.
Beneath this romanticism, however, is a stark reality. Japanese farming is a
picture of inefficiency, and the rural work force is graying. A decline in rice
prices has hit farms hard — only the largest farms still turn a profit from
harvesting rice, forcing farmers to take on extra jobs. The farms most desperate
for workers do not have the means to pay for new recruits. Agricultural jobs pay
as little as $1,500 a month and are often seasonal.
Overgrown plots abound in Yokoshibahikari, a town of 26,000 about 43 miles east
"We’re all old folk and thankful to have young people come help us," said
Hitoshi Suzuki, 57, and head of a cooperative of family farms that share
equipment to reduce overhead costs. (One of the cooperative’s farmers is 83.)
Rural communities themselves effectively shut out new blood by making it
difficult for outsiders to set up their own farms, says Takayuki Yoshioka, a
coordinator at the nonprofit organization that runs the Yokoshibahikari program.
People with no local links who want to buy farmland are subjected to a vetting
process by local farming committees that can take years.
"I believe the possibilities are limitless in agriculture," said Mr. Yoshioka,
who is interested in starting his own farm. "But there are also big barriers."
Shinji Akimoto, who until recently worked in information technology, is not
Fearful of constant staff cuts as business deteriorated, Mr. Akimoto, 31, quit
his job last month and days later started training in Yokoshibahikari. His
three-day, government-financed training program has been a succession of
whirlwind lessons in rice and vegetable planting, cleaning pig sties and feeding
"I had nothing much to lose, and in times like these, I felt I needed to learn
to make my own living," he said. He chuckled and twirled a finger in the air.
"Did you know pigs really do have curly tails?"
Mr. Akimoto’s team of 10 is a hodgepodge: the Disney janitor, a recently
laid-off landscape artist and several college students. They all get 7,000 yen a
day, about $70, and free food and board.
They all shared a common complaint: there was no convenience store nearby for
drinks and snacks. One trainee persuaded a farmer to lend him his light truck,
so he could get cigarettes.
"My friends think I’m crazy for coming here," said Tomoka Inoue, 20, a
management major who said she was widening her job search to include farming.
"But I think people are becoming more aware of where our food comes from, and I
want to get more involved with that."
Experts say the program’s wider economic impact will be limited in the face of
the severe challenges facing Japan’s economy: gross domestic product shrank at
an annualized rate of 12.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and
unemployment is at a three-year high of 4.4 percent.
But the government is going ahead with plans to begin yearlong farm intern
placements later this year. Increasing agricultural employment is part of a new
$154 billion stimulus package that Mr. Aso announced last week.
Mr. Kobayashi, the janitor at Disney, says his time as a trainee has helped him
decide he wants to take up farming leeks, this town’s main crop. He intends to
take another week off to train with a local leek farmer, Yoshinori Yamazaki, who
is looking for someone to take over his farm.
"This is just too perfect," Mr. Kobayashi gushed. He said leeks were his
favorite vegetable, and he had read that they were easy for beginners to grow
and bring in a stable income.
But Mr. Yamazaki, the leek farmer, was skeptical. "You can’t learn farming in
just a year, or even several years. It’s a lifetime profession," he said. "I
worry this is just a fad. I’m worried that when the economy picks up, they’ll
all flock back to the city."
"Peasant" is a perfectly respectable title. It implies being close to the land. As for injustices done to peasants in the past, among the worst is what Stalin did to the Kulaks. Now that I’m a retired financial guy who is trying to scratch out a sustainable lifestyle on a parcel of arable land with an adjoining woodlot, I suppose I might qualify as a modern day (but well educated) peasant. There was a time when I would have been ashamed to think of myself in that way, but no more. I’ve learned humilty, which is one of life’s most valuable lessons.
I suspect farmers — especially those who practice small scale, sustainable farming techniques — are going to move up in the world. Better to be a peasant with a full belly than an unemployed investment banker with that lean, hungry look.