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Agrarian Ecology

One might wonder whether any twenty-first-century preoccupation with agrarian values, agrarian ecology, and agrarian ideals comes as too little, too late. Less than 2 percent of the North American public lives in rural areas outside towns, cities, and suburbs, and less than half of the world’s population now lives outside cities. But the New Agrarianism, which is emerging globally, is not restricted to the rural domain, nor is it necessarily a romantic desire to reenact social behaviors and mores associated with rural populaces in bygone eras.

Instead, a New Agrarianism is emerging within urban as well as rural communities, and may indeed be the set of values and operating principles that can obliterate the rural-urban divide that, in many ways, characterized and crippled North American and European cultures during the second half of the twentieth century. But what exactly does “agrarian” mean? Why are the concepts associated with it being used once more as rallying cries, decades after most global citizens have become disenfranchised from the land? Finally, why has “agrarian ecology” become a useful focus for anthropologists, biologists, demographers, geographers, historians, and land-tenure lawyers, and why is it being applied to solving problems in at least a dozen countries on four continents?

If we return to its entomological roots, agri- can be traced as far back as the proto-Indo-European noun “h₂éǵros,” meaning field or pasturage, which has cognates not only in Old English but in ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit as well. As used over the centuries in Europe and England, this term refers to a constellation of activities, values, and premises regarding human relationships to cultivated soil or to the land in general. As a prefix in Latin, and then Old, Middle, and modern English, ager- and agri- relates to soil, fields, farms, land, terrain, landscape, territory, and country. In the related term “agriculture,” based on the Latin ager + colere, we see the relationship between humans and the land circumscribed by the activities and values of cultivating, tilling, stewarding, tending, and safeguarding. Agrarian ecology, as articulated by agricultural anthropologist Robert McC. Netting in 1974, is the study of both the social and the legal frameworks that guide tenure to and the human uses of cultural “working” landscapes and the interactions between human communities and their agricultural and ecological resources in the landscapes.

Agrarianism, of late, has come to embody a nuanced set of social, political, and ecological values that see rural activities, behaviors, and ethics as functioning on a higher order than urban- or suburban-derived comparables. However, for well over a century, the phrase “agrarian reform” has had broader recognition in Latin America, Europe, and Asia as a movement to keep peasant societies from becoming increasingly landless and in greater servitude to capitalistic institutions by enacting the redistribution of land and other wealth. Agrarian ecologists have paid particular attention to how peasant societies resist such extractive institutions and organize themselves to protect, sustain, and efficiently use the natural resource base and traditional knowledge upon which their members’ livelihoods depend.

In a very real sense, agrarian values place heightened importance on the daily human commitment to and daily involvement in rural lifeways as God-given responsibilities. Accordingly, Thomas Jefferson is often designated the best early articulator of American agrarian values, while Henry Wise Wood, Louis Bromfield, Ralph Borsodi, Robert Swann, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Helen Nearing, and Will Allen are granted status as the most elegant contemporary North American defenders of agrarian values in the face of agricultural industrialization and ex-urban growth.

However, agrarian values are not exclusively Euro-American or even Christian, for Marxist materialists around the world have come to embrace some of the same principles and strategies for valuing the work done by peasant farmers. As eloquent as Jefferson and Berry in the United States and European voices such as Jean Giono and John Berger may be, Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukouoka and Australian permaculturist Bill Mollison exemplify the power and reach of agrarian values outside of the Euro-American geographic and cultural context.

Because twentieth-century agrarian proponents such as Canadian Henry Wise Wood, Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka, and American Wendell Berry have often been diagnosed by urban critics as being afflicted with a nostalgia-emitting dysfunction that has symptoms of being “anti-urban,” “luddite,” or “retro,” some proponents such as Eric Freyfogle and David Walbert call their philosophies “Neo-Agrarian.” On his populist website,, Walbert offers a brilliant articulation of how the New Agrarianism can be distinguished from other forms of agrarianism that may be flawed by romanticism or nostalgia. He argues that New Agrarianism is defined by four elements. First, while it draws heavily on past agrarian practices and thinking, it is not bound by them because New Agrarianism is focused on building the future. Second, New Agrarianism is concerned with creating a new kind of rural community for the twenty-first century— one that is tied neither to traditional models of rural America nor to the dominant large-scale industrial agricultural approach. Third, New Agrarianism views sustainable community as the ultimate goal, and sustainable agriculture is just one critical part of that vision. Thus, New Agrarian values can be expressed in all sectors of the economy and across all aspects of a sustainable culture and life.

Fourth and finally, New Agrarianism recognizes that society is mostly urban and sees this as an opportunity to seed New Agrarian values within and across nations and urban areas, since the core of this philosophy is the desire for sustainable connections among nature, place, and community.

And yet, David Walbert, David Orr, Will Allen, and others concur that an agrarian believes in, if not the primacy, then at least the uniqueness of agriculture among human endeavors. Activists David Hanson and Edwin Marty, coauthors of Breaking through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival, believe that agrarian values and practices should and can be expressed in urban, suburban, and ex-urban settings as well as in rural landscapes. Youth groups such as FarmFolk/CityFolk, the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, and Greenhorns are moving such an agenda forward as a social movement that now crosses international boundaries. In their view, a foodscape is no longer (and has actually never been) a place beyond the city’s limits, and the quest for just, equitable, and sustainable food systems and environmentally healthy foodsheds must engage both rural and urban dwellers of all races, classes, and languages with equal strength. The fact that over twenty-five hundred acres of Metro Detroit’s sixty-five hundred acres of formerly built-upon and abandoned urban lots are once again producing food is testament to the survival of agrarian values in an urban setting.

Finally, it is worth noting that agrarian and neo-agrarian advocates link themselves to an unbroken chain of prophetic voices that have critiqued excessively urban, inward-looking, and narcissistic values of those who have become indifferent to the plight of farmers, fishers, ranchers, and foragers, and to the land itself. In theologian Ellen Davis’s finely researched book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, it becomes historically clear that agrarian voices have risen up as prophets, dissidents, and agents of change whenever urban hierarchical or industrial societies have become too excessive in their consumption, waste, and hegemony over others. Davis deftly links the messages and methods of the Old Testament prophets with modern-day agrarian voices from many countries.

On the academic or scholarly level, it is surprising that biologically trained ecologists are among the least engaged in the documentation and application of agrarian ecology (sensu Netting) compared to geographers, anthropologists, agro-ecologists, and rural sociologists. There are, of course, exceptions among broad-based natural scientists such as Mexican Victor Toledo, Chilean Miguel Altieri, and Indian Vandana Shiva, who have trained hundreds of students to apply a broader perspective to ecological issues in food-producing landscapes. Anyone who still believes that agrarianism is something of the past should spend a day with “greenhorns,” some of whom are now associated with Via Campesina, Slow Food International, or various young farmers’ coalitions and permaculture guilds. Be assured that you will be both tired and fulfilled at the end of one long but fruitful day with them.


Gary Paul Nabhan has written several books about agriculture and food, including “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons  from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty” and “Food, Genes, and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins.”



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