Solidarity & Organizing get us a Food System that Supports Workers’ and Farmers’ Wellbeing
By Jon Magee
“We have to break with the professional doctrine that ascribes virtually all of the problems that clients experience to defects in personality development and family relationships...This is a political ideology as much as an explanation of human behavior. It is an ideology that directs clients to blame themselves for their travails rather than the economic and social institutions that produce many of them.”
-Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, “Notes Toward a Radical Social Work” in Radical Social Work, ed. Bailey and Brake, 1975
“Things are really terrifying and enraging right now, and feeling more rage, fear, sadness, grief, and despair may be appropriate. Those feelings may help us be less appeased by false solutions, and stir us to pursue ongoing collective action for change.”
-Dean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And The Next), 2020
You would have to be completely checked out not to have difficult feelings right now. In our society farmworkers and farmers already get the short end of the stick, and mounting large-scale crises only make the situation worse. Farmworkers earn low wages, enjoy few protections from harm and abuse, and have limited ability to improve their working conditions without leaving farming altogether. Community-scale farms struggle with high costs, low prices, difficult marketing conditions, and the increasingly harsh vagaries of the weather. Add to all this the physical and mental strain of overwork.
Calling this situation a mental health crisis is only partly correct. It’s more accurate to say that farmworkers and farmers are struggling through an ongoing political crisis that has devastating implications for our health and well-being, including our very survival. Don’t get me wrong—it’s absolutely necessary to offer timely mental health interventions that support people to cope with acute, difficult circumstances and support healthy relationships. We also must honor the strategies that individuals find helpful in navigating difficult times. My question is, how do we also honor the root causes of people’s suffering and work to transform the larger-scale conditions of our well-being? We already have compelling visions for how to farm in ways that nourish the people working the land—agroecology and food sovereignty—but we will never achieve those visions without collective political action.
Collective action is a deep and necessary resource for building our mental health. It is a force that will transform us and the world we live in. When we join together for mutual aid, help and care for each other, and also work towards addressing the causes of our shared suffering, we build the infrastructure to deal with our immediate needs and the power to take on our much bigger problems. By connecting with others we help transform despair and grief into anger, defiance, and action. That group connection also becomes a basis for shared joy, camaraderie, and courage. In the words of Dean Spade, those feelings can “enliven us.”
Social movements for mutual aid and power-building are not a new concept, in agriculture or anywhere else, but they are not familiar strategies for many farmers, especially white farmers and those with class privilege. There are two great lineages of mutual aid organizing in and around US agriculture: Black freedom movements, Indigenous and Latin American movements, and allied movements of immigrant farmworkers.
For Black farmers and Black communities in general, mutual aid has long been a strategy to resist oppression, displacement, and state-sponsored violence, as Monica White documents in her excellent book Freedom Farmers. White describes the long tradition of self-help and cooperation among Black farmers, farm laborers, civil rights organizers, and scholars, from the Tuskegee cooperative extension to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Some of the most transformative, movement-building work of the Black Panthers took place through their free breakfast program and other community survival programs. Today a whole host of movement groups, many sprung out of the Movement for Black Lives, continue to do important mutual aid work in Black communities across the US, often with a strong and clearly stated goal of building collective power.
Mutual aid has long been a strategy for community survival in Latin America in the face of state violence and ongoing extraction and underdevelopment led by corporations from the Global North. One well-known example of this tradition is the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, who has long organized schools for teaching farming methods to members, who then seize underutilized industrial farmland for their own use as subsistence farmers. Another inspiring contemporary example is the Argentinian movement Ciudad Futura, which started out as a movement to resist land grabs by developers in the settlements on the outskirts of Santa Fe. They later started a cooperative dairy farm to help feed their members, as well as a host of businesses to create jobs and provide services and an electoral party to push through more progressive policies. Across Latin America, numerous organizations together form a “social and solidarity economy” based on mutual aid, self-help, and provision of basic needs through shared effort. Mutual aid has also been a key part of farm worker organizing in the US, not least because of cultural and personal ties to organizing traditions in Latin America.
What’s different about these traditions of organizing, as opposed to the landscape of small farmer advocacy in the US? Politicization, solidarity, and connection to an organizing tradition.
First of all, at a time when grassroots movements are claiming wins across the US and around the world, the farming world is surprisingly disconnected from much of this political organizing. I recall a talk that Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson gave in 2018, when he told the crowd at UMass (and I paraphrase), Don’t look to Cooperation Jackson to learn about how to build cooperative organizations. We come up here to learn how to do that. Look to us because we have a political analysis and a political program that grounds our work. That’s what you all need and what you should learn from us.
There are many overlapping causes for the depoliticization of small/family farmer movements. Government policies displaced and depopulated rural communities by directly targeting and driving out farmer and worker organizers. Much like other movements in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the fledgling organic movement retreated from its earlier political ambitions. Many in the movement shifted towards sharing gardening and farming know-how and establishing local markets, which later morphed into consumption-based, “vote with your dollar” strategies aimed at affluent customers. The non-profit industrial complex now dominates the sustainable farming movement, and that leaves us susceptible to the political pressures that come with foundation and government funding and creates fewer openings for grassroots mobilization. Labor law and financial pressures pit owners against workers, and a strong culture of rugged individualism and self-striving diverts our energies away from collective projects. However we got to this point, our movements will never be able to offer systemic solutions for our personal struggles unless we develop a clear political analysis, strong community connections, and a grassroots vision for how we take power.
Solidarity is the next missing ingredient. As Dean Spade says, “Solidarity is what builds and connects large-scale movements….Solidarity across issues and populations is what makes movements big and powerful.” Successful movements are built by people who view themselves as equals working towards shared goals, and we have a long way to go before farm owners and farm workers can legitimately view themselves as equals, even among organic and community-scale farms. Each group has its own struggles—owners regularly face extreme financial pressures trying to keep a farm business afloat, and workers struggle under difficult working and living conditions that are partly dictated by the owners and partly a result of much bigger systems of oppression and exploitation. A small portion of farms do live their values and offer better working conditions, but they still struggle to earn revenues that can sustain the farm. Mutual aid, driven by a deep commitment to solidarity, is a method to bridge divides by foregrounding politics and acknowledging each other’s circumstances, we see how our struggles come from the same root and learn how to meet our needs together. This kind of solidarity is urgent and essential.
The third missing ingredient is a connection to an organizing lineage. Despite setbacks and cycles of mobilization and demobilization, Black freedom struggles and Indigenous and Latin American movements have weathered severe repression for centuries. White and multi-racial farmer movements in the US largely did not survive the double blow of state/vigilante violence (Red Scare, Jim Crow, COINTELPRO) and government farm policies of industrialization and depopulation. Even the hippie back-to-the-landers eventually sorted themselves out into those who wanted to focus on political action and those who wanted to focus on growing food, not least because of the general crisis of Left movements after the ‘70s. Organic farmers today have very few connections to the farmer justice networks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, who organized food strikes, dumped milk rather than sell at rock bottom prices, and ran volunteer crisis lines. How often do we talk about the tractorcade of 1979, when hundreds of tractors and thousands of farmers occupied Washington, D.C., to stop farm foreclosures and return US farm policy to “Parity, Not Charity”? Without strong connections to the past, it’s no surprise that many farmers today, especially white people, have trouble seeing what role they can play in building movements. But we cannot just be spectators, hanging back in the wings, offering little more than admiration and monetary donations. We must grapple with the directive from Subcomandante Marcos: “haces el Zapatismo donde vives”–be a Zapatista where you are. In a spirit of deep humility and learning from elders, we must connect to living lineages of organizing, build solidarity every day, and claim power.
Farmers, workers, and everyone on this planet all need the same things: good food and clean water, community, livelihood, dignity and purpose, and a connection to the land. Entrenched power structures make it hard to satisfy these needs. When we come together to figure out how to build our collective power, we bring our actions in harmony with our spirit. We lay the foundations for well-being even amidst struggle and find the energy and courage to carry on. We do this not just for ourselves but for everyone and for future generations.
In the words of Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Jon Magee is a community organizer based in the Connecticut River valley of Massachusetts. He also provides technical assistance to farmers through the Agricultural Justice Project. The AJP offers practical tools for building solidarity, cooperation, and fairness on your farm, including through their extensive Farmer Toolkit (available at no cost). For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.