Farmer in a wheat field

Should farmers be indentured servants?

Modern food production is geared for profit. The producer has less and less control over the process that sets input costs and price. Is it time for governments to intervene to support the family farm?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, declares in Article 4 that 

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”

This declaration is one of the more robust of all the rights. In modern times it crosses culture, race and even gender, although the #metoo movement might disagree with the last one. 

Ask a hundred people at random if they agree with slavery and almost all of them will say “no, definitely not”. 

Consequently, an indentured servant, being 

‘an employee (indenturee) within a system of unfree labor who is bound by a signed or forced contract (indenture) to work for a particular employer for a fixed time’

is illegal in many countries because it is considered a form of slavery and so contravenes the declaration. 

And it does. 

So, what was US senator Bernie Saunders on about during a tour of rural Iowa when he said

In rural America we are seeing giant agribusiness conglomerates extract as much wealth out of small communities as they possibly can while family farmers are going bankrupt and in many ways are being treated like modern day indentured servants,” 

Bernie Sanders, May 2019

It’s a big call even within the rich rhetoric of US politics. 

What he was on about was a system of production where the producer has less and less control over the process that sets input costs and price, including being prevented by contracts from fixing broken equipment.

Saunders thinks independent family farmers need more support from the government and he has a plan that includes price flaws to generate more of a parity system, removal of emission exemptions for factory farms, investment in rural education and health, and even a ‘right to repair’ law. The overall idea is that more federal dollars go to small and mid-sized family farms instead of the largest producers. 

Nice, and just what you would expect from a left-leaning, would-be, progressive.

It is also why the companies that supply the farming equipment, fertilizer and set the farm gate prices through their distribution chains do not want a bar of it. It affects their primary agenda of profit for their shareholders.

This is a global problem.

Only it is not quite the full story.

In Australia, a third of broadacre farms generate less than $100,000 in annual output. These landholdings generate only 4% of the national agricultural arable production. Meantime the top third of producers account for 70% of the national output. 

Not quite the 80:20 rule but very close. 

The minority of farms do almost all the heavy lifting and many of these are commercial operations in the true sense of the phrase, they are corporations. Not so many of the big producers are family operations. 

The twist to Bernie’s story is that in Australia at least it is the corporate operations that produce most of the food.

This means that the policy problem is not just about support for family farmers and their rural communities. It is equally about how to ensure food supply for the ever-growing urban populations and this means not breaking the 80:20 rule if it means reducing supply.

Giving the small producer more returns is essential to ensure they make the most out of the natural resource base without mining it or eroding it away for short term survival. 

Only how to do it?  

Contrary to what Senator Saunders might say for the US situation, this conundrum is created by tenure as much as it is by the notion of indenture.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Option 1 – lift all boats

The first option would be to ignore the tenure problem altogether and try to lift all boats. 

This might be possible if the focus is on scalable solutions to soil quality, water use efficiency and nutrient availability. Every landholder could benefit from increased groundcover, an awareness of soil carbon and attention to early weed and pest management. We explore the many options and tactics throughout the content on sustainably FED.

Many of the tactics to achieve these results requires a change of attitude more than any financial flexibility.

Option 2 – accept the status quo

Another option is to accept the 80:20 reality and improve the opportunity for the small farmer for the purpose of retaining the right to farm and to keep people on the land.

Keeping farms viable without any expectation that the $100,000 a year operators would ever be much more efficient in the short term creates the opportunity for future efficiency and production gains. 

This option would need subsidies, such as through drought relief, and might only be a long play by keeping land in production even though it is running below potential.

Option 3 – skew the market

A third option is to do what Senator Saunders appears to suggest and skew the market towards the small player by reigning in the power of the corporations to set the price of inputs and commodities. 

This also sounds like subsidies.

We think that option 3 is actually the least preferable in the short term. 

On balance lifting all boats will make the most sense but with the proviso that the 80:20 does not become 90:10 or worse.

What do you think? 

Is Bernie right? 

Should we be focusing on the people and not the agricultural output? 

Should we be comfortable with the end justifying the means or are the needs of the many sending us into some unpleasant moral territory?

Let us know.

Please leave a comment or ask us a question

sustainably fed


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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