Farmer in a wheat field

Should farmers be indentured servants?

Modern intensive systems of food production are geared toward profit. The farmer has less and less control over the market process that sets input costs and commodity prices. In effect, he is a slave to the system. So should farmers be indentured servants?

No, definitely not. Farmers should not be indentured servants. 

Farmers are custodians of the land, and hard-working businessmen and women taking on the commercial opportunity of feeding everyone well. They take risks on our behalf, work all hours god sends and suffer in the rain, snow, drought and heat. Every day they fix a multitude of practical problems and carry the uncertainty that an event outside of their control could wipe them out.

And the rest of us just go to the store and buy the food.  If half the farmers decided to park their tractors, the 800 million food-insecure people would increase by billions.

And anyway, slavery is taboo. Nobody should be an indentured servant or any kind of slave in a modern world that produces enough food to feed 8 billion people and their animals.

Farm workers picking strawberries are hired as workers not indentured servants

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No one shall be held in slavery 

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”

UN Declaration of Human Rights

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 argue the last one is far from robust. 

Slavery, though, is taboo.

Ask a hundred people 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. 

Modern-day indentured servants

So, what was US Senator Bernie Saunders on about during a tour of rural Iowa in 2019 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, US Senator, 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 idea is that more federal dollars go to small and mid-sized family farms instead of the largest producers. Excellent, and just what you would expect from a left-leaning, would-be progressive.

The companies that supply farming equipment, fertiliser and set the farm gate prices through their distribution chains, do not want any of it. It affects their primary agenda of profit for their shareholders.

The tension between producers and the supply chain that takes their product from the farm gate to the table is a global problem; increasingly so as the global food supply chain has become a six-continent mega-system

Factory workers sorting a food crop

Photo by Petr Magera on Unsplash

A bag of potatoes

Buy a bag of potatoes directly from a farmer and he could offer you a deal, say double the cost of production. He makes 50% profit. 

Buy the same bag in a supermarket and the price you pay has to include profit for the wholesaler, transport company, packaging and retailer who may also need to advertise. The transactions take a clip from that 50% markup. But you are only going to buy potatoes in the supermarket, which is admittedly more convenient than scouring the countryside for a potato farm if they are at a price you can afford. 

The farmer can’t keep the 50% markup. He has to share it with all the other companies that help him to get his whole crop to consumers, not just a single bag.

Everyone should win,

Only it is not quite the whole story.

Farms that grow most of the food

One attribute of a six-continent food supply chain is that big is better.

In Australia, a third of broadacre farms have an income of less than $100,000 annually. 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. 

A minority of farms do almost all the heavy lifting for overall production. Many of these bigger farms are commercial operations in the true sense—they are corporations. Not so many of the big producers are family operations. Nor do they have indentured servants because they have workers with pay and conditions set by the employment conditions in the jurisdiction.

The twist to Bernie’s story of farmers as indentured servants is that, in Australia at least, the corporate operations produce most of the food.

Ensuring food supply for the ever-growing urban populations means not breaking the 80:20 rule if doing so reduces production. The policy problem is not just about support for family farmers and their rural communities. It is also about keeping produce on the supermarket shelves.

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 about the US situation, this conundrum is created by tenure as much as by indenture.

Who controls actions on the land that grows the food and why are they there? The great-great-grandson of the original white settler or the manager appointed by the corporation?

A paper bag of potatoes with a claim for a low carbon footprint

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests…

Food production is so central to what comes next for humanity that the supply chain must be robust, resilient and capable of feeding everyone well.

If it fails, we are screwed.

So farmers should not be indentured servants. The thought should not even cross their minds nor be a sound bite for a campaigning politician.

Here are three suggestions that might help. 

Suggestion 1—lift all boats

The first option would be to ignore the tenure problem 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 and farming corporation could benefit from increased ground cover, 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. The encouraging part is that many of the tactics to achieve these results require a change of attitude more than any financial flexibility.

Suggestion 2—accept the status quo

Another option is to accept the 80:20 reality and improve the opportunity for the small farmer to retain the right to farm, make returns even in the harsh years, and to keep people on the land. In other words, make the small farms viable businesses.

The desired effect of 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. They can become more efficient later when the technologies and land management tactics become more mainstream.

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

Suggestion 3—skew the market

A third option is to do what Senator Saunders appears to suggest in his claim of farmers as indentured servants 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 suggestion 3 is 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.

Leave a comment or ask sustainably FED a question.


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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