Farming In the Shadow of the Shadow State

Growing food and getting free in a world built for agricultural capital

When June came we were flooded. It wasn’t all that rainy, not by Seattle standards, but it didn’t stop for three grey weeks. The river swelled and almost everything we had planted was quietly blotted out, strangled in mud and reeds. Like many from my generation of recession-minted radicals, we had made a difficult choice to try something lonely, new, and slow — though hopefully not far in spirit from the port shutdowns and occupations of our youths. We would grow vegetables and test the idea of worker ownership, to see what either could do for liberation. And so we stood in a soggy farm, on rented land, in a sad suburb, both near and far from the uprisings that shook everything. With only a few exceptions we stayed glued to the livestreams and worked; our town had one moving, but fairly tame demonstration, and it was beyond us to commute to the city. Both one town north and one town south, militias of white dads formed armed patrols, convinced that antifa looters were coming.

The whole year had been violent, and notably so on the terrain of food. In spite of early fears the supply chain never broke down, but it did get heavier. Thousands of food processing, grocery, restaurant, and agricultural workers got sick and died, are still getting sick and dying, on the scale of atrocity. Food insecurity (read: poverty) skyrocketed, and long lines at food banks scared the shit out of the nation. A lot of people worried about farmers like us but they didn’t need to, we were fine; most of us are about the same as before. Our counterparts in large-scale commodity foods in fact got richer, and their profitability adjusted quickly to logistics disruptions. While their workers were denied social distancing and pandemic assistance, commodity farmers were mailed checks from the USDA. Violence intensified but did not bring the mighty low; it attacked the already poor and paid out to those already rich.

On the streets, if you listened, was a contrary agenda, a platform for development of the food system. A looted Target in Minneapolis made the case that the materials of social reproduction — food, cleaning supplies, all those sundry goods — should be free. Thousands of mutual aid projects launched, notably grocery deliveries and community fridges, operating on the premise that food can be free and that neighborhoods possess the ability to manage this resource. In Seattle’s Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) Marcus Henderson of Black Star Farmers planted vegetables in the occupied city park, saying in an interview “if we can free the land, everything else will literally become free.” Earlier in the year, rail and highway blockades proliferated across Canada and the U.S. in solidarity with Unist’ot’en, the long-standing Wet’suwet’en-led project to protect unceded territory from incursions by industry such as the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline (a project that had long linked the demand for “land back” to healthy and decommodified food). Visions of abolition, decolonization, socialism, and the end of racist violence converged around food and land as a site of struggle.

For many people around us, this struggle for food and land justice involved taking up new questions, or rather renewing very old ones. Some asked how their mutual aid projects could build greater scale, longevity, or take on challenges that donations couldn’t meet. Others started farms and community gardens, now concerned with how to hold and use property in the service of liberation. Others still started to identify new targets to pressure and make demands of. With all of these questions came changed relationships to state power.

There is no part of the U.S.’s food system that is untouched by state institutions. There are state agencies that act as landlords, funders, lenders, managers, money launderers, and agents of dispossession. Moreover, in food the line between private and public (capital and state) is blurrier than in almost any other sector. State agencies are constrained by policies that promote profitable investment, and private interests derive crucial portions of their profitability from institutional rents — subsidies, tax breaks, direct payments, and depressed wages secured by government agencies. Attempting to secure large scale transfer of agricultural wealth places one onto a terrain defined and controlled by the state. It is necessary to understand how these forms of definition and control work. As I focus on the dimension of state power concerned with funding, planning, and promoting development, I don’t mean to de-emphasize the dimension concerned directly with dispossession and colonial violence. I do want to emphasize, however, the strength of the state’s capacity to discipline and manage opposition to dispossession. I write this essay because I have been disciplined by it, because my own horizons have been narrowed by the non-profits, state agencies, and regime of landed property itself that made our farm possible. I write against this confinement, for the overthrow of this disciplinary regime; I want to highlight the challenges and possibilities that emerge when we attempt to understand it.

Most resources in United States agriculture are distributed and managed through appointed and inherited leadership. Land and machines are passed down to children, and meaningful transfers of wealth are handled by unelected agency leaders. The USDA backs most loans, grants, subsidies, and other mechanisms of wealth transfer, but other agencies are also involved. Many of these resources come from spending allocated in the annual farm bill, in theory putting them up for review and oversight by congress. In practice, congressional approval is a rubber stamp, apart from the amendments proposed by industry lobbyists. What agricultural spending doesn’t come from the federal government overwhelmingly comes from private wealth – by individual or family bank accounts, from foundation grants, corporate donations, enterprise-level bank loans or capital market bonds. Government regulation is scarce and weakly enforced, while unions and civil society groups remain — with some exceptions — relatively weak. As a result, accountability for agricultural decisions mostly flows upwards — NGOs report to the USDA, the USDA reports to congress and lobbyists, and congress reports to a suppressed, gerrymandered, and apathetic voter base.

This anti-democratic system of resource management allows for two distinct but related processes. On one hand, social services and infrastructure intended for social welfare are hollowed out, forced into constant competition for never-enough funds and hemmed in politically. On the other, landowners and agribusiness receive massive, no-strings-attached payments alongside subsidies, depressed labor prices, tax breaks, conservation easements, and so on. Both processes empower a dependent, middle layer which provides legitimacy for this system. Non-profit workers, public employees, university researchers, and the like are given real — sometimes well-paying — opportunities to conduct their work and do good, but tend to be kept on a short leash through funding requirements. Meanwhile, landowners are eager to defend their real estate portfolios and status as settler gentry, as well as the honor of the agribusiness cartels allegedly “feeding the world.”

For example: in 2020 the USDA released a total of $9.3 million for its Regional Food Systems Partnerships grants, across 23 recipients. This money is intended for local food system development, as the USDA puts it, “strengthening the viability and resilience of regional food economies.” RFSP grants sit alongside other relatively recent local food programs that have emerged over the past 20 years, born from lobbying on behalf of sustainable agriculture . The Local Food Promotion Program, covering similar territory and first funded in 2006, received $13.5 million, and the Farmers Market Promotion Program received $13.4 million. This is money that can be used for equity work — developing tribal food economies, funding cooperatives, and bringing fresh, local produce to poor neighborhoods. It is often the only money available for such work, at least for large-scale capacity building. To develop these vitally needed local resources, a group needs to apply for a grant, have it checked by a USDA selected board of peer reviewers, and adhere to sometimes strict reporting requirements. Over 2-3 years an organization is tasked with spending between $150,000 and $1 million and reporting how this work supported their partners.

The money alone is enough to discipline the work; arable land, warehouses, truck fleets, and other infrastructure all regularly cost millions, and management of grants require teams of professional staff. $150,000 won’t buy the means of production outright, but it can buy enough labor to “promote land access” or “market access,” chartering private capital to support a development goal. In addition, funding requirements often include grant matching, only disbursing money if another large funding source is available, and so prioritize organizations that are already large, well connected, and well capitalized. Progressives within both state and philanthropic funding have fought hard against some of these requirements, but it’s an uphill battle. A grassroots organization often can demonstrate vast resources of in-kind donations, including volunteer labor, and meet matching requirements this way. But it’s always easier to flex relationships with private foundations and donors, and easier still to prove these connections by hiring professional grant writers. Smaller organizations tend to stay very small and focus a disproportionate amount of energy on securing funding, and everywhere political horizons narrow to meet grant deliverables.

All of these are fairly characteristic struggles within non-profits in the U.S. However, the non-profit system in food and agriculture is especially skewed towards capital. Unlike healthcare, there are few — if any — state owned farms, and no concept of agriculture as a service or food systems workers as service providers. Instead, funding is made available on the assumption that the goal is increased investment and increased private returns. Even where racial or gender equity is concerned, the outcome assumed by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (and most private funders) is a wider pool of profitable businesses. In spite of major social programs like SNAP (Food Stamps) being tied to farm funding, these provisions are intended for farmers, and only incidentally — with great effort on the part of some civil servants — benefit the public.

Accountability to a genuine social base can be tenuous or nonexistent. If a grant selection committee can be convinced, a coalition can convene alleging to represent farmworkers without any farmworkers or unions present, or claim to represent the urban poor in “food deserts” without input from any actual poor person. The word of other organizations or business leaders often suffices as input from “the community,” substituting civil servants (and particularly high level, high salary civil servants) for civil society. Recipients of funding can, and often do, find ways to integrate real consultation and democratic oversight into their work, but are rarely required to. There is always a shortcut; the possibility of consulting peers or superiors in lieu of asking people in need. It is a machine designed for self-dealing, labor abuse, and austerity politics, the result of compromises made in a decades-long offensive against the welfare state, itself a compromise. Within agriculture it is not just a matter of agencies inheriting a regime of state abandonment and neglect: ag funding is intended solely for those not abandoned by our hollowed-out welfare state. It is a tool for assisting and directing capital, ill-equipped to do anything else.

In spite of these limits and structural problems, an enormous range of organizations do what they can within the ag funding landscape. Within the same grant recipient pool there can be farmers market associations alongside Black farmers’ cooperatives, or farmworker solidarity organizations up against scammy “job creation” schemes. An even greater field of grassroots groups come to rely on funding, legal status, or resources provided by these formal organizations, “laboring in the shadow of the shadow state” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes. Her 2009 essay details with exceptional depth and clarity how all these “dense and intricate connections” discipline and sometimes squash the work of those organizing against their own abandonment. My own experience bears out her analysis. Our farm began in the death throes of one non-profit program, and in a year we were evicted, along with most of that organization’s overhead. Further farm tenancy required a new organization to rent to us, and they in turn required a business plan that demonstrated future profitability, no doubt as a part of their funding requirements. For our modest little tenant farm to continue, we entered into a web of dependency on non-profit organizations, USDA funding, and private philanthropy alongside “the market” and our own costs of living. Our role became tightly circumscribed in this way, and we found ourselves farming on a yearly lease cycle, working alone, and struggling to expand ownership and social benefit of our nascent worker cooperative. Though we can, and do, push against these constraints, we are always vulnerable to being evicted, sued, or — at worst — subject to white supremacist terror and harassment. And so we are obliged to move carefully.

Compare the non-profit system with the USDA’s direct payment programs, which go directly to commodity producers for the alleged purpose of “market stabilization.” These programs received $46.2 billion in 2020 alone, up from $24 in 2019 and steadily rising over the past 4 years. The bulk of this was for “supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance,” and came in the form of no-strings attached checks to large farm owners. In theory, this was because certain institutional buyers like schools stopped buying certain commodities, and other supply chain disruptions damaged sales. In practice, it’s something closer to opportunism, using a crisis for upward redistribution. Farmers in 2020 managed to increase their earnings despite the overall reduction in sales, and direct payments seem to have well exceeded actual losses. Coverage of these payments often emphasized a political motivation — literally buying votes for Trump’s re-election — but a broader upward redistributive project can be seen as well. These payments don’t guarantee the stability of food supplies, but they do guarantee the stability of returns on commodity farms. Demand-side programs like SNAP are enough to keep hungry people fed, but direct payments to capital holders preserve agricultural land and food commodities as an asset class, protecting against market volatility and allowing food and land prices to steadily increase. With the steady increase in land and food prices, a whole host of securities and financial derivatives also gain stable value and shareholders of financial institutions, agribusiness, and the like remain insulated from the worst brutalities of the market.

Congress has taken, as one Politico writer delicately put it, a “hands off approach” towards the USDA’s firehose of money. Though the principle of paying rich landowners just for owning land is long established, the USDA claimed that the recent rise in ad hoc payments began in order to fight “unfair and illegal trade retaliation” from China. “Trade retaliation” here means challenging, even slightly, the U.S.’s monopolistic global market share, and with it the ability to dump agricultural commodities below market price on the Global South. Such dumping and monopolism are integral to both the interests of U.S. listed agricultural companies and, arguably, U.S. geopolitical strength; they expand the reach of U.S. finance and biotech and enforce relationships of dependency upon commodity-supplying states. This imperialist structure depends on more than direct payments: even without the ad-hoc payments, U.S. commodity farmers receive extensive tax exemptions, conservation easements for land they leave fallow, and federal crop insurance with an average return of 120%. Especially at the state and local level, these various forms of payments and tax breaks are easy to get if you own land and are relatively high-income. Roughly two thirds of registered farms are hobby farms, retirement projects, and tax shelters (often enough, all three.) Far from being productive pillars of the community, they are essentially “the yards of the upper middle class” as Maggie Koerth put it. A large pool of suburban and rural property holders benefit from programs originally intended for agriculture, and a larger-still group benefit from the consistently rising price of land and housing through house flipping and investment properties. It is here, to this excessively enfranchised stratum of society, that state financing of imperialism trickles down.

This is an exhausting and deeply stupid system. Posed against it are a few necessary pillars of thought: food as a human right, food sovereignty for oppressed communities, immediate return of land to Indigenous communities, reparations for slavery and its legacy through land distribution, and the decommodification of food. I take all of these as my starting point, in no small part because so many of my peers already do. Such critiques are gaining renewed momentum from a huge range of organizations — from DSA Ecosocialists to Soul Fire Farm — and emerge from long and still active legacies of global peasant movements, farm worker organizing, struggles for Indigenous sovereignty, and the Black freedom movement. The food justice movement is in a moment of resurgence, with a seemingly uncountable upwelling of new projects and organizations beginning over the past few years. We have won over a significant minority, and so let’s dwell longer on how to achieve these goals.

Two approaches I think need critical reflection: the reformation of the welfare state at the federal level, and a broadly “municipalist” approach, seeking legal recognition of certain land or food rights at a local level. Both are reasonable responses to existing pressures. Federal spending does discipline the behavior of actors everywhere in the food system, controlling state, county, and NGO governance through granting and other forms of fiscal discipline. A wide-reaching federal spending program like a Green New Deal would be transformative, and change the terms on which all kinds of social movements could negotiate with the state. The challenge is how to elect socialists, or pressure bourgeois Democrats, enough to get such a program through congress. This electoral path is necessarily slow, expensive, and fragile, and often requires de-emphasizing more irreconcilable demands from the grassroots. On the other hand, local governments are more porous, easier to get involved with politically, and closer to the direct administration of services. Local and state level actions, like getting a constitutional “right to food” on the books, are better suited to quicker wins and firmer ideological commitments. After all, state and local Republicans have used this kind of war of attrition to great effect, circumventing all kinds of federally guaranteed rights and ruling like an aristocracy in large parts of the South and West. Even if the opposing powers are on the scale of the federal budget, or Bayer, Cargill, and Blackrock, local power can add up over time.

Both are useful theories of change, and I would be overstating my case to say they’re wrong. They are, however, incomplete. This incompleteness is not a case of mistaken ideas; it’s an expression of concrete relationships. Both a federal and municipalist approach take policy to be the primary mechanism of change, and this primacy reflects the conditions of its critique. Policy as practiced in U.S. electoral politics is a rarefied field, made available to discuss almost exclusively to the layer of civil servants, academics, and paid organizers who are expected to generate or implement policy. Here I include myself; I am a farmer because I can rent from a non-profit, and I rely on state and foundation grants for capital improvements among other things. My peers are other small, social-justice minded farmers leasing from the city, the county, or other non-profits; we are effectively the direct service component of a largely state/non-profit/public-private sustainable agriculture push. Though technically I am a private business owner, I am included “inside the room” where public agricultural policy is debated and worked out.

Within this narrow world there are constant conversations about funding battles, new programs, and changes in administration. As such they appear as a real terrain of struggle, a place from which change can be made. Outside of this world, they don’t appear at all. In the warehouses and restaurants I have worked there is little conversation about what the state can do, only what it has already done, what it ought to do, and what a miserable slog it is to get what you need from it. Policy fights then mostly occur within the sector whose consent is purchased by that very system, whether that is consent to “making it work” within a ruined, underfunded environment, or consent to preserving the unimpeded rights of landholders. The resulting conflict, something like a fight between social workers and a homeowners association, is going to be at best limited. Its limits are already defined by a system of appointments and definitions of “stakeholdership” that emerged before any particular conflict, enshrining state policy as the property of the well to do, and agricultural policy as in the interest of capital.

Without either crisis or mass movement, these limits make for a stalemate. It is clearly possible to maintain a critical relationship to policy, and to bring the antagonism of mass movements to bear upon it. Even the much sought after status of “within and against the state” can be found for a time, especially if we widen our scope of “state” to include the non-profit industry. But “within-ness” and “against-ness” are at odds in a profound way. Actors within the state are incentivized to maintain their jobs, organizations, and privileged access, while those against the state are incentivized towards either life and death confrontation or maintaining their own source of political organization. In U.S. agriculture this poses a profound dilemma. The sheer expense of land and infrastructure means that without state involvement crucial resources are left on the table. Yet state actors are profoundly constrained by the terms of their funding and legal status, and further constrained by their requirement to promote industry and protect private property. Food is relatively cheap, but land, labor, and infrastructure are expensive. Existing leadership is extremely white, wealthy and entrenched, while people most harmed by the food system are overwhelmingly people of color and marginalized in political decision-making. All of these factors, among too many others to list, contribute to a gulf between formal food organizations and mass movements.

There isn’t a clear line that connects sympathetic congress members, city employees, and street level protestors, no unity of demand or position. This discontinuity is important to engage with clearly. To do so, we must update our theory of change to include, rather than avoid or ignore, antagonisms that sometimes appear irreconcilable. Social change is rarely the victory march of conscious, rational alliances; it’s more often a matter of something breaking. For example: cuts to SNAP/Food Stamps have been seemingly unstoppable over the past several decades, causing an increasing outcry. In that time period, the trend toward austerity was only reversed twice — once in response to the recession in 2009, and again in 2020 following the pandemic. In both cases, crisis allowed for a temporary change in policy not because it aroused pity or concern, but because it changed the imperatives of policy makers. A drastic increase in benefits claimants risked overwhelming the system, and the presence of an external shock allowed disaster funding to circumvent established budget controls. Mass movements have performed a similar role, creating crises that changed what the state could and needed to do, provoking it into both harsh repression and partial accommodation. Recognizing that it is this capacity to provoke crisis that yields reform, we can follow Frances Fox Piven in saying, “it was not formal organizations but mass defiance that won what was won in the 1930s and 1960s.”

Where does that leave us? For those “inside the room” of food policy and formal organizations, I must insist on a turn away from the narrow scope of food policy, and towards uncompromising demands from outside. It is a truism but it bears repeating: hungry people do not want innovative solutions, they want money for food. “Where’s my fucking check,” “stop killing us,” and “land back now” are the platforms expressed over the last year. It is an act of courage and humility to rise to their challenge, and for those who are well-situated to make demands to do so on terms set by rebels. Doing so requires some specifics in orientation. On the organizational side it requires programs that necessarily, as a part of their bottom line, seek to be controlled by the populations they serve, engage in liberatory political education, and do so as a part of securing material benefits for all involved. These processes do not make freedom, but they do permit organizers to better know “what it is possible for people to do under given conditions, and to then help them do it” (as per Piven), and make organizations something which more people have regular access to, and thus can either defy or use to articulate their demands. This approach calls for an especially careful practice of solidarity, seeking shared, common struggle and terrain without expecting sameness. This is to say: not imagining unity or mutuality where none exists, resisting the imperative to discipline the unruly masses, and instead taking up responsibility for one limited, compromised part of liberation. Organizations formed this way might serve as a kind of detachment from much larger, autonomous movements to which they remain accountable.

For people “outside the room” of food and agriculture policy, I can only make a few suggestions. There are many agencies claiming to serve and represent you under various categories, as “food insecure,” “people of color,” or simply “service recipients.” You can claim them in return and, in groups, with a maximum of disruption, demand everything of them. It’s been done before — the welfare rights movement of the 60s and the AIDS movement of the 80s and onwards are great examples, taking on similar arenas of state power with many victories to show. Demands for food and land have every reason to be grounded in struggles around healthcare and cost of living; it isn’t accidental that recent housing reclamations like Reclaiming Our Homes LA have included planting gardens. There are also many pieces of land held by county governments, public universities, and similarly-sized institutions that they don’t know what to do with and lack the budget to control. They’re lying fallow, and you can take them. It’s a challenge to coordinate, and requires a lot of other unrest to be winnable, but it can work. Apart from the recent reclamations of homes, there is a long legacy of agricultural land occupations, from the Landless Worker’s Movement in Brazil to the Gill Tract Farm, occupied at the height of Occupy Oakland, and many Indigenous-led blockades and land reclamations. However you choose to do it, I believe it is worth laying a claim on state power, building and exercising power over the resources the state controls. You are owed food, and dignity, and freedom. You can get it.