This dinner was special, though. The black eyed peas we were eating had not come from a can, nor had they come from the bulk food section. Indeed, they had not come from a grocery store at all. Instead, they had come from a garden that we had planted in our own backyard. All told, the entire "harvest" of peas might have been able to fill up three-quarters of a cup. They tasted fine, though not spectacular. None of that mattered, though. What was exhilarating for us was that, for the first time in our lives, we were eating food that we had grown ourselves.
Being Jeffrey Evan Brooks, I looked to history for an explanation as to why I found this experience so fulfilling. Two epochs of history that I have always found especially attractive are the age of the Roman Republic and the colonial and revolutionary era of American history. Both have deep lessons for us in the 21st Century, when we are watching our individual freedom and our vibrancy as a civilization slowly fade away. In both the Roman Republic and Early America, ordinary people perhaps had a higher level of individual freedom and civic virtue than has ever been the case at other points in history. The fundamental reason for this was that the vast majority of the people were self-sufficient farmers who owned their own land.
In our time, average American citizens depend on a complex network of agribusiness mega-farms, transportation networks, and grocery stores or restaurants to provide them with food. If anything were to happen to disrupt this system, whether intentionally or through an accident, we would suddenly find ourselves without food. We depend on this complex system for our very lives. Self-sufficient farmers in the Roman Republic or Early America didn't have this problem. Owning and cultivating their own land, they could provide themselves with food through their own efforts.
In a 1785 letter to John Jay, Thomas Jefferson had this to say.
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to the country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book he ever wrote, Jefferson expounded on this idea.
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which might otherwise escape from the face of the earth.
In the Jeffersonian vision, America was going to a nation of independent yeoman farmers, who owned and cultivated their own land. Necessities such as furniture and cooking implements would be manufactured on the farms themselves. Luxuries such as the books, musical instruments, and fine wines Jefferson loved so much could be purchased using the profits from the sale of surplus crops. There would be an efficient and locally-run system of public education, and a well-organized militia system would provide for defense. The foundation of it all was the self-sufficiency and civic virtue that Jefferson naturally believed was instilled by the experience of being tied to the land.
The view that Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers held about the virtuous family farmer had been inherited from the Roman Republic. To the Romans before the 1st Century BC, the freeholder who owned and farmed his own land was the ideal citizen. It was the freeholders who filled the ranks of the Roman legions that held off Rome's enemies in the days when the Republic was young and vulnerable, then went on to conquer the whole of Italy. Cato the Elder, a historical figure of whom I have always been quite fond, said that the best compliment a Roman could give another Roman was that he was a good farmer. The poor man who scratched out a living in the slums of the city itself could not be trusted to have the commonweal's interests at heart, for he would not have identified himself with it.
This ideal was personified most clearly in the person of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. A well-respected freeholder, he worked his own farm with his family, served the state as a soldier and senator, and tried to cultivate a life of virtue. In 458 BC, when Rome was threatened by a coalition of its Aequi and Sabine enemies, Cincinnatus was called upon to serve the Republic as dictator, given absolute power for a period of six months. He took command of the army, defeated Rome's enemies, and then quietly went back to his farm and resumed his work. About twenty years later, Cincinnatus was made dictator again to put down a domestic conspiracy that threatened to overthrow the Republic. As before, the moment he had achieved what he had been asked to do, he laid down the mantle of dictator and went back to his plow.
The system of freeholder farms in the Roman Republic gradually dissipated over the centuries. Wars of conquest throughout the Mediterranean, especially those against its great enemy Carthage, brought enormous numbers of slaves into Italy. The wars pulled freeholders away from their farms and into the ranks of the legions for years at a time. Wealthy nobles were able to purchase more and more land, creating enormous agricultural estates called latifundia, worked by slave labor, which easily outproduced the decreasing number of smaller farms. Rome's population swelled as displaced farmers moved into the city in search of work. Much of the political disorder that caused the collapse of the Republic in the 1st Century BC can be attributed to the demise of the small farm and the rise of the latifundia, for it was the discontent of the masses and the decline of civic virtue that swept away what had once been the Republic's foundation.
Was this process all that different than what we have seen in America over the last hundred years, with small family farms vanishing and being replaced with agribusinesses run by large companies and corporations?
The simple civic virtue of the freeholders of the Roman Republic was what the Jeffersonians hoped to see take root in the United States. Although we must acknowledge that the Jeffersonian vision probably never had a chance of being fully realized, we certainly could have done vastly better than we have ended up doing. The seemingly irrevocable decline of the family farm is one of the saddest stories of the last century of our history and only about two percent of Americans are farmers today. Small family farms now account for only about a quarter of American agricultural output. The vast majority of people in our country never set eyes upon the land which produced their food and scarcely give it any thought. The decline of the American farmer is matched by the decline of the food itself. There's more of it than ever, but it's generally processed junk, suffused with chemicals, more created than grown. Today, we are stuffing our faces with fast food, potato chips, frozen pizza, and other stuff that could only marginally be described as food. This has not only contributed an out-of-control obesity epidemic, but has removed the wholesome relationship the American people once had with their food, as if by brain surgery.
I'm as guilty as any American when it comes to lacking a real connection with the land and with the food it produces. What, after all, is a single bowl of home-grown black eyed peas when set against the amount of fast food and frozen pizza I have consumed over the last year? Yet as a symbol, these black eyed peas mean a lot to me. They were sort of a test run for the family and, now that they have been a success, we are cultivating a much more extensive garden. Ideally, we will be slowly increasing the amount of food we produce ourselves, season after season. I'm under no illusions that we can fully free ourselves from the prevalent American system of food production and consumption, but every bite of food that we produce ourselves is a step closer to our personal realization of the Jeffersonian dream.
Many people have figured this out long before I did. Farmers whose land has been in their families for generations continue to tenaciously hold onto it against the odds, while city folk with no previous agricultural experience abandon their urban environments to try their luck on a tractor. Old school farmers' markets are increasingly popular throughout the country. Stores and restaurants proudly declare that they "buy local" in appeals to their customers, creating a genuine communal relationship between the people and they food they consume they consume.
My family may be a little late getting on this bandwagon, but now that we are on we don't intend to get off.