Center for Community and Economy Newsletter – November 18, 2010


by Allan C. Carlson

Utah was born, in a way, as an experiment in community-based agriculture. In the early decades of the 20th century, family farm advocates still looked to the original Mormon farm villages as models for preserving small-scale farming within a modern economy.

The experience of World War II, however, accelerated the utilization of large farm machines and other industrial inputs in agriculture. The consolidation and corporatizing of farms followed, with massive CAFOs (“confinement animal feeding operations”) emerging as the model of a new agriculture. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of Utah’s towns and suburbs on the Wasatch Front saw many thousands of farm acres transformed into fields of houses. The family farm seemed to be going the way of the ox cart.

And yet, in this age of the mega-farm, something new – and yet very old – may be stirring: agrarianism, a humanistic approach to agriculture that would reattach people to the soil. The farming future may lie not with the consolidators, land speculators and agribusinesses. Rather, it may lie with the resurrection of a family-centered, community-based agriculture. At first glance, this would seem to be among the least likely of 21st-century developments. All the same, as land-use expert Eric Freyfogle declares, “agrarian ways and virtues are resurging in American culture.” This is surely true in Utah.

Industrial agriculture, as farm advocate Wendell Berry has explained, constitutes the culture of “the one-night stand. ‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’” In contrast, agrarianism rests on a culture defined by marriage and community, a long-term covenant of mutual care between farm families, their land, and their community. Lynn Miller, editor of Oregon’s Small Farmers’ Journal, sees agrarianism resting on two principles: “First, provide for the family [from the farm] and second, always be looking for ways to help family, friends and neighbors.”

The weaknesses of industrialized farming are also growing apparent. Recent decades have highlighted the mounting inability of factory farms even to compete in a free market. In some years, half of national farm income came from government subsidies, a sophisticated form of welfare largely confined to the biggest operations. At the same time, lobbyists for the industrial farms – following a familiar pattern – have learned how to use state regulations to drive small farms out of business and discourage new competitors. This has been particularly true in the dairy farm business.

In contrast, the new agrarians commonly ask government for two things only: an end to government farm subsidies, and the deregulation of agriculture.

Agrarian renewal comes from the bottom up, as an expression of a healthy new populism. One visible sign of this has been the rapid spread of farmers markets across the land. In 1994, there were 1,755 operating markets in the United States; today, over 5,000, an increase of nearly 200 percent. A formal list for Utah shows five active markets in Salt Lake City alone, and several dozen more around the state. This form of marketing encourages local production and usually raises the net gain for farmers per item sold.

Another bottom-up development has been the growth of community-supported agriculture (CSA). A CSA rests on an agreement between a farm family and a group of shareholders. The shareholders pay the cultivators a pre-negotiated fee in the late winter in exchange for receipt of a box of fresh produce once a week from June through October. Under this shared “risk and reward” agreement, consumers eat what the farmer has successfully grown. Farmers gain from the upfront investment and a guaranteed clientele.

As with farmers markets, consumers benefit by knowing from where their food comes. Most CSAs build small communities in other ways, as well: They employ apprentice and volunteer labor, hold work days and harvest festivals, and provide gift boxes of produce to needy households. Northern Utah currently counts 22 CSAs, with names such as Copper Moose Farm and Christiansen’s Hog Heaven and Family Farm. Five CSAs operate in southern Utah – three near Cedar City and two near Moab.

More broadly, diet fashion in America continues to push toward organics. Even in the face of the recent economic downturn, demand for organically raised goods remains high. And while federal “organic” regulations once again tend to favor large operations, organic farms still tend to be smaller and more family-oriented than their non-organic counterparts.

In short, old ways and old dreams, mixed with new tools and new opportunities, have renewed the agrarian spirit. A family-centered, community-based way of life has found fresh energy and new recruits in the opening years of the third millennium. The prospects for a well-settled landscape of productive homes, rich with the laughter of children and located in caring, self-reliant communities, seem more promising than they have for decades.

The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and an associate professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.



On Thursday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m., Sutherland will hold the third of our Responsible Citizen Courses: “Caucuses, Conventions, Cookies and Punch: Understanding Utah’s Electoral System.”

Utah’s electoral process has been called unique and quirky. Most newcomers, however, find it complicated and confusing. In this introductory class, we will follow Utah’s electoral process from precinct caucus meetings to the general election. As a result, you will leave with a clearer understanding of the system and just how great your individual impact is in selecting your elected officials.

This class will be held at Sutherland’s headquarters (click here for a map). The cost is $10 for the public, but it is free for those who join the Responsible Citizen Exchange.

To register, please contact Keven Stratton at 801-355-1272 or by email,