Vanishing Rural Communities In residential subdivisions across the Midwest, there is often one house that doesn’t fit in. It sits at the top of the hill, with dying cottonwoods along the north side and remnants of a barbed wire fence that once marked the property line. It’s the house that used to be a family farm, sitting on a 160-acre square of good soil along a single-track dirt road leading in from the eastern horizon. These farmsteads were once part of a vibrant agricultural community, linked together by feed and seed supply stores, grain elevators, food markets, equipment and implement dealers, and all the other businesses that comprise a rural economy. Citizens contributed to the vitality of schools, churches, hospitals, grocery stores, diners, town halls, courts, granges, and post offices, where the day-to-day business of life played out in face-to-face conversations and robust public debate. The story of our vanishing family farms is familiar. Expanding cities encroach on fertile land while cheap food grown elsewhere undermines local farm profits. A developer buys the land to relieve the farmer of her growing debt. The farmer’s name is remembered only by the sign over the gated entry to the community of tract homes that surrounds what’s left of the family homestead. Miller Crossing. Johnson’s Corner. Pittz Hollow. The number of American farms has dropped from nearly 8 million to just over 2 million in the last 50 years. As farm families left the countryside, rural communities lost their citizens, their tax base and their economic vitality. In many cases they lost their reason for existing at all. For most Americans, the loss of a farm or a farming community merits at most of shrug. Businesses fail and people move all the time. Food shows up in the supermarket anyway. So why would it matter if unseen rural towns are fading away?
Forming America Since our first years as a nation, our democratic ideals have been most fully realized in rural agricultural communities. While the founding fathers wrote high-mindedly about the equal rights of men to seek liberty and happiness, in practice these rights took root most deeply where all citizens owned property–especially productive farmland. With enough land to live independently, but not enough to dominate his neighbor, each farmer could advocate confidently for himself in the local political forum. Keenly aware of his equality of means as well as his dependence on others, he kept the best interests of the whole community in mind. Having enough meant making sure others did, too. He based social status and personal honor on what was contributed over a lifetime, not how much he took for himself. Yet, long before the American Revolution, a British-American aristocracy had established itself in the merchant cities, rural estates and plantations of America. Disproportionate accumulation of wealth and property led to unequal levels of political power. Most people were not allowed to vote; even fewer could run for office. Only members of the wealthy families were elected or appointed to rule the lives of commoners. The needs of the many were often overlooked in favor of the wealth of a few, and often bolstered the powers and reach of the national government. The aristocracy controlled the markets for land, money, manufacturing and trade. Court judges and militias defended their interests. Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of dispersed democratic rural townships morphed into a national ethic of extraction and control. Under this system, the yeoman American farmer has been used as a pawn in a game of wealth accumulation and political domination. British sovereigns used farmers to break new ground on the western frontier and suppress indigenous people. Colonial landholders extracted rents and taxes, then conscripted fathers and sons for war. Merchants lent farmers money against the next harvest, but demanded land as collateral; they set the cost of goods high and the price of crops low to slowly steal full title to the land. Railroads and landmen lured settlers to largely fictional western townships with tales of lush land and lavish precipitation. They charged burdensome tariffs to haul equipment and supplies westward, and again to carry farm produce back to urban markets. Speculators circled farmsteads with foreclosure warrants in one hand and new loan money in the other.
400 years of farming Americans moved westward in search of opportunity, in spite of this hostility. Life in cities and jobs in factories offered no better prospects. Farmers broke new land which they plowed and planted endlessly. They extracted the virgin soil’s fertility until it waned, then moved on in search of somewhere better. The government offered millions of acres to homesteaders in exchange for tilling and grazing the prairies. President Lincoln, a frontiersman himself, established funding for agricultural stations and colleges to help farmers succeed in unfamiliar lands. Abolitionists sought to place smallholders in western territories to prevent the establishment of slavery in new states. Freeman were promised forty acres. Veterans of the imperial wars were offered homestead land in lieu of pay. Towns situated along rail spurs near water, farmland and mining areas fared best. They became hubs for trade and attracted investment from business, farming and religious interests. If rail service ended, so did commerce. Fierce competition set in over placement of rails and stations. Some of these new American settlements survived and grew. Farm economies and local governance focused on the county seat. Despite unreliable roads, individual farmers, merchants and tradesmen could travel there within a day or two to trade and talk. There they further their shared interests by agreeing to investments in infrastructure and public services. Across America, agricultural production paid for the country’s new steel tracks and steam engines, town halls, churches and hospitals. Millions of small food producers in isolated rural counties changed their focus from purely household production to making products for the national market. They cased and cooled fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs. They ground wheat into flour. They fattened cattle, cured meats and tanned hides. They bottled milk, cured cheese and paddled butter. Grocery chains and manufacturers extended their reach deep into the heartland, setting up buying offices along the rail lines to ensure a steady supply of food and livestock for America’s hungry cities. In good years, farmers had enough to eat and plenty to sell. When economic cycles undermined the value of their production, rural communities could consume their surplus until things improved. *** It was not long before small holder farmers lost their independence and economic footing. The promoters of centralized manufacturing and nascent national brands intentionally marginalized locally made cottage foods, decrying them as old-fashioned, impure and unsafe. Large processors bought such large quantities of commodity crops that they could set the price they would pay. Regional factories, which could process more cheaply and consistently than ever before, forced small local processors out of business. Predatory corporations bought smaller county-level factories just to close them, even destroying the buildings so local businesses could not be reestablished there. Thomas Jefferson’s self-reliant farmer had to compete for buyers against feedlots raising 100,000 head of cattle, dairies making 10,000 wheels of cheese, and bakeries shipping 10,000 loaves of bread every day. Instead of eating off their land, farmers began to grow commodity crops and livestock to sell to far-off wholesale markets. Rural families used their dwindling cash incomes to buy processed food — made elsewhere — at the few remaining grocery stores. Farmers themselves became disconnected from the food they ate. Rural communities became subordinate to the powerful business interests that determined if they would thrive, survive, or wither away.
Following this pattern, over the last 150 years farms have become larger in size, fewer in number, and increasingly specialized. Neighbors who stayed in this game of economic musical chairs lost their livelihoods and moved away. The lucky winners kept farming–until yet another seat was taken from the table. The trusts and corporations bid the music play on, trumpeting the refrain Get Big or Get Out. By design, rural communities dwindled and failed as conglomerates captured production and markets. The most common sight along the nation’s interstates became thousand-acre plots of corn, soybeans, and wheat. Off the interstate, along the old county roads, mostly abandoned farmsteads and boarded up storefronts remained. The demise of rural farming communities and the democratic practices they once embodied is a defining theme of our national history. Thomas Jefferson and his brethren had wagged their pens knowingly at the self-interested power of the moneyed elite, but they were also part of that elite and never failed to protect it. They used legislation, courts, the supply of money and credit, access to wholesale markets, armed militia and speculation in farmland to capture the nation’s wealth. These powers would be amplified by the generations that followed.
To get a clearer understanding of what happened to our farmers, our food system, and our democratic ideals, it helps to revisit a story from beginning of the industrial revolution, when much of the modern economic, political and social structure of Europe and America was molded. The early transformation of ownership, production and markets among farmers, artisans, tradesmen, factory owners, and financial elites is still recognizable in today’s economy. For centuries before the Industrial Revolution, three longstanding traditions had kept villages and families economically stable. A man learned his father’s trade, as did his son. A skill such as metalworking, weaving, farming, shoe making, or baking provided income from barter and currency. Ubiquitous production of food for the household supplemented the income from cottage industry and trades. Every home had a vegetable garden and kept chickens, goats or pigs for meat, milk, and eggs. Extensive public commons–shared open areas, which were accessible to the entire community–allowed for foraging, farming, livestock rearing, fishing and hunting. Income from the family’s trade, augmented by cottage food production at home and food sourced from the commons, generally supported families through seasons both bountiful and lean. Then came the machines. The Luddites are often said to have feared new technology and fought to stop it out of simpleminded ignorance. In this view, steam-powered machinery increased productivity and freed human and animal workers from inefficient manual labor. Machines required only unskilled labor, and much less of it. A deeper look reveals that the longstanding conventions and social structures of village life were rendered irrelevant by the consequences of industrial technology. Factory owners could hire women and children for a tenth the cost of a skilled tradesman. They amassed fortunes and lived lavishly while the typical working man saw his traditional skills become obsolete, his earning power decimated, and his ability to feed his family disrupted–all within the span of a few years. Heads of families had no work, no trade, no pay, and no station in the social hierarchy. The quality of life of entire populations was sacrificed for the benefit of those who owned the new machines. To make matters worse, wage-earners themselves were taxed to support the unemployed poor whose livelihoods were destroyed. Thousands of farmers and tradesmen assessed this new order and found it intolerable. Why should one man get fabulously rich by refusing to pay his countrymen a fair wage? How had the shared commons been fenced in to become the property of a few? What was to be done about the air heavy with soot and the river running black with factory waste? In desperation, families banded together, swore each other to a secret brotherhood, and smashed hundreds of mechanized looms. Luddite uprisings occurred nearly simultaneously across dozens of English towns. No single Luddite leader’s call to action spread from town to town. Self-awareness and self-respect arose spontaneously in every settlement where families faced off against the malignant methods of mechanized production and the factory owners who profited from them. We will fight for what matters to our families. Give us back the things we value. Human beings should not contort themselves to serve the needs of technology and its owners’ greed. The fictitious King Ludd was a shared idea–a legend, a figurehead, a talisman, a hope. He embodied the belief that machines and technology must first serve people, families and communities. The response to the populist threat to factory owners’ profits was brutal and swift. Government assembled the largest police presence ever mustered outside of wartime. Protesters were rounded up, interrogated and some were hanged. The displaced and unemployed poor lived in horrid welfare houses, did penance in debtor prisons or were transported to overseas colonies. Thus began the use of government authority to protect industrial production and profit — at the expense of the dispossessed. The intractable poverty of sick, depressed, hopeless, and begging families has prevailed, in one form or another, since then. The destruction of civic life and the pollution of the environment still describe America today, 200 years after the Luddites in England made their desperate last stand. The concentration of ownership and control of production and markets is stronger than ever. One need only look at the beef, pork and poultry industries to see how these patterns continue. With control of markets, agriculture conglomerates can dictate to farmers how to raise animals at the very lowest possible cost. With control of government, they can ignore the stench and contamination of manure lagoons. With gag orders that make free speech a criminal offense, they can keep prying eyes away from the horrors of concentrated livestock feeding operations. With control of an industry and its profits, they can disregard the decline in human health around hog and chicken factories, and claim not to notice the widespread poverty their system creates. By hiring minimal staff at substandard wages, they can force surrounding communities to pay the cost of hunger, health care, and education. A Luddite mother in 1812 would be all too familiar with our current plight. Give us back the things we value.
Farmer Revolts We don’t often think of American farmers as unruly rebels, but history shows we should. In the late 1700’s, Shays’s Rebellion pitched a thousand poorly armed farmers, most of whom were veterans of the colonial wars, against 4,000 members of the Massachusetts militia in a dispute over crop prices, taxes and rents. In the early 1800’s, tenant farmers in New York state waged an armed guerrilla war against wealthy absentee landlords who, based on suspect land deeds, sought to evict them over unpaid rents. In the 1880’s, over two million plainsmen joined the National Farmers Alliance to gain access to affordable credit and cooperative buying at fair prices. After World War I and through the depression, farmers protested foreclosures caused by low prices by burning crops, dumping milk, blockading highways, protesting auctions, and taking judges hostage in their courtrooms. In Springfield, Colorado, the American Agricultural Movement organized a nationwide shutdown of crop shipments in an attempt to bolster prices and force the federal government to intervene on behalf of failing farms. In 1978, soaring interest rates on farm debt emboldened a small army of AMA farmers to drive their tractors across country, right up onto the lawn of the US Capitol. When the farmers demanded meetings, the Secretary of Agriculture escaped through his office window into a waiting limousine. Farmers were ridiculed, beaten and arrested. In every case, our farmers rose up in protest because the prices offered for their production was less than the cost to produce it. They demanded fair access to land, fair access to credit and fair access to transport and markets. Without adequate profit, they could not pay back operating loans and farm mortgages. Land rents made landlords richer. Whenever the global agricultural market generated too much supply, shifting demand drove market prices down in regular cyclical corrections. Improved technology and larger machines increased efficiency and yields, but only the farmer with access to capital to buy the most land first could take advantage of it. The result, as plain as the farmer’s day is long, was the systematic loss of wealth and opportunity across the American Heartland. Owners became renters. Renters became laborers. Laborers moved on.
In the United States, technological escalation Especially in the United States, technological escalation in agriculture has reached extremes. 10,000-acre farms planted with a single crop are common. The specialized equipment built to service these farms can plant and fertilize a sixty-foot wide swath in a single pass and may cost a million dollars. Commodity production and the vast land, equipment and chemical investments it requires is now so expensive that only the wealthy, and wealthy corporations, can afford to farm. Now as then, renters and sharecroppers are slowly starved off. Small farms without access to markets and capital fail and are absorbed into larger farms. Unemployed farmers and their hired hands migrate, heading to cities hoping for work. The ideology of innovation is the belief that the complexity, standardization, and centralized control enabled by technology is always better than what was before. It is deeply embedded in our national way of thinking. It informs all our laws and policies. As if our country’s land is just a dirt factory that makes food, we measure only the cost of inputs and the quantity of outputs. If a community, a family, or a farm is destroyed in the process, so be it. If a watershed, a river, or an ocean is polluted in the process, that’s the price of cheap food. If an animal suffers its whole life until the day of its death, it’s just an animal. This is the norm of our technology-driven American economy: increase shareholder value. Lobbyists and fixers for the agrochemical industry protect its domination and profits. Whether it’s GMO contaminated pollen, pesticide drift, stench from manure lagoons, antibiotic resistance, or the patenting of God-given genetic traits, industry has always found a way to manipulate courts and lawmakers to gain power and profit from new technologies without concern for common sense precaution or basic human values. Apologists for global agricultural conglomerates — including legislators and academics — are fully aware that overproduction of commodities on vast mono-culture farms is a risky economic venture. No worries: when overproduction drives down commodity prices, their friends in Congress have already authorized the U.S. taxpayers to subsidize crop prices to keep the system working. No such luck for small family farms. From 1995 to 2012, more than 75% of USDA farm subsidy payments were received by fewer than 10% of farms – all at taxpayer expense. The unquestioned acceptance of technological innovation is so ingrained in our culture that the belief in hard work, robust rural communities, humane treatment of animals, resource conservation, and alternative fuel use are now considered “ideological impediments” to proper farm management. Agricultural industry think-tanks and their public relations teams openly mock smallholders, organic farmers and grassland ranchers – even at times, without irony, disparaging them as Luddites. Nowhere is this broken logic more apparent than in the biotech industry’s efforts to promote genetically engineered (now awkwardly re-named “bioengineered”) crop varieties and the destructive chemical-intensive cropping systems that are required to support them. Bayer (the purchaser of Monsanto) alone claims to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to find viable varieties of artificially mutated crops. But Bayer’s agricultural system is not designed to grow more food or make farming more profitable for farmers. It is designed to force farmers to buy more patented seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and toxic herbicides – from Bayer, of course. The numbers are in: fewer farmers are making less money because the expensive system of inputs diverts profits into the overflowing pockets of company stockholders. The ideology of innovation works well for those who propound it. # Mechanization and concentrated ownership sparked the great labor migrations of our nation’s history. Out of the agrarian south, a mass exodus by freemen and dispossessed poor white farmers led families both to northern industrial cities and homesteads in newly opened western territories. During the Dust Bowl, starving farmers fled the ravaged plains, a tragedy caused by vast steam-powered tilling that left millions of square miles of open earth defenseless before the wind. Over time, these migrations manifested as permanent relocation from farm areas to regional industrial centers, where factories, construction, commercial services, and other economic activity were concentrated. Not everyone left the heartland, at least not all at once. Families and communities sought to protect their agrarian way of life by borrowing heavily to purchase new machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds that industry salesmen and agricultural extension agents offered. But the result was the same after every economic crisis or natural catastrophe. Instead of receiving help and relief, struggling farmers were hustled toward foreclosure so they could be rolled up into bigger, more efficient operations to grow commodity crops at lower and lower cost.
But don’t blame the farmer. If a farmer wants # In almost every segment of the American industrial food system, only a handful of companies control what is grown, how it is processed, and where it is sold. In the pork and poultry industry, growers are often indentured to the corporate contract. They must buy animals, feed, and medicine from the company. If the animals stay alive and grow, the company will buy them back at a barely profitable “market” price. If animals die or wither, the risk of financial loss falls entirely on the farmer. Like Luddite village workers facing life in the factory mills, farmers have never fared well when they depend on inputs and markets controlled by others. But don’t blame the farmer. To access to reliable markets for her hogs, a farmer must agree to raise them the way corporate buyers tell her to. If a pork producer wants a ready market for 1,000 fats, she must accept the price the aggregator offers. Industrial pork is a mainstay in supermarkets, restaurants, schools and institutions. But they won’t buy live animals from the grower or carcasses from the slaughterhouse. They only buy processed cuts and ground meat encased in plastic and packed into clean cardboard cases. Industrial hog factories and large-scale high-speed processing plants are required by big brands and big retailers to deliver an inexpensive and uniform product. They’ll pay the lowest possible price to growers and sell for the highest possible margin to consumers. And they are often the only game in town. Protest is mostly futile. They created a loophole that allows cheap foreign meat to be labeled as Product of USA; that’s the price American farmers are told they have to beat.
Democracy and agriculture function best on a It’s impossible to criticize the farm families that have chosen to scale up and compete within a global system, because, by design, that is often the only choice they have left. The lowest risk crops are those with ready markets that can be stored for long periods: corn, wheat, and soy. But the bet only works if the farm’s costs are low relative to its size: get big or you’ll be tossed out. Across the United States, I’ve heard farmers say there will be only a few dozen farms left in their area in twenty years. Almost no one can afford to buy the land and equipment to start a new farm, so the only way out for current farmers is to sell up to the next biggest operation. This is why the number of mid-size farms is dwindling, while small and very small farms are holding on – almost always supported by off-farm jobs. ******** Democracy and agriculture function best on a human scale. The earth’s biosphere is a single functioning system – of land, ocean, people, animals, plants and bugs. The good farmer uses all parts of the system to grow crops and livestock year after year with little else but what she recycles on the farm. A good farmer farms within this system, not against it. So too, a robust rural community can take care of itself socially, politically, materially, and spiritually. But to succeed it needs people who maintain their independence while being committed to the common good. That basic democratic choice – to enjoy life, liberty, and happiness – is exactly what large scale industrial agriculture takes away. Just as the farm family that balances the working of livestock, crops, soil and water can have enough for itself and a surplus for others, so the town that weighs compassionately the voices of its many citizens can have enough for each and more for all. In rural communities, industrial scale landholdings and departed families are symptoms of a socio-economic system out of balance. Healthy rural communities are always surrounded by healthy family farms. After completing high school, each generation of rural Americans may leave their home place looking for new experiences and opportunity. Whether or not they come back home to start a family and build a life is the singular critical measure of a community’s health. To stabilize and regenerate our American heartland, those of us who live in cities must engage directly with it. Boulder, Colorado probably doesn’t need its sister city in Kazakhstan nearly as much as it needs to partner with Durango, Sterling, Springfield and Alamosa, Colorado, which contribute to its foodshed. “You Need Us and We Need You” is the new revolutionary rejoinder to “Get Big or Get Out”. Indeed, it is the rallying cry of rural smallholders and urban food activists as they reestablish balanced direct trade relationships with each other. Cities cannot grow enough food, farms have too much. When middlemen pay too little at the farm gate and local value-added processing has been destroyed, rural communities struggle to survive. When city dwellers pay the right price to the farmer, economic security follows. We will grow the best food and make the healthiest products in the safest and most responsible way, but we have to be paid for it, says one. We want the best food and the healthiest products made in a safe and responsible way, and we are happy to pay for it, says the other. Farms, communities and democracy don’t survive on dollars and calories alone. They survive on a fair exchange of products, ideas and compassion in which no one suffers the cost of someone else’s selfish gain. Regenerative trade is the foundation of rural vitality and food sovereignty. On it, communities can build the infrastructure and identity a town needs to attract and keep citizens who want to contribute to its security, sovereignty and aliveness – and democracy. We are all shareholders in our food system; let’s support our shareholder values. Before our farms were told to borrow heavily and scale up to meet the needs of industry, we had mills and canneries and tanneries and cheese makers and butchers and bakers and driers and shredders and hullers in just about every agricultural county in America. The ideology of Get Big or Get Out gnawed at our bootstraps over time. Wonder Bread — spongy, tasteless, and preserved to keep for weeks — captured the nation’s imagination. Fermented loaves, heritage grains, and old-world recipes dropped from memory. The community that maintains a flour mill and baker pays the farmer, miller and baker well. The community that shops for supermarket bread gives its hard-earned cash to the shareholders of a multinational corporation that pays the farmer only pennies per pound for her wheat. In some ways the rural United States is like a developing country. Across most of it there are few small scale, locally operated food processing, storage and manufacturing facilities still in place to allow local farmers to create higher value products with the crops, livestock and milk they produce. Without the ability to generate wealth from local factories, and keep that wealth for themselves by selling to consumers at a fair price, our smallholders are caught like flies in an international web of very big and hungry spiders. Sell the raw goods low, buy the processed goods high. *** The United States no longer has agile refrigerated trucking and rail routes between rural counties and nearby cities. The logistics of gathering, storing, sorting and delivering products from producers to end users has mostly gone missing. We gave up our ability to make products locally as well as our ability to sell directly to willing markets. The surge in CSAs, farmers markets, cottage foods, food co-ops, local buying clubs and online farm product sales is the direct result of this missing logistics and infrastructure. Our rural counties are slowly rebuilding their economic capacity to create higher value products and sell them to eager metropolitan buyers. These direct sales provide more profit for the farmer. More importantly, they provide a market for products that would otherwise go unproduced or unsold.
Food safety, security, and sovereignty have Food safety, nutrient density, carbon capture, economic security, and rural sovereignty have become core principles of the local food movement. Fixing the food system means fixing farmers’ connection to markets for their goods. If farmers can sell to consumers who understand agriculture, farmers can again choose to grow better food in better ways and make more money doing it. Food production, processing, storage, marketing and distribution must be reestablished at the regional and county level. Renewed commitment to food issues in urban areas creates a natural connection to the remaining small producers in the countryside. In a classic free market scenario, small specialty producers are meeting urban demand for quality food produced by a compassionate, resilient, safe and fair agricultural system. One group links to the other in an exchange of ideas, support, learning–and, yes, money. How can these producers rebuild the heartland? The success of smaller farms and ranches depends on many factors. On-farm income is almost always subsidized by a day job because farm income is now too erratic and seasonal to depend on. Small operations avoid competing with industrial crop producers by growing specialized crops and raising meat and dairy animals using methods that appeal to particular consumer needs. Small farms also tend to operate using mixed crops and animals. By using the waste from one to nourish the other, and rotating crops and animals through the fields, biologically diverse farms reduce the cost of inputs while producing superior products. For consumers buying an expensive pork chop, the taste and texture of the meat is as important as the farm’s regenerative practices, her economic resilience, and the muddy pig’s happy squeal. Many longtime conventional farmers can see that commodity cropping has become a losing proposition. Unreliable profits, blowing topsoil, and long days in the cab of a tractor spraying pesticides is not what they envisioned for themselves and not what their children feel is an attractive future. It’s not wholesome farm life on a human scale. It’s a boring corporate life sitting in a tiny glass cubicle on top of a big diesel engine powering a fully automated tractor. Farmers know nature, and nature adapts. Naturally, farmers are trying new ways to grow and sell new kinds of crops in new ways. That’s their only hope of enticing their kids back when it comes time to retire. A satisfying characteristic of urban-rural grassroots connections is how they can be insulated from corporate meddling. Membership depends on local citizenship and participation. Cargill would have a hard time convincing my neighbors that it holds the best interests of the community above its own goals. Unlike corporate marketing online, into which companies can insert artificial influence and authority through public relations efforts, paid bloggers, and advertising, the town hall meeting is hard for Big Ag to manipulate. Living here is often the first requirement for participation. (Even so, food groups are reporting offers of corporate sponsorship, advice and product samples as companies seek to influence and profit from the democratic food movement. It seems to them that fearful, mislead, uninformed and ideologically misguided consumers need a paternalistic corporate shill to set them straight.) Beyond the better taste of fresher food and building strong relationships, the new food movement is supporting something even more important: democratic participation. However hypocritical they appear in hindsight, Thomas Jefferson’s democratic ideals were based on observations of small communities. Each citizen was entitled to use the community’s resources, but only to a certain extent. None would extract so much that she destroyed the commons or wielded inordinate power, and none would have so little use of the commons as to be dependent on another. This idealized democracy depended on both private property and shared community resources. Today, this ideal exists in tentative form in many towns and neighborhoods that are building infrastructure and logistics to allow everyone to build wealth. Collectively, food activists are responding to the conglomerate food crisis and the lack of democratic participation in governing our communities. These individuals and groups intend to bring back food production, preservation, and sharing to their neighborhoods and towns. They provide a direct link between consumers and regional producers of meat, grains, and vegetables so farmers can exchange their goods at a fair price. A struggling community can get a sense of individual and collective empowerment from participating in a movement to build its own food security. The movement’s aims are powerfully simple: provide healthy food, grown with safe regenerative methods, bring neighbors together to create community trust through growing and sharing food and to provide a method for small rural producers to sell their goods to urban customers at a fair price. Everyone in the community is included, and everyone has equal access to safe, nutritious food. It took two hundred years to come full circle, but our 19th century Luddite forebears would certainly understand the motivation behind these efforts: Give us back the things we value. Over the past few years we have rediscovered the soil biome. The science of soil shows us how plants above ground and the web of life underground depend on each other for life. Plants combine water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to create sugars, which they store in roots. Fed by these sugars, the fungal network surrounding the roots breaks down minerals, deters pathogens, and holds water needed by the plant. Through chemical signaling, the two communities manage resources symbiotically for survival, growth and defense. Now we are discovering the rural economic biome. Agricultural communities create wealth from soil, sun, water and seed. They increase the value of raw materials by cleaning, processing and preserving them. Excess is aggregated for transport to larger markets. Wealth is captured and accumulated by families for food, education, housing and medical care. Wealth is deployed by communities for water, energy, education, roads, sanitation and safety. The rural biome of our agricultural communities provides the food for America. To come full circle, what nourishment are we providing them in return?