It was one of the most beautiful — and one of the most sustainable — farms that Ryanne Pilgeram had ever seen. When she arrived, Penny, the farmer, was sorting through vegetables in the shed. Her husband Jeff, who had a full-time job as a doctor, was hauling flakes of alfalfa to feed the draft horses that they used in place of tractors.
Pilgeram, a sociologist at the University of Idaho, was touring the farm as part of her research into sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. She had grown up on a ranch in Montana and was already familiar with the world of conventional farming, although her family's own land had been lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Perhaps for that reason, she froze when a feral dog darted out from a shed and, in front of Pilgeram and the two farmers, ran off with a live chicken, which fell limp in its jaws. This dog was no stranger to the couple. She had just given birth to a litter of puppies, and Pilgeram later learned that she'd been stealing a chicken every day for a week.
"I just remember being really anxious — like, this is not going to end well, I should probably just get my car and go home," Pilgeram recalls. "Where I grew up, they would have just shot the dog, right?"
But instead of going for his gun, Jeff offered Pilgeram one of the new puppies. She describes the moment as one of culture shock. "They were super chill about it, like it was not a big deal," she says. "I just kept thinking that it's a pretty privileged position to be in, to not care if some of your livestock is taken."
In many ways, Pilgeram found that this couple (whose names have been changed) epitomized the new generation of farmers moving into Western states like Idaho, Washington, and Montana.
Wealthy, educated, and cultured — and with a deep ideological commitment to sustainability — these formerly urban dwellers have migrated to rural areas, where they've been able to use savings and inheritances to purchase small plots of relatively cheap land. Here, they can grow organic, low-carbon crops and provide an alternative to the mass-produced, pesticide-covered produce sold by conventional farms.
In many ways, it's a welcome change. Agriculture is responsible for around 9 percent of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions — from fertilizer releasing nitrous oxide, for instance, or from cows emitting methane. And large-scale farming isn't just bad for the environment; the application of pesticides has serious health implications for those who work on farms. Recent studies have linked high pesticide exposure to a poor sense of smell and a doubled risk of cardiovascular disease among Latino farm workers.
Sustainable agriculture offers a way to bypass these pitfalls. Instead of filling their baskets at Walmart, ethically minded consumers can buy local and organic produce directly from the farmer who grew it, whether at farmers' markets or through a community-supported agriculture program, reducing food miles and avoiding the industrial contamination and erosion associated with conventional agriculture.
But Pilgeram worries that this improved model of agriculture is fundamentally incapable of surviving in a corporatized America — and that the sacrifices these people are making to survive are steadily chipping away at their claims of sustainability.
One problem is the price of the produce. Many of us have had the experience of turning up at our local farmers' market, armed with tote bags, only to slink back to the supermarket after seeing the prices of the vegetables on offer. This is hardly the fault of the individual farmers. Still, as Pilgeram points out in a paper that she published in 2011, the costs involved with running such an operation mean that the benefits are inevitably affordable only to a small, generally white and middle-class, portion of society.
Meanwhile, those able to afford the cost of setting up a sustainable farm tend to have already benefited from capitalism. Many such farmers made their money earlier in life, through well-paid city jobs, and decided to invest the proceeds into land, according to Pilgeram's research. Others relied on a member of their family to support the farm with wages earned outside the farm. Some simply had inherited wealth. "You basically have to be rich to farm, really," said one farmer whom Pilgeram interviewed.
More recently, Pilgeram has been studying the role of women in sustainable agriculture. She's found that the new cash-for-access model of farming has actually created opportunities for female empowerment within the male-dominated world of conventional agriculture, where women had traditionally assumed the role of farmers' wife. Today, women are able to buy their own land and farm their own way.
But it's a limited victory, Pilgeram writes in her most recent paper, published last November, and empowers only a certain class of women "while leaving [the capitalist] system basically entirely unaffected" — and which also risks gentrifying the towns to which these farmers move, further entrenching the country's class divide.
Then there's the problem that the system ultimately rests on a sequence of compromises and sacrifices that the farmers themselves must make, regardless of their ideological commitment to the cause. These sacrifices are personal, environmental, and social. "Only the select few, the ... richest amongst us are really taking care of land in a truly sustainable way," one farmer reported.
In some cases, farmers have exploited their own bodies to make ends meet, working for free or for obscenely long hours; one woman reported working 120 hours a week to ensure that her cheese remained as affordable as possible. Others depended on interns or volunteers who were themselves from privileged backgrounds and could afford to work for free. (Most of these farmers, Pilgeram noted, avoided the often-exploitative practice of relying on poorly paid Hispanic laborers.)
"The economic system that we have in place makes it impossible, really, to create a socially just food system. It's not possible under capitalism," Pilgeram says. Without a drastic change to this system, sustainable agriculture risks becoming an "esoteric side note" to conventional agriculture, she adds — or simply another way for those with money to live healthier lives than those without.
This story originally appeared as Can sustainable agriculture survive under capitalism? on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.