Why Are Some Organic Farmers Turning to Reactionary Politics?

We shouldn't assume that the farmers' market is a bastion of progressivism.

Jake Angeli, the horned and face-painted “QAnon Shaman,” has emerged as the most recognizable rioter in the mob that stormed the US Capitol building on January 6th. Amidst the sea of headlines that followed the insurrection came this interesting tidbit - Angeli has apparently refused to eat any prison food unless it is in accordance with his “strict organic diet.”

While we might think of the farmers’ market, and especially the organic producers, as a progressive social scene, there has been a notable shift recently toward right-libertarian attitudes. I don’t intend to suggest that a right wing perspective sways the majority of my fellow ecological farmers, but that underneath the sometimes true-to-life stereotypes of the socially liberal small-scale organic farm world, there is a marginal but growing tendency toward conservative views. If we look more closely at the philosophical motivations underpinning the modern back-to-the-land movement and the economic positioning of small organic farm operator-owners, it becomes clear that the emergence of libertarian attitudes amongst some members of this demographic is far from surprising - and should be expected to grow in coming years.

The drivers that animate the modern back-to-the-lander vary widely. There are many reasons for a person to leave our modern society and foresee an escape into the raw countryside of their imagination. These personal motivations can run the axis of the political spectrum from left to right and everything in between. Individuals and families, as well as groups of friends or business partners, choose to move to rural areas in response to a range of real or perceived threats to their ability to thrive on what they feel are their own terms. Though there are numerous attempts currently aimed at building a more sustainable and just rural agricultural economy, this article will focus mainly on the right wing inverse to these cooperative attempts. I’ll only mention these progressive attitudes to highlight where they occasionally overlap, but mainly diverge, with the rightward shift in small organic farmer politics and practices.

The spiritual-philosophical ideology of the reactionary homesteader or small organic farmer shows itself in a number of recognizable modern anxieties - prepper subculture, government mistrust, a turn to new age medicine, anarcho-primitivism, and other manifestations of the scarcity feelings that find a home in both hippie lifestylism and right wing politics. Perhaps the individual who best embodies the ex-urbanite turn to new age homestead conservatism is Curtis Stone, a YouTube blogger who first rose to familiarity in the farm scene as an innovator of hyper-small-scale backyard vegetable farming. Going back to 2015 and 2016, a viewer will find his video channel populated exclusively by informative videos on no-till cropping systems, customer management, and other topics pertinent to the nuts and bolts of running a small farm venture near an urban center. I certainly gained much from these videos on my own path into bio-intensive small-scale agriculture. Stone also published a book, The Urban Farmer, in 2015, which still sits on my bookshelf. It contains helpful diagrams of irrigation sprinkler setups, soil amendment recommendations, and not a word on politics.

Jump forward to 2021, and half of Stone’s videos are now uploaded exclusively to BitChute, a right wing video hosting website, and contain titles such as “Refuge from the NWO [New World Order] within Private Societies,” “Don’t let fear and anxiety wear you down!” and “Talking collapse with Jack Spirko.” He begins a recent video with Takota Coen, a Canadian permaculturalist, with an anecdote recalling his dismay at finding gender neutral bathrooms available at a sustainable farming conference he attended in Boston years ago. Stone intends for this reflection to illustrate his slow shift away from the world of “SJWs,”or “social justice warriors,” a group he identifies with overbearing moral judgement and runaway progressive values taken to dogmatic extremes. He doesn’t extend this same critique to his own fundamentalist traditional values.

Perhaps one of the main reasons I have been slow to notice the seeds of reactionary thought taking root in the small farm scene is because of the historical connection between environmentalism and the Left. Stone still advocates for organic farming on ecological grounds. And yet, mixed into messages of concern over industrial agriculture’s role in environmental destruction, the viewer will also find videos devoted to climate change skepticism. While these two beliefs - recognition of industrial agriculture’s harmful role in ecological destruction and a wariness of climate science - appear to contradict each other, a quick look into the motivations underpinning both reveals a consistent worldview. Perhaps nothing more incisively points to the political perspectives of the right-libertarian organic farmer than the twin positions of climate change denialism and support for ecologically-sound farming practices. Bound up within this paradoxical commitment to both positions is the conservative economic allergy to government regulation (which would be required at a massive scale to mitigate climate change’s worst effects) and the hippie-esque concern for purity of food, and by extension, purity of nature itself.

The economic commitment to free market ideology is easier to explain within the small farm world, to the extent that it has taken root, than the correlated right wing social views. Especially for those farmers who own and operate small ventures, it is not surprising that a significant portion of this social class would arrive at conservative economic positions, as is true generally for many small business owners. This adherence to the logic of capitalism should be even less surprising when considering industry success stories like Curtis Stone, who recently revealed a yearly salary of over $300K (while proudly donning a Milton Friedman t-shirt). It makes perfect sense that at least some percentage of small-scale farmers would develop traditional libertarain views toward government regulation and taxation. Stone often references the laissez-faire Austrian school of economics, the teachings of economic self-responsibility given by black conservative luminary Thomas Sowell, and other ideological supports for his anti-government economic politics.

In a recent YouTube video titled “My thoughts on urban farming after 10 years,” Stone, whose channel is still titled “Urban Farmer Curtis Stone,” monologues to the camera about why he now advises people against what his pitch has been for the last decade - to start commercial farms in the city. He details a number of reasons for his shift away from farming in the urban context (he is now in the process of moving to a rural homestead) that are helpful in understanding the right-libertarian back-to-the-land mindset: the perception of increased violence stemming from Antifa and BLM (with no mention of right wing extremism), reduced patronage of farmers’ markets due to fear of COVID-19 (or what he calls the “scam-demic”), and an urban workforce that feels “entitled to showing up and getting a living wage” and “thinks the world owes them a living.” That city-dwelling farm laborers aren’t willing to show up and work for poverty wages seems to be distressing enough to deter Stone from having another go at urban agriculture.

Interestingly, in the age of resurgent “right-wing populism,” oxymoronic as that term is, these libertarian economic views found in the small farm scene are often filtered through a disdain for the “elites,” including the uber-wealthy. This insider-outsider/friend-enemy distinction permits adherents to this belief system the ability to maintain a feeling of counter-cultural status, which is fundamental to the lifestyle philosophy of homesteaders and many small farmers. One could assume that a commitment to libertarianism should naturally lead to an admiration for our modern-day captains of industry - Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the like - and yet, these billionaires are often slotted into the category of “elites” (alongside politicians) who animate Stone and others on the “populist” Right to action.

What emerges is a particular libertarianism of the small business-owning class, which simultaneously rejects government intervention into the market, lauds the free spirit of the entrepreneur, and villainizes the economic elite who have ironically benefited greatly from the lax business environment of neoliberalism. The inherent contradiction between attitudes of pro-entrepreneurialism and disdain for our society’s most successful entrepreneurs is reconciled through an explanatory narrative of collusion between economic and political elites against the middle class of small business pioneers (absent from this class of victims: working class people, people of color, women, and other oppressed groups). This conspiracy of rulers is often referred to as the “new world order,” the globalists, or a “cabal”. It is simply an update to the tired clarion call of libertarians everywhere: the indictment of “crony capitalism,” or not-enough-capitalism, as the reason for our system’s obvious shortcomings.

To be clear, a Left/socialist position identifies many of the same elite characters (Bezos, etc) as indeed criminally over-powerful, and most certainly able to leverage their outsized economic heft to alter government policy in their favor. A progressive response to this unearned and inhumane concentration of power would require robust state intervention via taxation and redistribution of socially-produced (but privately hoarded) wealth. But the anti-government organic farm owner-operator is ultimately less concerned with redistribution of resources to the working poor than he is with his sovereign right to protect his own private property, and to share it only with those whom he deems deserving - typically his family and those who fall into his ideological camp of “truthers” (a category which is now, in the Covid context, defined primarily by anti-vax viewpoints).

Within this economic worldview of resource scarcity, government overreach, and the sanctity of the homestead as a realm of privacy away from the tyrannical public emerges a corresponding social view that juggles both counter-cultural elements with reactionary conservative beliefs. Perhaps the best written summation of this neo-traditionalism is offered by Tara Couture of Slow Down Farmstead, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist-turned-homestead blogger who identifies as a “farmer, nutritionist, butcher, hunter” and has over 41,000 followers on Instagram. In a post from November 2, 2020 with almost 5,000 likes, she writes: “It’s a funny world we have arrived at. A place and time where common sense is whispered by the radicals, where real food is elitist, where women happy to claim the gifts of motherhood are oppressed and men expressing their masculinity are toxic.”

Couture implores us: “Be still. Accept truth. Press your luscious, pounding heart against a mighty tree and listen. Let the perversions of modernity leak out of you.” This titillating morsel of prose is set beneath a simple photograph of an empty bird’s nest, held out by the author and picked up most likely on her beautiful rural property. The image is presumably intended to demonstrate the pure simplicity of nature’s design, held in opposition to modernity and its perverse creations (in this instance and in her mind: demasculinized men and career-driven, childless women).

Couture is able to maintain her counter-cultural credentials amidst a general message of banal patriarchal traditionalism by showing a genuine commitment to organic food, “clean” eating, and ecological homestead practices. She decries (rightfully, I would argue) the crimes of Big Agribusiness and large food corporations in wreaking damage both on our bodies and on the land. Curtis Stone, meanwhile, stays in touch with his punk-rock roots (he got his start as a lefty musician) by growing cannabis, railing against the “global elite,” speaking positively about anarchism (albeit anarcho-capitalism), and voicing concern over GMOs, a traditionally left-wing cause.

Stone and Couture are self-described radicals. But what holds the Left together - an opposition to the exploitative economic and social system under which we all work and live - is not the binding glue that brings together this new band of reactionary alt-lifestyle farmers and homesteaders. Instead, they find common cause in a rejection of what they view as modernity in its entirety - creeping government intervention into the lives of individuals, incoming forced vaccinations, tyrannical mega-corporations colluding with globalist governments to keep down the small scale back-to-the-lander.

For all the Right’s bemoaning of SJW snow-flakery, the worldview of the reactionary small farmer/homesteader places him squarely within the long history of self-victimization found commonly amongst conservatives. And while the right wing self-described “freedom fighters” of the recent past have balked at the organic food diets most stereotypically associated with those they would deem political foes - urban-dwelling, professional class liberals - we shouldn’t be surprised to see more reactionaries taking cues from both arch-conservatives like Jordan Peterson on the one hand, and ecological gurus like permaculture founder Bill Mollison on the other - both of whom Stone regularly reference. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised - after all, who said a right-winger couldn’t enjoy a nice field-ripened biodynamically-grown tomato?