Farms and farm work seem to have dual connotations in the United States. On the one hand, the Founding Fathers were large landowners and envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers sustaining the new republic with their physical and intellectual labor. Americans pursued the dream of owning their own land and fostered the ideology of an independent nation through westward expansion. On the other hand, farmers today do not hold such a prominent place in American society as they do in our national mythology. The negative associations of manual labor have crept in – European serfs and poor subsistence farmers. While farmers themselves might not enjoy the respect they once did (there are less of them, afterall), we continue to romanticize the land and what it means to us – national independence, personal freedom, control over destiny, natural beauty, and pride. Because of our social and political development as a country, landholding and farming have individualistic associations. But this is a uniquely, if not exclusively, American point of view. Farming, in reality, is the joint effort of many rather than one person.
The word farmer, as we use it today, loosely developed out of the meaning for peasant – someone who works the land. Over time, “peasant” acquired certain class connotations that “farmer” did not. (For an interesting look at the etymology, check out this piece.) Peasant, as generally used, means someone who works the land and posses a noticeably inferior social or economic status. This negative association developed over time. In Spanish (particularly vocabulary relating to agriculture in Peru), I don’t know of any term for someone who either owns or cultivates land that does not also denote socioeconomic status. For my senior thesis, I studied the transition of indigenous peasants to professional miners in the central highlands of Peru. By calling this specific groups of people “peasants,” I did not mean that they were considered socially and economically inferior within the race and class hierarchy of nineteenth and twentieth century Peruvian society (this distinction becomes relevant only when comparing them to other groups of people). I simply meant that were tied to the land and subsisted primarily on the food and goods their farming and herding produced. Neither English nor Spanish provided a word that captured this without also creating a class association.
Class is encoded into how we talk about occupation, and especially how we talk about the land and our relationships with it. Associations of independence and individuality with land have always been more prevalent in the United States, but in Peru in the 1920s the romanticized agrarian figure was not the white, republican farmer – it was the poor, disenfranchised Indian who maintained the country’s Incan heritage with communal landholding structures. Due especially to the literature produced as part of the indigenismo movement, indigenous life and particularly the comunidad symbolized both Peru’s historic past and hope for a modernized future. Within the comunidad, indigenous members helped and worked land collectively based on reciprocal exchange. Socialists of the time interpreted this as evidence of the inherent socialist nature of indigenous communities. In reality, the comunidad was a defense against the incursion of large landholders on traditionally indigenous land.
This example from Peru almost a century ago seems removed from our contemporary experiences but actually highlights the variety that exists between social, economic, and political groups in terms of attaching ideological value to land and personal characteristics to the people who live and work on that land. Views of land and farming are cultural, and associations are strong (either positive or negative) because of the integral role (either direct or indirect) land and farming have in our own lives. We all need the land to survive –the difference lies in how we value the people who own and cultivate that land.