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A Return to Yeomanry

Break out your mulching fork: Jeffersonian farmers are back!

Yeomanry—small-scale production centered on a self-sufficient family unit—has been the dream of all manner of social philosophers from Thomas Jefferson to Pope Leo XIII. But until recently, real-life yeomen could be and were dismissed-often violently. Joseph Stalin, for example, made short work of Eastern Europe's land-holding peasant class. Soon after, on the expanding frontiers of America's 1950s suburbia, zoning boards gave the nod to strip malls and big-box stores while outlawing almost all traditional forms of home production. Both communists and capitalists seemed to agree: Peasants and other small-scale producers were at best inefficient anachronisms. The future would be one of ever greater division of labor and increasing economies of scale.

But they were wrong. As the global economic crisis forces everyone to downsize, the self-sufficient worker once again has a chance, whether as a farmer growing vegetables for local consumption or as an open-source software developer who makes a living in his basement office.

Many of the world's citizens are already being thrown back toward some form of yeomanry for lack of any attractive alternative. And with the decline of communism and union power, employers from Tokyo to Detroit no longer feel compelled to offer lifetime employment with generous benefits to forestall a revolution.

But although this means disaster for some, it's an opportunity for others. Consumer preference for niche production, particularly for locally grown food, is soaring. Recently released U.S. government statistics show that, after falling for generations, the number of farms and farmers in the United States is once again rising, with the steepest increases found in small-scale production. The purported efficiency of industrial agriculture becomes more dubious as it produces a diet that is relatively cheap in price, but expensive in cost (as measured by energy use, soil depletion, carbon emissions, and other externalities, such as the potential for infectious disease to spread, as Mexico discovered with swine flu this year). And the yeoman revival isn't just about starry-eyed yuppies yearning for a simpler life of heirloom tomatoes and muskmelons rooted in worm castings, either: As we reach the limits of industrialized agriculture, food prices are likely to rise significantly, drawing many slum dwellers in developing countries back to the land.

In wealthier countries, advances in technology—even beyond the home-office basics of laptops and teleconferencing—will give all sorts of people the chance to be yeomen. One development to watch is the emergence of "personal fabricators." These machines, already in use by companies such as Nike, effectively allow you to "print" an object such as, say, a sneaker—or even car parts or a whole house. Currently starting at about $18,000, personal fabricators haven't been adopted widely by individuals. But as with personal computers, the size and cost of these machines will drop quickly while their power expands, allowing dealers to sell products locally and save on logistics and inventory.

A final reason to expect a return of yeomanry involves family. In the long run, perhaps the greatest failure of both communism and liberal capitalism has been an inability to reconcile the tensions of work and family life. For the majority of the world's population that no longer lives on farms or relies on home production, children are not an economic asset but an avoidable liability. And so, particularly in urban areas, we get fewer and fewer of them, with birthrates descending below replacement levels in large parts of the world.

A rise in home production would help restore the economic basis of the family. In agrarian settings as well as small businesses and craft shops, children can often earn their own keep from a young age without offense to the spirit of child-labor laws. Just as significantly, a parent who is his or her own boss and works in the home has the freedom and flexibility to combine work and family activities in ways that can make parenthood a joy, as opposed to a harried juggling act. The neo-yeomen won't only be more efficient laborers—they'll also be happier parents, giving their societies a clear Darwinian advantage.

Of course, without guaranteed healthcare, no computer programmer in Seattle can take the risks necessary to launch an independent career, just as without land reform in the developing world, would-be yeoman farmers won't be able to leap from tenant worker to landowner. Just as Jefferson used government to advance the Western frontier so that more workers could go toil the earth, for modern yeomen to achieve self-sufficiency, some protective government regulation may be in order. Forget your idealized past notions of man and plow; in the future, we'll all be tilling new kinds of fields.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE YESTER; SUBDIVISION, JEFF HAYNES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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