I read a blog called Ben Hewett written by, well, Ben Hewett. He and his wife, Penny, live, farm, and raise their two sons on forty acres of land in Vermont. Hewett’s blog chronicles his rural life, and he does a fair amount of philosophizing as well. Hewett has a strong writing voice, firm and vibrant, that keeps this writer reading.
Sometimes I agree with Hewett, but often I don’t, and this sets in motion a one-sided discussion where I reflect on what he has written. In truth, that is one of the reasons I read his blog because in my solo arguments with Hewett’s take on things, I clarify my own thoughts.
In his latest post, “Something to Chew on,” Hewett writes about poverty and the notion that poor people need more money. On the one hand, Hewett does realize that in our current society, people do need a certain amount of money, but he perceives that the real problem is “that these families simply don’t have the resources to prosper outside the moneyed economy. They don’t have access to land.”
In the piece, Hewett also notes that last year his family officially went below the poverty line, but they do not consider themselves poor because they raise so much of what they need, which is a bit unusual today, but not so much when I was growing up. “We can live this way because we have land and because on that land, we have cultivated both the soil and our skills.”
In one sense, Hewett is right. Being able to produce much of what you eat certainly means you do not have to spend as much money at the store. Hewett and his wife work hard, as do their sons, and they have created a healthy, satisfying life for themselves, even though they are officially poor.
But does this mean that his own solution—farming on forty acres of land—is the catch-all solution for everyone in Vermont, in this country, in this world? It can’t be. There isn’t enough arable land for everyone to have his or her own forty-acre spread. There are simply too many of us on this planet.
According to the World Bank, there are .51 hectares of arable land per person in the United States. This comes to a little over an acre per person. In theory, all families could have between two and four acres on which to grow things, but that wouldn’t leave any arable land for forests or wildlife or crops that require space. Or livestock.
Let me be clear. I do not begrudge Hewett and his family their forty acres. I am only saying that it is not sustainable for everyone to have this. In fact, it isn’t sustainable for everyone to only have his or her own acre.
Then there is a the matter of temperament. We are not all the same. Not everyone is suited to be a farmer, and to work at something that doesn’t suit you is a misery. Some people are keen to teach or be librarians, to be nurses or doctors, to be social workers, to make jewelry, to perform, to dance, to paint, to write code, even to work in a restaurant. The list goes on.
So in principle I agree with Hewett that becoming more self-reliant—cooking, growing your own food, knitting, sewing, home repairs—is a good thing. But I also believe that there are no substitutions for economic justice, for a living wage, for fair taxation, for social services, for all the things that truly do lift people out of poverty.