An Agrarian Imaginary in Urban Life: Cultivating Virtues and Vices Through a Conflicted History

  • Christopher Mayes


This paper explores the influence and use of agrarian thought on collective understandings of food practices as sources of ethical and communal value in urban contexts. A primary proponent of agrarian thought that this paper engages is Paul Thompson and his exceptional book, The Agrarian Vision. Thompson aims to use agrarian ideals of agriculture and communal life to rethink current issues of sustainability and environmental ethics. However, Thompson perceives the current cultural mood as hostile to agrarian virtue. There are two related claims of this paper. The first argues that contrary to Thompson’s perception of hostility, agrarian thought is popularly and commercially mobilized among urban populations. To establish this claim I extend Charles Taylor’s notion of a social imaginary and suggest that urban agriculture can be theorized as an agrarian imaginary. Entwined with the first claim is the second, that proponents selectively use agrarian history to overemphasis a narrative of virtue while ignoring or marginalizing historical practices of agrarian violence, exclusion and dispossession. I do not discount or deny the significance of agrarian virtue. By situating agrarian thought within a clearer virtue ethics framework and acknowledging potential manifestation of agrarian vice, I suggest that the idea of agrarian virtue is strengthened.


Agrarian Social imaginary Urban agriculture Virtue Vice Charles Taylor 



I am grateful to Donald Thompson and Leland Glenna for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for providing substantive feedback and generous recommendations.


  1. Allen, P., & Sachs, C. (2007). Women and food chains: The gendered politics of food. International Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture, 15(1), 1–23.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  3. Aristotle (1980). Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics (trans: Ross, W. D.). London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Atkinson, A. E. (2012). Promoting health and development in detroit through gardens and urban agriculture. Health Affairs, 31(12), 2787–2788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Australian Technology Park Precinct Management. (2009). Eveleigh farmers’ market charter. Sydney: Australian Technology Park Precinct Management.Google Scholar
  6. Barraclough, L. R. (2009). South central farmers and shadow hills homeowners: Land use policy and relational racialization in Los Angeles*. The Professional Geographer, 61(2), 164–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berry, W. (2003). The agrarian standard. In N. Wirzba (Ed.), The essential agrarian reader: The future of culture, community, and the land. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  8. Berry, W. (2009). Bringing it to the table: On farming and food. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.Google Scholar
  9. Black, A. (2009). Ethical food still not cheap as chips City News. Retrieved from
  10. Blomley, N. (2003). Unsettling the city: Urban land and the politics of property: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  11. Borch, M. (2001). Rethinking the origins of terra nullius. Australian Historical Studies, 32(117), 222–239. doi: 10.1080/10314610108596162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Botterill, L. C., & Cockfield, G. (Eds.). (2010). The National Party: Prospects for the great survivors. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  13. Brett, J. (2011). Fair share: Country and City in Australia The Quarterly Essay 42. Collingwood, VIC: Black Inc.Google Scholar
  14. Brown, C., & Miller, S. (2008). The impacts of local markets: A review of research on farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 90(5), 1298–1302. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8276.2008.01220.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bryan, W. J. (1896). Cross of Gold. America 1900 Retrieved August 12, 2012, from
  16. City of Sydney. (2012). Starting a new community garden Retrieved October 20, 2012, from
  17. Clouston Associates. (2010). City farm feasibility study. In City of Sydney (Ed.), Leichhardt, NSW: Clouston Associates.Google Scholar
  18. Colasanti, K., Hamm, M., & Litjens, C. (2012). The City as an “Agricultural Powerhouse”? Perspectives on expanding urban agriculture from Detroit, Michigan. Urban Geography, 33(3), 348–369. doi: 10.2747/0272-3638.33.3.348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Craig, R. A., & Phillips, K. J. (1983). Agrarian ideology in Australia and the United States. Rural Sociology, 43(3), 409–420.Google Scholar
  20. Critchley, S. (2007). Infinitely demanding. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  21. Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry. (2012). Australian food statistics 2010-11. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.Google Scholar
  22. De–Shalit, A. (2003). Philosophy gone urban: Reflections on urban restoration. Journal of Social Philosophy, 34(1), 6–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Dixon, J. M., & Capon, A. G. (2008). Healthy, just and eco-sensitive cities: Moving forward. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 18(12), 209–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Dixon, J. M., Donati, K. J., Pike, L. L., & Hattersley, L. (2009). Functional foods and urban agriculture: two responses to climate change-related food insecurity. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 20(2), 14–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Donahue, B. (2003). The Resettling America. In N. Wirzba (Ed.), The essential agrarian reader: The future of culture, community, and the land. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  26. Dreyfus, H. L. (1990). Being-in-the-world: A commentary on heidegger’s being and time, Division I. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  27. Duany, A. (2011). Garden cities: Theory & practice of agrarian urbanism. London, UK: Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.Google Scholar
  28. Eisinger, C. E. (1947). The influence of natural rights and physiocratic doctrines on American agrarian thought during the Revolutionary period. Agricultural History, 21(1), 13–23.Google Scholar
  29. Ellis, C. (2009). At home with “real Americans”: Communicating across the urban/rural and Black/White divides in the 2008 presidential election. Cultural Studies⟷Critical Methodologies, 9(6), 721–733.Google Scholar
  30. Farmer Net. (2011). About us Retrieved October 20, 2012, from
  31. Farmers’ Market Federation of New York. (2012). FAQ Retrieved October 20, 2012, from
  32. Fitzmaurice, A. (2007). The genealogy of Terra Nullius. Australian Historical Studies, 38(129), 1–15. doi: 10.1080/10314610708601228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Foster, J. B. (1999). Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: Classical foundations for environmental sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 105(2), 366–405. doi: 10.1086/210315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Foucault, M. (2004). Society must be defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76 (trans: Macey, D.). London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  35. Franck, K. A. (2005). Food and the city (Architectual design) (Vol. 175). Richmond, VIC: Wiley.Google Scholar
  36. Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and Method: Continuum.Google Scholar
  37. Goland, C. (2002). Community supported agriculture, food consumption patterns, and member commitment. Culture & Agriculture, 24(1), 14–25. doi: 10.1525/cag.2002.24.1.14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Gospodini, A. (2006). Portraying, classifying and understanding the emerging landscapes in the post-industrial city. Cities, 23(5), 311–330. doi: 10.1016/j.cities.2006.06.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Govan, T. P. (1964). Agrarian and agrarianism: A study in the use and abuse of words. The Journal of Southern History, 30(1), 35–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. GreenThumb. (2012a). About Retrieved October 22, 2012, from
  41. GreenThumb. (2012b). Start a Garden Retrieved October 20, 2012, from
  42. Griswold, A. W. (1963). Farming and democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Guthman, J. (2004). Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. California: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  44. Helo, A. (2009). Jefferson’s conception of republican government. In F. Shuffelton (Ed.), The Cambrdieg Companion to Thomas Jefferson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Hofstadter, R. (1956). The myth of the happy yeoman. American Heritage Magazine, 7(3).Google Scholar
  46. Holmes, W. F. (1969). Whitecapping: Agrarian Violence in Mississippi, 1902-1906. The Journal of Southern History, 35(2), 165–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hunt, A. R. (2007). Consumer interactions and influences on farmers’ market vendors. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22(01), 54–66. doi: 10.1017/S1742170507001597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Irazabal, C., & Punja, A. (2009). Cultivating just planning and legal institutions: a critical assessment of the South Central Farm struggle in Los Angeles. Journal of Urban Affairs, 31(1), 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Jamieson, D. (1984). The City Around Us. In T. Regan (Ed.), Earthbound: New Introductory Essays in Environmental Ethics. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
  50. Jarosz, L. (2011). Nourishing women: toward a feminist political ecology of community supported agriculture in the United States. Gender, Place & Culture, 18(3), 307–326. doi: 10.1080/0966369x.2011.565871.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Jefferson, T. (1984). Writings. New York, NY: Literary classics of the U.S.Google Scholar
  52. Kennedy, R. G. (2003). Mr. Jefferson’s lost cause: Land, farmers, slavery, and the Louisiana purchase. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Knowd, I., Mason, D., & Docking, A. (2005). Urban agriculture: The new frontier. City, 23, 1.Google Scholar
  54. Lawson, B. (2001). Living for the city: Urban United States and environmental justice. In L. Westra & B. Lawson (Eds.), Faces of environmental racism: confronting issues of global justice (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  55. Light, A., & Wellman, C. H. (2003). Introduction: Urban environmental ethics. Journal of Social Philosophy, 34(1), 1–5. doi: 10.1111/1467-9833.00161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Locke, J. (2003). Two treatises of government and a letter concerning toleration. Binghampton, New York: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Mallory, C. (2013). Locating ecofeminism in encounters with food and place. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 26(1), 171–189. doi: 10.1007/s10806-011-9373-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Matchar, E. (2013). Homeward bound: Why women are embracing the new domesticity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  59. Mayer, D. N. (1994). The constitutional thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.Google Scholar
  60. McDonald, B. L. (2011). Food security. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Google Scholar
  61. McGee, L., & Boone, R. (Eds.). (1979). The Black rural landowner–endangered species: social, political, and economic implications. Westport: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  62. McKenna, E. (2012). Feminism and Farming: A Response to Paul Thompson’s < i>the Agrarian Vision </i&gt. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 25(4), 529–534. doi: 10.1007/s10806-011-9328-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future: Henry Holt and Company.Google Scholar
  64. Metcalf, S. S., & Widener, M. J. (2011). Growing Buffalo’s capacity for local food: A systems framework for sustainable agriculture. Applied Geography, 31(4), 1242–1251. doi: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2011.01.008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Mitchell, D. (1995). The end of public space? People’s park, definitions of the public, and democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 108–133. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1995.tb01797.xa.Google Scholar
  66. Moore, J. W. (2010). The end of the road? Agricultural revolutions in the capitalist world-ecology, 1450–2010. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(3), 389–413. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2010.00276.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Naples, N. A. (1994). Contradictions in agrarian ideology: Restructuring gender, race-ethnicity, and class1. Rural Sociology, 59(1), 110–135. doi: 10.1111/j.1549-0831.1994.tb00525.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Northrup, B. E., & Lipscomb, B. J. (2010). Country and city: The common vision of agrarians and new urbanists. In N. Wirzba (Ed.), The essential agrarian reader: The future of culture, community, and the land. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  69. Ostrom, M. R. (2008). Community supported agriculture as an agent of change: Is it working? In C. C. Hinrichs & T. A. Lyson (Eds.), Remaking the North American food system: Strategies for sustainability. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  70. Ottman, M. M. A., Maantay, J. A., Grady, K., Cardoso, N., & da Fonte, N. N. (2010). Community gardens: An exploration of urban agriculture in the Bronx, New York City. Cities and the Environment, 3(1), 20.Google Scholar
  71. PBS. (1999). Homecoming: Black Farming & History Retrieved August 14, 2013, from
  72. Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, NY: Penguin Group.Google Scholar
  73. Pollan, M. (2009). Food rules: An eater’s manual. New York, NY: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  74. Poortman, A.-R., & Van Der Lippe, T. (2009). Attitudes toward housework and child care and the gendered division of labor. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(3), 526–541. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00617.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Salatin, J. (2011). Folks, this ain’t normal: A farmer’s advice for happier hens, healthier people, and a better world. New York, NY: Center Street.Google Scholar
  76. Schmelzkopf, K. (1995). Urban community gardens as contested space. Geographical Review, 85(3), 364–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Sexton, S. (2011). The inefficiency of local food, Freakonomics. Retrieved from
  78. Shaw, W. S. (2000). Ways of Whiteness: Harlemising Sydney’s Aboriginal Redfern. Australian Geographical Studies, 38(3), 291–305. doi: 10.1111/1467-8470.00117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Smith, H. N. (1950). Virgin land: The American West as symbol and myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  81. Smith, K. K. (2003). Wendell Berry and the agrarian tradition: A common grace. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
  82. Staeheli, L., Mitchell, D., & Gibson, K. (2002). Conflicting rights to the city in New York’s community gardens. GeoJournal, 58(2), 197–205. doi: 10.1023/b:gejo.0000010839.59734.01.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Stokes, G. (2000). One nation and Australian populism. In M. Leach, G. Stokes, & I. Ward (Eds.), The rise and fall of one nation. St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press.Google Scholar
  84. Stratton, J. (1977). Pioneering in the urban wilderness. New York: Urizen Books.Google Scholar
  85. Taliaferro, C. (2000). Land, labor, and god in American colonial thought. In P. B. Thompson & T. C. Hilde (Eds.), The agrarian roots of pragmatism. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  86. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Thompson, P. B. (2000). Thomas Jefferson and Agrarian Philosophy. In P. B. Thompson & T. C. Hilde (Eds.), The agrarian roots of pragmatism: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  89. Thompson, P. B. (2010). The agrarian vision: Sustainability and environmental ethics. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Thompson, D. B. (2011). Natural food and the pastoral: a sentimental notion? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 24(2), 165–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Trauger, A., Sachs, C., Barbercheck, M., Brasier, K., & Kiernan, N. (2010). “Our market is our community”: women farmers and civic agriculture in Pennsylvania, USA. Agriculture and Human Values, 27(1), 43–55. doi: 10.1007/s10460-008-9190-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Vidot, A. (2012). Farmers markets must retain authenticity, accessibility Retrieved June 15, 2012, from
  93. Watson, H. L. (1985). Conflict and collaboration: Yeomen, Slaveholders, and Politics in the Antebellum South. Social History, 10(3), 273–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. White, M. M. (2011). Sisters of the soil: Urban gardening as resistance in Detroit. Race/ethnicity: Multidisciplinary global contexts, 5(1), 13–28.Google Scholar
  95. Wirzba, N. (2003). Introduction: Why agrarianism matters—even to urbanites. In N. Wirzba (Ed.), The essential agrarian reader: The future of culture, community, and the land. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  96. Wood, S. (2012). There goes the neighbourhood, The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in MedicineThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations