It all starts out harmless enough: A Manhattan couple, after years spent frequenting the city’s farmers markets, became increasingly focused on eating local and understanding where their food came from. They had visions of leaving behind their towering steel surroundings and starting their own farm upstate. Problem was, neither of them—one an architect and the other an executive at a cheese company—knew anything about farming or the agriculture industry. So a novel idea popped into their heads, according to The New York Times’ Style section: “Why not buy some land, give much of it to a young farmer and build a two-family house where they could all live together?”
And so Claire Ko and Eugene Kwak bought a plot of land, gave their idea a name—Togather—and found their ideal candidates to work the fields. But they didn’t exactly “give” much to the young couple who would be doing the farming:
To help an enterprising farmer establish a farm, the couple decided to offer a free 30-year land lease on up to five acres. They also discounted the rent for the farmer’s apartment to $1,100 a month, after determining that area homes of a similar size rented for $1,500 to $1,800.
If this sounds familiar, it is. The correct term for what the Manhattan couple invented is tenant farming. It’s a practice that has been around for centuries. In America, tenant farming is inextricably tied to the Jim Crow South, where it was the most direct way for wealthy white landowners to continue blocking the social mobility of formerly enslaved Black workers along with other nonwhite and poor people. (My grandfather and great-grandfather, both Sappony men, worked as tenant farmers; it was not until the 1930s that my grandfather, James Coleman, became one of the first tribal members to actually own and operate a Sappony farm.)
As Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist and former farmworker, pointed out in response to the piece, tenant farming and the adjacent practice of sharecropping—in which the landowner takes a percentage of the crop or profit—was not limited to the South, having a strong presence in the Midwest and North.
Because the Times style section is essentially a high-minded troll blog, the story blew up. (“I see the NYT Real Estate section discovered sharecropping,” one reader wrote.) But, like similar tales of liberals gone bad, like the now-infamous eco-slumlords of Brooklyn, the story ends up signifying something bleak about what reads as altruism or even basic fairness in our present moment. This couple, probably with honestly good intentions, is now magnanimously allowing a pair of workers to pay them $12,000 in annual rent while also spending their life savings to prepare land they don’t own. The black marble countertops in the bespoke farmhouse are just the highly stylized trappings of a larger trend: A salt-the-earth approach to labor that increasingly forces workers to shoulder all risks and burdens for an ownership class that’s sitting back and cleaning up. Call it Togather or Uber or whatever you’d like, but it’s all the same con.