I once touched the Liberty Bell.
It was a long time ago: I was seven or eight years old and my mother had taken me to Philadelphia to see the sights. Although our family farm in New Jersey is just 17 miles from downtown, it felt like a world away.
Back then, everyone touched the Liberty Bell. Nothing was roped off or imprisoned behind walls of glass. You could wander as you pleased through Independence Hall, where on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence.
I like to think that we owe our Independence Day to farmers. The colonists who made the daring decision to break away from their mother country were the members of an agricultural society. The Founding Fathers might as well be called the Founding Farmers.
They got a lot of things wrong, especially with respect to slavery, but they also got a lot of things right. The most inspiring words in the Declaration of Independence-“all men are created equal”-arguably did more to advance human freedom than anything written or said before or since.
I still have a fake parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, purchased on that long-ago visit and now buried in a box in our farmhouse. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed: The souvenir shops still sell replicas of the declaration on the brown, crinkly paper that’s supposed to look and feel old.
The authentic Declaration of Independence contains more than 1,300 words. Much of it documents “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It’s basically a list of complaints. This is where these early Americans get into the details of why they want their own country.
One of their grievances always catches my eye, probably because I’m a farmer: The declaration accuses King George III of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” (See also this column by my friend and fellow farmer Mark Wagoner.)
Independence Day may be a celebration of our freedom, and farmers like me always have appreciated the freedom to plant what we choose, grow as we please, and harvest as we see fit with safe and reliable technologies.
Yet we also know that we’re dependent-and we’re especially dependent on our customers. Farming is our business. We produce more than we can eat and then we sell it.
In other words, we all need “Trade with all parts of the world.” It can happen at the roadside vegetable stand, and for years I moved a lot of produce this way. It can happen at farmer’s markets in nearby towns and in grocery stores in big cities. It also can happen across borders.
The Founding Farmers knew how much they depended on trade. Today’s farmers depend on it more than ever. “Global food trade has to be kept going,” said Maximo Torero Cullen, the Chief Economist of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in a recent interview. He pointed out that among the billions of meals that people around the world eat every day, one in five calories has crossed at least one international border. Over the last four decades, this rate has increased by 50 percent.
Something tells me that John Hancock and the other 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence would have approved of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which officially went into force on July 1 and replaced the outdated NAFTA treaty. Because of it, we’ll have an easier time exchanging goods and services with our North American neighbors.
Even so, the global food trade faces enormous challenges, from the threat of broken trade deals with China to the ever-present specter of protectionism. The coronavirus pandemic has made everything worse, and in ways with which we’ve all become grimly familiar.
On July 4, we Americans will celebrate our freedom-but in 2020, we also feel a little less free. Here in New Jersey, we still can’t dine in at restaurants. We’re told to wear masks constantly. The European Union continues to ban most American travelers, even under the loosened rules it just introduced.
I’m confident that eventually our freedoms will come back, or at least most of them will. Things will get better.
Meanwhile, we’re still trading. Food and other products continue to move across borders. This freedom is so essential that not even Covid-19 could take it away.
In time, we’ll once again touch the Liberty Bell, at least metaphorically.
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