The American farmer inspired a new generation of farmers in the former USSR

August 05, 2021 | By BOB VICE

 This article is featured in the fall edition of our quarterly magazine Sword&Scales. To read the full edition visit:


There’s an old saying: “When you’re having dinner tonight, thank a farmer.” Walking through a grocery store, it’s easy to forget everything that went into getting that apple or steak onto the shelves.

I’ve had many jobs throughout my career, but I’ve always considered myself a farmer, first and foremost. I’ve farmed avocados and citrus in California, I’ve served as president of the California Farm Bureau, and I’ve helped lead the American Farm Bureau. Through all those jobs I’ve learned—and re-learned—a basic, but fundamental, truth: liberty is essential for farming and farming is essential for liberty.

When the Iron Curtain fell, so much of the world felt like it had been turned upside down (or more accurately, right-side up). The Evil Empire was no more and millions of people who had lived under communism and oppression their entire lives were given the opportunity to experience freedom.

In 1994, I traveled to Crimea and Ukraine with a delegation from the American Farm Bureau and World Bank to foster the newly liberated agriculture industry there. For decades, state-owned and centrally planned farms had starved the country. People in the Soviet countryside were forced to learn how to survive on what scraps of barely edible food the state issued them. But when communism ended in the USSR, the concept of individuals owning land breathed life into the people like nothing they had ever experienced.

The task for our envoy group was to organize farmers (and would-be farmers) together so they could advocate and lobby for strong property rights and sensible agriculture policies with their newly formed governments. When you speak together with a unified voice, you get things done—and these farmers desperately needed to get things done.

We held many meetings with local townspeople, most of the times crammed in some townsperson’s small living room or kitchen. Talking to them, we heard countless stories about people who, until now, had no real knowledge of the outside world but were eager for their new freedom.

One of these townspeople was Selim, a Crimean wrestling coach who wanted to learn about farming. During the Soviet revolution, his grandparents were forced to leave their farmland or be shot by the state police. Selim actually coached for the Soviet Olympic team, and when one of his wrestlers traveled to the Olympics in Los Angeles, the team forbade Selim from traveling with the team because they were afraid he would defect. He told me they were right. After getting to know Selim and listening to his incredible desire to own land of his own, he gave me his Olympic patch as a gift. It is something that I treasure to this day.

I talked to countless people like Selim who struggled to wrap their minds around their newfound ability (and blessing) to own land. One farmer (who up to this point in his life had only ever farmed state-owned land) told me, “If I could own land, I would feel that my life has not been wasted.” Another told me, “I would rather die than go back to communism where you could never own land.”

Traveling from town to town and seeing so many people reveling in their newfound freedom was an experience I’ll never forget.

During the second leg of our trip, we brought a group of Crimean and Ukrainian farmers to America to show them our farming techniques, our infrastructure, and our way of business and life.

Once in Sacramento, we took our guests to a supermarket so they could see how Americans shopped for food and how it differed from their ration lines. As we walked further into the store, they cast skeptical eyes around the aisles and spoke in hushed words to their interpreter. When I asked the interpreter what they were saying, he told me, “They’re asking how long it took you to set all this up. They think the store is fake.”

They had never seen rows of plentiful and affordable food. Central planning and state-owned farms had deprived the Soviet people for so long that a store full of food was beyond their comprehension.

I knew that no amount of explanation from me, an American, would change their minds. But I had an idea. I told them to randomly pick any exit along the highway as we drove that day, and no matter what exit they chose, we would take it and find another supermarket in another town that had just as much food as this one.

We went to three stores along Route 99 before they stopped picking exits.

The importance of farming for a successful society cannot be understated.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, a plate of rice and beans costs $1.20 in New York. That same plate of rice and beans costs $5.91 in Egypt, $11.90 in Pakistan, $39.52 in Syria, and over $222 in Nigeria. In parts of the Soviet Union, no amount of money could have bought a plate of food.

The American Farm Bureau reports the farming industry accounts for more than 21 million U.S. jobs (11% of U.S. jobs) and adds over a trillion dollars to the U.S. GDP.

Every time an American visits the supermarket, we are experiencing a blessing that is out of reach to millions of people in countries that have not embraced capitalism and property rights.

The goal for our delegation’s trip was to organize farmers who had never had a voice, so that their voices would be not only heard, but respected. Before our trip, there was no local farming association in the entire country. By the time we left, the farmers had created the Crimea Private Farmer Association (CPFA) and it had 50 members. A few years later, the CPFA had over 600 members and it’s still growing today. Over the years, the CPFA has successfully lobbied for numerous laws protecting farmers’ economic and property rights.

Every few years, I check back on the men and women that we met during our trip, and each time I check in, more and more of them were farming on their own land and growing their businesses. I can’t tell you how proud it makes me to have been a part of their lives.

When the delegation began our trip, I thought we would be organizing inexperienced farmers and teaching them about proper crop rotation, livestock management, and planting techniques. But by the end of our time with our new friends, the connection was so much deeper. We taught them how to grow food and advocate for themselves, but more importantly, we helped show them the difference between life under tyranny and life under freedom. Our friends didn’t just need to get used to owning land and managing their own crops, they had to learn that owning land and controlling their own lives was an option.

Not that long ago, farming wasn’t an optional career. Just a few decades ago, dedicating your life to anything outside of simple survival wasn’t an option for most of humanity. It’s the ideals of individual rights and freedom that have enabled so many people to choose what they want in life. Today, especially in free and capitalist countries like America, farming is a calling, a choice. Farmers farm because they love the life.

But there’s an ironic Catch-22 with this evolution of the world. As we’ve become more prosperous, farming has become more critical—but less visible. A growing and more prosperous world needs more healthy and affordable food, but the source of that food has faded more and more into the background.

If I ever feel like I’ve lost sight of farming’s importance, all I need to do is visit a supermarket, walk through the aisles, and remember the wonder on my friends’ faces as they saw food like that for the first time.

When you’re having dinner tonight, thank a farmer.

This article is featured in the fall edition of our quarterly magazine Sword&Scales. To read the full edition visit: