September 1, 2015
First published in 1977, it still holds up. A collection of essays from Wendell Berry about the transition to "agribusiness" and its impact on us. The scary part is that in 2018, his arguments are even MORE alarming. We have lost a sense of community. We are destroying nature by chasing profits. Where and when did we go wrong? I feel like this is a must read. It is one of the best books I have ever read.
Once the unknown of geography was mapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves—no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken ant hill.
The Indians did, of course, experience movements of population, but in general their relation to place was based upon old usage and association, upon inherited memory, tradition, veneration. The land was their homeland.
Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities, the beginnings of domestic cultures. They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible. And with alarming frequency they have been believed and trusted by their victims, especially when their victims were other white people. If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become “redskins”—that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation.
Today, the most numerous heirs of the farmers of Lexington and Concord are the little groups scattered all over the country whose names begin with “Save”: Save Our Land, Save the Valley, Save Our Mountains, Save Our Streams, Save Our Farmland.
Struggling to preserve their places, their values, and their lives as they know them and prefer to live them against the agencies of their own government which are using their own tax moneys against them.
The only escape from this destiny of victimization has been to “succeed”—that is, to “make it” into the class of exploiters, and then to remain so specialized and so “mobile” as to be unconscious of the effects of one’s livelihood. This escape is, of course, illusory, for one man’s producer is another’s consumer, and even the richest and most mobile will soon find it hard to escape the noxious effluents and fumes of the various public services.
It is an intention that was organized here almost from the start. “The New World,” Bernard DeVoto wrote in The Course of Empire, “was a constantly expanding market . . . Its value in gold was enormous but it had still greater value in that it expanded and integrated the industrial systems of Europe.”
As war became deadlier in purpose and armament a surplus of women developed, so that marriage customs changed and polygamy became common.
DeVoto because, the obvious differences aside, he is so clearly describing a revolution that did not stop with the subjugation of the Indians, but went on to impose substantially the same catastrophe upon the small farms and the farm communities, upon the shops of small local tradesmen of all sorts, upon the workshops of independent craftsmen, and upon the households of citizens. It is a revolution that is still going on. The economy is still substantially that of the fur trade, still based on the same general kinds of commercial items: technology, weapons, ornaments, novelties, and drugs. The one great difference is that by now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water. Air remains the only necessity that the average user can still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on that by way of pollution. Commercial conquest is far more thorough and final than military defeat. The Indian became a redskin, not by loss in battle, but by accepting a dependence on traders that made necessities of industrial goods. This is not merely history. It is a parable.
One cannot help but see the similarity between this foreign colonialism and the domestic colonialism that, by policy, converts productive farm, forest, and grazing lands into strip mines. Now, as then, we see the abstract values of an industrial economy preying upon the native productivity of land and people.
By thinking of ourselves as divided into conquerors and victims. In order to understand our own time and predicament and the work that is to be done, we would do well to shift the terms and say that we are divided between exploitation and nurture.
The terms exploitation and nurture, on the other hand, describe a division not only between persons but also within persons.
I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible.
The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place.
The farmer, sometimes known as husbandman, is by definition half mother; the only question is how good a mother he or she is.
The farmer crosses back and forth from one zone of spousehood to another, first as planter and then as gatherer.
The exploitive always involves the abuse or the perversion of nurture and ultimately its destruction.
Consider the associations that have since ancient times clustered around the idea of food—associations of mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, religious ceremony—and you will see that these two secretaries represent a cultural catastrophe.
The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community. When those fundamental integrities are devalued and broken, then perhaps it is inevitable that food will be looked upon as a weapon, just as it is inevitable that the earth will be looked upon as fuel and people as numbers or machines.
This militarizing of food is the greatest threat so far raised against the farmland and the farm communities of this country. If present attitudes continue, we may expect government policies that will encourage the destruction, by overuse, of farmland.
Contour plowing, crop rotation, and other conservation measures seem to have gone out of favor or fashion in official circles and are practiced less and less on the farm. This exclusive emphasis on production will accelerate the mechanization and chemicalization of farming, increase the price of land, increase overhead and operating costs, and thereby further diminish the farm population.
The fertility of the soil will become a limited, unrenewable resource like coal or oil.
The fields lose their humus and porosity, become less retentive of water, depend more on pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers. Bigger tractors become necessary because the compacted soils are harder to work—and their greater weight further compacts the soil. More and bigger machines, more chemical and methodological shortcuts are needed because of the shortage of manpower on the farm—and the problems of overcrowding and unemployment increase in the cities.
The first principle of the exploitive mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are—both against each other and within ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is under way, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship.*
By the calculated outdating, outmoding, and degradation of goods and by the hysterical self-dissatisfaction of consumers that is indigenous to an exploitive economy.
Our attitude toward work. The growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work. We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.
Out of this contempt for work arose the idea of a nigger: at first some person, and later some thing, to be used to relieve us of the burden of work.
All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom.
It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods.
One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility, and leisure indefinitely.
Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy.
I am talking about the idea that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic interest, by the investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition.
The Homestead Act said 160 acres. The freedmen of the 1860s hoped for forty. We know that, particularly in other countries, families have lived decently on far fewer acres than that.
It proposes an economy of necessities rather than an economy based upon anxiety, fantasy, luxury, and idle wishing.
it proposes an agriculture based upon intensive work, local energies, care, and long-living communities—that is, to state the matter from a consumer’s point of view: a dependable, long-term food supply.
The Sierra Club, for example, had owned stocks and bonds in Exxon, General Motors, Tenneco, steel companies “having the worst pollution records in the industry,” Public Service Company of Colorado, “strip-mining firms with 53 leases covering nearly 180,000 acres and pulp-mill operators cited by environmentalists for their poor water pollution controls.”
They were making convenience of enterprises that they knew to be morally, and even practically, indefensible.
The reason is simple: to live undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive would require of any one of us, or of any small group of us, a great deal more work than we have yet been able
People who thus set their lives against destruction have necessarily confronted in themselves the absurdity that they have recognized in their society. They have first observed the tendency of modern organizations to perform in opposition to their stated purposes. They have seen governments that exploit and oppress the people they are sworn to serve and protect, medical procedures that produce ill health, schools that preserve ignorance, methods of transportation that, as Ivan Illich says, have “created more distances than they . . . bridge.”
This realization has become the typical moral crisis of our time.
The disease of the modern character is specialization.
We then begin to see the grotesquery—indeed, the impossibility—of an idea of community wholeness that divorces itself from any idea of personal wholeness.
The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.
Thus, the average—one is tempted to say, the ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and “agribusinessmen,” the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself.
The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation.
He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.
He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless.
The specialist system fails from a personal point of view because a person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself. In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists.
It is for this reason that none of our basic problems is ever solved. Indeed, it is for this reason that our basic problems are getting worse.
The doctor who is interested in disease but not in health is clearly in the same category with the conservationist who invests in the destruction of what he otherwise intends to preserve.
One of the most troubling characteristics of the specialist mentality is its use of money as a kind of proxy, its willingness to transmute the powers and functions of life into money. “Time is money” is one of its axioms and the source of many evils—among them the waste of both time and money.
A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.
People whose governing habit is the relinquishment of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders. They are the ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is “attractively packaged.” The advertising industry is founded upon this principle.
The household that prepares its own meals in its own kitchen with some intelligent regard for nutritional value, and thus depends on the grocer only for selected raw materials, exercises an influence on the food industry that reaches from the store all the way back to the seedsman. The household that produces some or all of its own food will have a proportionately greater influence. The household that can provide some of its own pleasures will not be helplessly dependent on the entertainment industry, will influence it by not being helplessly dependent on it, and will not support it thoughtlessly out of boredom.
Wilderness conservation, we can now see, is specialized conservation.
Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance, under glass.
…a strong local tradition of free trespass.
. . we always, with our neighbor, pick apples in the fall off trees on a down-country owner’s land. There is a feeling we have the right to do that, a feeling that the sin is not trespass, the sin is letting the apples go to waste.
In the environmental movement there are some ugly, elitist, class-struggle type things operating.
There are so many elements of class struggle lying under the attitudes of a lot of environmentalists; it’s scary. . . . Their view of the natural world is so delicate and precious, terrarium-like, picture-windowish.
In Audubon magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him.
The question isn’t to use or not to use but rather how to use.’”
Wilderness conservation is important and that it has its place in any conservation program, just as the wilderness has its place in human memory and culture. It seems likely to me that the concern for wilderness must stand at the apex of the conservation effort, just as it probably must stand at the apex of consciousness in any decent culture.
1. Our biological roots as well as our cultural roots are in nature.
2. If we are to be properly humble in our use of the world, we need places that we do not use at all. We need the experience of leaving something alone.
We need groves, anyhow, that we would treat as if they were sacred—in order, perhaps, to perceive their sanctity.
3. We need wilderness as a standard of civilization and as a cultural model.
The understanding of kindly use in agriculture must encompass both farm and household, for the mutuality of influence between them is profound. Once, of course, the idea of a farm included the idea of a household: an integral and major part of a farm’s economy was the economy of its own household; the family that owned and worked the farm lived from it. But the farm also helped to feed other households in towns and cities. These households were dependent on the farms, but not passively so, for their dependence was limited in two ways. For one thing, the town or city household was itself often a producer of food: at one time town and city lots routinely included garden space and often included pens and buildings to accommodate milk cows, fattening hogs, and flocks of poultry.
The consumers of food were also producers or processors of food, or both.
A disaster that is both agricultural and cultural: the generalization of the relationship between people and land.
Henry County, Kentucky, was not just a rural county, as it still is—it was a farming county.
The farms were generally small. They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them. These families grew gardens. They produced their own meat, milk, and eggs. The farms were highly diversified.
But there were also minor products…
In those days a farm family could easily market its surplus cream, eggs, old hens, and frying chickens. The power for field work was still furnished mainly by horses and mules. There was still a prevalent pride in workmanship, and thrift was still a forceful social idea.
But I have spoken of its agricultural economy of a generation ago to suggest that there were also good qualities indigenous to it that might have been cultivated and built upon. That they were not cultivated and built upon—that they were repudiated as the stuff of a hopelessly outmoded, unscientific way of life—is a tragic error on the part of the people themselves; and it is a work of monstrous ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of the experts and politicians, who have prescribed, encouraged, and applauded the disintegration of such farming communities all over the country.
In the decades since World War II the farms of Henry County have become increasingly mechanized. Though they are still comparatively diversified, they are less diversified than they used to be. The holdings are larger, the owners are fewer. The land is falling more and more into the hands of speculators and professional people from the cities, who – in spite of all the scientific agricultural miracles – still have much more money than farmers. Becuase of big technology and big economics, there is more abandoned land in the county than ever before.
Our harvests depend more and more on the labor of old people and young children. The farm people live less and less from their own produce, more and more from what they buy.
Among the people as a whole, the focus of interest has largely shifted from the household to the automobile; the ideals of workmanship and thrift have been replaced by the goals of leisure, comfort, and entertainment.
Maurice Telleen calls “the world’s first broad-based hedonism.”
And nowhere now is there a market for minor produce: a bucket of cream, a hen, a few dozen eggs. One cannot sell milk from a few cows anymore; the law-required equipment is too expensive. Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation—but, of course, to the enrichment of the large producers. We have always had to have “a good reason” for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filty lucre. And it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.
The connection between the “modernization” of agricultural techniques and the disintegration of the culture and the communities of farming—and the consequent disintegration of the structures of urban life.
I remember, during the fifties, the outrage with which our political leaders spoke of the forced removal of the populations of…
The only difference is that of method: the force used by the communists was military; with us, it has been economic—a “free market” in which the freest were the richest. The attitudes are equally cruel, and I believe that the results will prove equally damaging, not just to the concerns and values of the human spirit, but to the practicalities of survival.
Many who got big to stay in are now being driven out by those who got bigger. The aim of bigness implies not one aim that is not socially and culturally destructive.
And this community-killing agriculture, with its monomania of bigness, is not primarily the work of farmers, though it has burgeoned on their weaknesses. It is the work of the institutions of agriculture: the university experts, the bureaucrats, and the “agribusinessmen,” who have promoted so-called efficiency at the expense of community (and real efficiency), and quantity at the expense of quality.
University of Kentucky, Dr. John Nicolai, was optimistic about this failure of 1,000 dairymen, whose cause he is supposedly being paid—partly with their tax money—to serve. They were inefficient producers, he said, and they needed to be eliminated.
Did he propose to applaud this process year after year until “biggest” and “most efficient” become synonymous with “only”?…
And along with the rest of society, the established agriculture has shifted its emphasis, and its interest, from quality to quantity, having failed to see that in the long run the two ideas are inseparable.
The preserver of abundance is excellence.
My point is that food is a cultural product; it cannot be produced by technology alone. Those agriculturists who think of the problems of food production solely in terms of technological innovation are oversimplifying both the practicalities of production and the network of meanings and values necessary to define, nurture, and preserve the practical motivations.
If we conceive of a culture as one body, which it is, we see that all of its disciplines are everybody’s business, and that the proper university product is therefore not the whittled-down, isolated mentality of expertise, but a mind competent in all its concerns. To such a mind it would be clear that there are agricultural disciplines that have nothing to do with crop production, just as there are agricultural obligations that belong to people who are not farmers.
A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well. A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safe-guards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace.
He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude—
Such an attitude does not come from technique or technology. It does not come from education; in more than two decades in universities I have rarely seen it. It does not come even from principle. It comes from a passion that is culturally prepared—a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love.
From a cultural point of view, the movement from the farm to the city involves a radical simplification of mind and of character.
A competent farmer is his own boss. He has learned the disciplines necessary to go ahead on his own, as required by economic obligation, loyalty to his place, pride in his work. His workdays require the use of long experience and practiced judgment, for the failures of which he knows that he will suffer. His days do not begin and end by rule, but in response to necessity, interest, and obligation. They are not measured by the clock, but by the task and his endurance; they last as long as necessary or as long as he can work. He has mastered intricate formal patterns in ordering his work within the overlapping cycles—human and natural, controllable and uncontrollable—of the life of a farm.
Upon moving to the city and taking a job in industry, becomes a specialized subordinate, dependent upon the authority and judgment of other people.
For a complex responsibility he has substituted a simple dutifulness.
The best farming requires a farmer—a husbandman, a nurturer—not a technician or businessman.
A good farmer, on the other hand, is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly, in what his time imposes or demands, but he is also made by generations of experience.
Once his investment in land and machines is large enough, he must forsake the values of husbandry and assume those of finance and technology. Thenceforth his thinking is not determined by agricultural responsibility, but by financial accountability and the capacities of his machines.
In the 1940s, the great British agricultural scientist, Sir Albert Howard, published An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health, in
The aim that he finally realized in his books was to prepare the way “for treating the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.”
Wheel of Life
The people and their work and their country are members of each other and of the culture.
A people cannot live long at each other’s expense or at the expense of their cultural birthright—just as an agriculture cannot live long at the expense of its soil or its work force, and just as in a natural system the competitions among species must be limited if all are to survive.
In all of these systems a fundamental principle must be the protection of the source: the seed, the food species, the soil, the breeding stock, the old and the wise, the keepers of memories, the records.
We can build one system only within another. We can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture. At certain critical points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another.
Highly simplified role of the modern household with respect to the production and preparation of food: it has set itself increasingly aside from production and preparation and become more and more a place for the consumption of food produced and prepared elsewhere.
The modern home, even more than the government and universities, has institutionalized the divisions and fragmentations of modern life.
The modern home is a veritable factory of waste and destruction. It is the mainstay of the economy of money. But within the economies of energy and nature, it is a catastrophe.
It divorces us from the sources of our bodily life; as a people, we no longer know the earth we come from, have no respect for it, keep no responsibilities to it.
But nowhere is the destructive influence of the modern home so great as in its remoteness from work. When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do.
In an automated kitchen, in a gleaming, odorless bathroom, in year-round air-conditioning, in color TV, in an easy chair, the world is redeemed.
The modern house is not a response to its place, but rather to the affluence and social status of its owner.
Everything around him, everything on TV, tells him of his success: his comfort is the redemption of the world. His home is the emblem of his status, but it is not the center of his interest or of his consciousness. The history of our time has been to a considerable extent the movement of the center of consciousness away from home.
Once, households were producers and processors of food, centers of their own maintenance, adornment, and repair, places of instruction and amusement. People were born in these houses, and lived and worked and died in them.
Where he is matters only in proportion to the number of other people’s effects he has to put up with. Geography is defined for him by his house, his office, his commuting route, and the interiors of shopping centers, restaurants, and places of amusement—which is to say that his geography is artificial; he could be anywhere, and he usually is.
Carl Sauer wrote: “The Modern Age began with the extension of royal absolution overseas. The crowns gave patents to individuals to discover, take possession, and govern islands or mainland, inhabited or uninhabited. The crown took to itself the title to land and people, first claimed for it by formal act. Thus Columbus planted the flag as he landed, the natives being bemused spectators. Thus Cabot without having sight of a native. Thus Juan de la Cosa entered on his map the flags of three nations. The course of colonial empire began with disregard of native rights and persons [my emphasis].
Columbus estimated the prospects of slave trade when he landed in the West Indies. The Colonial idea as it took shape in the fifteenth century was untroubled by any concern other than to establish priority over other European nations.”
Economic exploitation and competition as we now know them were thus established at the beginning of American history.
What appeared to the eyes of the discoverers was not one of the orders of Creation that required respect or deference for its own sake. What they saw was a great concentration of “natural resources”—to be used according to purposes exterior to them. That some of those resources were human beings mattered not at all.
They arrived contemptuous of whatever existed before their own coming, disdainful beyond contempt of native creatures or values or orders, ravenous for their own success.
They invented us: the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella in the hand of Columbus on the shores of the Indies becomes Old Glory in the hand of Neil Armstrong on the moon. An infinitely greedy sovereign is afoot in the universe, staking his claims.
That is to say that sovereignty is a safe concept only when its place is symmetrically defined.
For the agent of our escape from our place in the order of Creation, and of our godlike ambition to make a Paradise, was the machine—not only as instrument, but even more powerfully as metaphor. Once, the governing human metaphor was pastoral or agricultural, and it clarified, and so preserved in human care, the natural cycles of birth, growth, death, and decay. But modern humanity’s governing metaphor is that of the machine. Having placed ourselves in charge of Creation, we began to mechanize both the Creation itself and our conception of it. We began to see the whole Creation merely as raw material, to be transformed by machines into a manufactured Paradise.
The Modern World would respect the Creation only insofar as it could be used by humans.
We have indeed learned to act as if our sovereignty were unlimited and as if our intelligence were equal to the universe.
It can be said that the motive has often been greed, but even that does not satisfy, for greed has always existed. It is necessary to account for a new intensity of greed—a greed newly empowered, under no constraint to see itself as evil, allied (so it believes) with a manifest destiny and the way of the world.
What has drawn the Modern World into being is a strange, almost occult yearning for the future. The modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven. The great aim of modern life has been to improve the future—or even just to reach the future, assuming that the future will inevitably be “better.”
Politicians understand very well the power of the promise to build a better or more prosperous or more secure future. Parents characteristically strive and sacrifice to make a better or more secure future for their children. Workers work toward a secure future in which they will retire and enjoy themselves. Our obsession with security is a measure of the power we have granted the future to hold over us.
The cult of the future has turned us all into prophets. The future is the time when science will have solved all our problems, gratified all our desires; when we will all live in perfect ease in an air-conditioned, fully automated womb; when all the work will be done by machines so sophisticated that they will not only clothe, house, and feed us, but think for us, play our games, paint our pictures, write our poems.
There is no aspect of our life as a people that is not now under the dominance of this industrial dream of the future-as-Paradise. All our implements—automobiles, tractors, kitchen utensils, etc.—have always been conceived by the modern mind as in kind of progress or pilgrimage toward their future forms.
We long ago gave up the wish to have things that were adequate or even excellent; we have preferred instead to have things that were up-to-date. But to be up-to-date is an ambition with built-in panic: our possessions cannot be up-to-date more than momentarily unless we can stop time-or somehow get ahead of it.
But the only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present.
But the most prolific source of justifications for exploitive behavior has been the future.
The future is a time that cannot conceivably be reached except by industrial progress and economic growth.
The obvious paradoxes involved in this—that we are using up future necessities in order to make a more abundant future; that final loss has been made a calculated strategy of annual gain-have so far been understood to no great effect.
Farming has been harder to industrialize than manufacturing, and when industrialization has come, it has not brought shorter hours or greater ease or less worry.
A great deal of the strain of the industrial revolution has been borne by farmers, and so it has been fairly easy to secure their allegiance to the future, when more industrialization will supposedly bring a better farm economy.
It has been sold to them in stages, one implement at a time. The reduction of available manpower by each new machine created the need for a better machine or a different one. In the practical circumstances of the modern farm, the popular yearning for the future is directly felt as a yearning for relief from weariness and worry.
Therefore we must continue to farm in larger monocultures on larger holdings with fewer farmers, larger and more expensive machines, more chemicals. The hunger of these future millions is now the foundation of policy in the Department of Agriculture.
“The Revolution in American Agriculture” in the National Geographic of February 1970.
Mr. Jules B. Billard,
During most of the article he is in the grip of the ignorant awe, the greenhorn’s ecstasy, that has been as necessary to this revolution as the ball bearing. During his encounters with the various manifestations of agricultural progress, Mr. Billard “marveled” twice; he was “staggered,” “fascinated,” “astounded,” and “jolted” once each; he experienced two “jolting awakenings,” the second more jolting than the first; and once his “mind churned.”
“You can have strawberries in January,
“Of the 6,000 to 8,000 items in the typical supermarket, 40 percent were not there a dozen years ago.”
“. . . an incredible parade of machines are at work today on U.S. farms: acre-eaters . . . self-propelled combines that permit a man to ride in an air-conditioned cab to harvest a crop of corn that used to take a crew of 80 hands. Monster road-building machinery to level terraces or shape rice fields. Helicopters to spray cucumber fields. In all such a host of devices that today U.S. farmers are investing eight times as much capital as they did thirty years ago.”
These accomplishments sort themselves readily into two categories: the frivolous and the problematic.
By the values of gee-whiz journalism any increase is marvelous.
It is harder to ignore the enormous increase of indebtedness and overhead that has accompanied the enlargement of farm technology. Mr. Billard quotes an Iowa banker: “In 1920 . . . $5,000 was a big loan, and people hesitated to borrow. Now a $40,000 loan is commonplace, and having mortgage after mortgage is an accepted thing. I occasionally wonder whether the average farmer will ever get out of debt.”
The Iowa banker’s statement, doubtful as it may seem out of context, is made in praise of credit.
The economic and moral uncertainty of living on credit is evidently—and typically—thought to be compensated by an improved standard of living: “Today [the farm wife is] as likely to be mini-skirted as her city sister, and as likely to own a dishwasher or self-cleaning oven or color television set. And her husband, who drives a tractor with an automatic transmission and uses power tools to eliminate back-straining labor, is as likely to have gone to college as his town cousin.” That this standard of living is entirely material and entirely urban is characteristic of the prejudices that underlie the article.
The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.
“Squeezed between higher operating costs and what he gets for his produce, the man on the farm must become more efficient or give up.”
And so it appears that the failure of so many small farmers over so many years is really a kind of justice: it is their own fault; they ought to have been more efficient; if they had to get bigger in order to be more efficient, then they ought to have got bigger.
But suppose there is no room to get bigger unless somebody is driven out.
law of compensation. This is the favorite law of the exploiter.
It holds that for every loss there is a gain that is opposite and at least equal.
“How many have given up,” he writes, “can be seen in such figures as these: In 1910 our farm population accounted for a third of the U.S. total. By 1969 it was a mere twentieth.
Here surely is cause for mourning: a forced migration of people greater than any in history, the foretelling of riots in the cities and the failure of human community in the country. But no. On the contrary: “Not all small towns are dying. The smog and the traffic and the social unrest of megalopolis prompts a second look at advantages of living in smaller communities.
we should be at work overhauling all our assumptions about ourselves and what we have done and what we are capable of doing, all our attitudes toward life and its complex sources, all our resources of technique and technology.
We must cleanse ourselves of slovenliness, laziness, and waste. We must learn to discipline ourselves, to restrain ourselves, to need less, to care more for the needs of others.
Mr. Billard has risen right over apocalypse into Heaven itself.
October 1974 issue of the American Farmer (voice of the American Farm Bureau Federation). This article is about a “dream farm” of 2076 A.D.—a model constructed by a group of South Dakota State University agricultural engineering students.
“1. Was any attention given to the possible social and economic effects of the projected innovations? Was it envisioned that this sort of farm would entirely replace the relatively small owner-operated farm? What would be its effect upon population patterns? Would it make food more or less expensive? What would be the energy requirements of such an operation, and what would be the sources of the required energy? “2. What political consequences were anticipated? What, for instance, would be the impact . . . upon the doctrines of personal liberty and private property? “3. What would be the effect upon the consumer? Would there be more or less choice of variety and quality? “4. What would be the effect on the environment?
But we are still left with the question of what will be the costs, not just of construction and materials, which would be passed on to consumers in the price of food, but costs of other kinds: social, cultural, political, nutritional, etc. And we still must ask if there may not be less costly ways to achieve the same ends.
Nowhere is the essential totalitarianism and the essential weakness of the specialist mind more clearly displayed than in this ambition.
Nothing, for instance, could be more organized than one of our large cities, with its geometric streets, its numbered houses, its numbered citizens, its charted routes and zones, its great numbers of police and other functionaries charged to keep order—and yet nothing could be more chaotic than one of these same cities during rush hour or after dark or during a riot or a garbage collectors’ strike.
The specialist puts himself in charge of one possibility. By leaving out all other possibilities, he enfranchises his little fiction of total control.
he makes a rigid, exclusive boundary within which absolute control becomes, if not possible, at least conceivable.
But what the specialist never considers is that such a boundary is, in itself, profoundly disruptive.
Therefore, if one is going to make a “model farm,” one must give it a boundary, if possible a roof, that will keep out whatever does not “work.” Weeds, insects, diseases do not work; leave them out. The weather works only sometimes, or on the average; leave the weather out. The work can be done by machines; leave the people out. But chemicals and drugs, no matter how dangerous, do work; they are part of the boundary, so they can be let in.
What has been left out of this enclosure is health.
And so for total control we have given up health—which is also a kind of control, safer by far than a plastic roof, but never total.
Always implicit in a model is the idea of replacing what has survived of the past, what exists in the present.
The specialist, on the other hand, is interested only in the model, never in the example. He is interested in the future of farming, not in its history.
His work does not interest him; if he puts a machine into the field to “save labor,” he does not ask the fate of the replaced people.*
That is why there are no more people in these scenes of future farms than in the landscape photographs in conservation magazines; neither the agriculture specialist nor the conservation specialist has any idea where people belong in the order of things.
And where are the other people—the ones who are not doing the computer-work of future farming?
Thus there are several things that people will not be free to do in the nation-of-the-future that will be fed by these farms-of-the-future. They will not live where they work or work where they live. They will not work where they play. And they will not, above all, play where they work.
Very few people, more likely none of them, will own those farms. Very few will work on them. Most of them, more even than the ninety-five percent that now live in urban situations, will live remote from the farmland, divided from it by distance, by “buffer zones,” by economics, by official structure.
They will have become consumers purely—consumptive machines—which is to say, the slaves of producers.
We seem to have adopted a moral rule of thumb according to which anything big is better than anything small.
F. M. Esfandiary, who teaches “long-range planning” in New York City’s New School for Social Research. In an article entitled “Homo sapiens, the manna maker,” Mr. Esfandiary sees the future as an earthly Heaven in which, by the miracles of technology, humans will usurp the role of God—who, it may be recalled, was once thought to be the only maker of manna.
“Agriculture is undergoing an epochal revolution. We are evolving from feudal and industrial agriculture to cybernated food production. Computers, remote control cultivators, television monitors, sensors, data banks can now automatically run thousands of acres of cultivated land. A couple of telefarm operators can feed a million people.”
The common assumption is that mechanization involves the giving over of certain tasks or functions to machines.
He is proposing that we give over everything to machines.
He is berating us, in fact, for not being gods or at least acting as if we were gods.
At any rate, people who have desired material quantities on such a scale have always been recognized as evil, and their stories have always involved a sort of ecological justice: godly appetite very quickly led beyond human competence, invariably with disastrous consequences. Mr. Esfandiary’s unlimited, if theoretical, gluttony is licensed and given an illusory respectability because of its claim to be “scientific”—
It is nevertheless clear that Mr. Esfandiary’s “future” calls for unprecedented violence. It would require the sacrifice of every value that is not quantitative. The technology of infinity (however that might be defined) would be vast and exclusive. It would be completely totalitarian, whether “publicly” or “privately” owned. It would overthrow the whole issue of control, for it would be the control. Since everyone would be totally dependent upon it, it would necessarily be everyone’s first consideration.
The machine would become an anti-god—if not infinite, at least absolute. To have even the illusion of infinite quantity, we would have to debase both the finite and the infinite; we would have to sacrifice both flesh and spirit. It is an old story. Evil is offering us the world: “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
What is new is the guise of the evil: a limitless technology, dependent upon a limitless morality, which is to say upon no morality at all. How did such a possibility become thinkable? It seems to me that it is implicit in the modern separation of life and work. It is implicit in the assumption that we can live entirely apart from our way of making a living.
If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.
“We have always been a nation more interested in the promise of the future than in the events of the past. “Here at Atlantic Richfield we see the future as an exciting time. The best of times.”
This is the flaw in the doctrine of labor-saving. Labor-saving machines are supposed to make jobs easier. In fact, they destroy jobs. Instead of ameliorating work, they replace workers. What makes work easier and more pleasant without reducing employment is collaboration, neighbors helping each other. “Many hands make light work.”
The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
The word agriculture, after all, does not mean “agriscience,” much less “agribusiness.” It means “cultivation of land.” And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and of cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture.
They appear to have concluded that agriculture is purely a commercial concern; its purpose is to provide as much food as quickly and cheaply and with as few man-hours as possible and to be a market for machines and chemicals.
According to Lauren Soth, writing in the Nation, “Butz is the perfect example of the agribusiness, commercial-farming, agricultural-education establishment man. When dean of agriculture at Purdue University, he also sat on the boards of directors of the Ralston-Purina Co., the J. I. Case Co., International Minerals and Chemicals Corp., Stokely-Van Camp Co. and Standard Life Insurance Co. of Indiana.” By such men and such careers the land-grant college system, originally meant to enhance the small-farm possibility, has been captured for the corporations.
The damages of our present agriculture all come from the determination to use the life of the soil as if it were an extractable resource like coal, to use living things as if they were machines, to impose scientific (that is, laboratory) exactitude upon living complexities that are ultimately mysterious.
If animals are regarded as machines, they are confined in pens remote from the source of their food, where their excrement becomes, instead of a fertilizer, first a “waste” and then a pollutant. Furthermore, because confinement feeding depends so largely on grains, grass is removed from the rotation of crops and more land is exposed to erosion.
If plants are regarded as machines, we wind up with huge monocultures, productive of elaborate ecological mischiefs, which are in turn productive of agricultural mischief: monocultures are much more susceptible to pests and diseases than mixed cultures and are therefore more dependent on chemicals.
If the soil is regarded as a machine, then its life, its involvement in living systems and cycles, must perforce be ignored. It must be treated as a dead, inert chemical mass.
If people are regarded as machines, they must be regarded as replaceable by other machines. They are regarded, in other words, as dispensable. Their place on the farm is safe only as long as they are mechanically necessary.
In modern agriculture, then, the machine metaphor is allowed to usurp and wipe from consideration not merely some values, but the very issue of value. Once the expert’s interest is focused on the question of “what will work” within the exclusive confines of his theoretical model, values are no longer of any concern whatever. The confines of his specialty enable him to impose a biological totalitarianism on—he thinks, since he is an agricultural expert—the farm. When he leaves his office or laboratory he will, he assumes, go “home” to value.
Values may be corrupted or abolished in only one discipline at the start, but the damage must sooner or later spread to all; it can no more be confined than air pollution. If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture, for in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.
Skill is the connection between life and tools, or life and machines. Once, skill was defined ultimately in qualitative terms: How well did a person work; how good, durable, and pleasing were his products? But as machines have grown larger and more complex, and as our awe of them and our desire for labor-saving have grown, we have tended more and more to define skill quantitatively: How speedily and cheaply can a person work? We have increasingly wanted a measurable skill. And the more quantifiable skills became, the easier they were to replace with machines. As machines replace skill, they disconnect themselves from life; they come between us and life.
When we let machines and machine skills obscure the values that represent these fundamental dependences, then we inevitably damage the world; we diminish life. We begin to “prosper” at the cost of a fundamental degradation.
Until fairly recently, as agricultural tools became more efficient or powerful or both, they required an increase of both kinds of skill. One could do more with stone implements than with sticks, and more with metal implements than with stone implements; the skilled use of these tools enabled one to disturb more ground and so called for further elaboration of the skills of responsibility. This remained true after the beginning of the use of draft animals.
And the skills of responsibility had to increase proportionately. More ground could now be disturbed, and so the technology of preservation had to become much larger.
It was only with the introduction of self-powering machines, and of machine-extracted energy, into the fields that something really new happened to agricultural skills: they began a radical diminishment.
It requires more skill to use a team of horses or mules or oxen than to use a tractor. It is more difficult to learn to manage an animal than a machine; it takes longer. Two minds and two wills are involved. A relationship between a person and a work animal is analogous to a relationship between two people.
Machine is directly responsive to human will; it neither starts nor stops because it wants to.
In the second place, the substitution of machines for work animals is justified mainly by their ability to increase the volume of work per man—that is, by their greater speed. But as speed increases, care declines. And so, necessarily, do the skills of responsibility.
We know that there is a limit to the capacity of attention, and that the faster we go the less we see. This law applies with equal force to work; the faster we work the less attention we can pay to its details, and the less skill we can apply to it.
This is true of any productive work, and it has great cultural importance; at present we are all suffering, in various ways, from dependence on goods that are poorly made.
The arguments that rise out of the machine metaphor—arguments for cheapness, efficiency, labor-saving, economic growth, etc.—all point to infinite industrial growth and infinite energy consumption.
The energy crisis is not a crisis of technology but of morality. We already have available more power than we have so far dared to use. If, like the strip-miners and the “agribusinessmen,” we look on all the world as fuel or as extractable energy, we can do nothing but destroy it. The issue is restraint.
In the words of Ivan Illich: Can we, believing in “the effectiveness of power,” see “the disproportionately greater effectiveness of abstaining from its use”?
Amish. They alone, as a community, have carefully restricted their use of machine-developed energy, and so have become the only true masters of technology. They are mostly farmers, and they do most of their farm work by hand and by the use of horses and mules. They are pacifists, they operate their own local schools, and in other ways hold themselves aloof from the ambitions of a machine-based society. And by doing so they have maintained the integrity of their families, their community, their religion, and their way of life. They have escaped the mainstream American life of distraction, haste, aimlessness, violence, and disintegration.
Our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.
Book of Job: the Creation is bounteous and mysterious, and humanity is only a part of it—not its equal, much less its master.
What is represented is a world in which humans belong, but which does not belong to humans in any tidy economic sense; the Creation provides a place for humans, but it is greater than humanity and within it even great men are small. Such humility is the consequence of an accurate insight, ecological in its bearing, not a pious deference to “spiritual” value.
A human has no right to destroy what he did not create:
Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair. Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.
We began to romanticize the wilderness—which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.”
And as we transformed the wilderness into scenery, we began to feel in the presence of “nature” an awe that was increasingly statistical. We would not become appreciators of the Creation until we had taken its measure.
We have learned to be fascinated by the statistics of magnitude and power. There is apparently no limit in sight, no end, and so it is no wonder that our minds, dizzy with numbers, take refuge in a yearning for infinitudes of energy and materials.
The statistics of magnitude call out like Sirens to the statistics of destruction. If we have built towering cities, we have raised even higher the cloud of megadeath. If people are as grass before God, they are as nothing before their machines.
Shakespeare’s cliff has become the tower of a bridge—
“How does a human pass through youth to maturity without ‘breaking down’?” And it had answered: “help from tradition, through ceremonies and rituals, rites of passage at the most difficult stages.”
“The theme of suicide belongs in a book about agriculture . . .”
If a farmer fails to understand what health is, his farm becomes unhealthy; it produces unhealthy food, which damages the health of the community. But this is a network, a spherical network, by which each part is connected to every other part. The farmer is a part of the community, and so it is as impossible to say exactly where the trouble began as to say where it will end.
An error introduced anywhere in the network ramifies beyond the scope of prediction; consequences occur all over the place, and each consequence breeds further consequences.
There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy.
The first sexual division comes about when nurture is made the exclusive concern of women. This cannot happen until a society becomes industrial; in hunting and gathering and in agricultural societies, men are of necessity also involved in nurture.
In the urban-industrial situation the confinement of these traditional tasks divided women more and more from the “important” activities of the new economy. Furthermore, in this situation the traditional nurturing role of men—that of provisioning the household, which in an agricultural society had become as constant and as complex as the women’s role—became completely abstract; the man’s duty to the household came to be simply to provide money.
But the assignment to women of a kind of work that was thought both onerous and trivial was only the beginning of their exploitation. As the persons exclusively in charge of the tasks of nurture, women often came into sole charge of the household budget; they became family purchasing agents. The time of the household barterer was past. Kitchens were now run on a cash economy. Women had become customers, a fact not long wasted on the salesmen, who saw that in these women they had customers of a new and most promising kind.
Motivated no longer by practical needs, but by loneliness and fear, women began to identify themselves by what they bought rather than by what they did. They bought labor-saving devices which worked, as most modern machines have tended to work, to devalue or replace the skills of those who used them. They bought manufactured foods, which did likewise. They bought any product that offered to lighten the burdens of housework, to be “kind to hands,” or to endear one to one’s husband. And they furnished their houses, as they made up their faces and selected their clothes, neither by custom nor invention, but by the suggestion of articles and advertisements in “women’s magazines.” Thus housewifery, once a complex discipline acknowledged to be one of the bases of culture and economy, was reduced to the exercise of purchasing power.*
Breast-feeding of babies became unfashionable, one suspects, because it was the last form of home production; no way could be found to persuade a woman to purchase her own milk.
Without the household—not just as a unifying ideal, but as a practical circumstance of mutual dependence and obligation, requiring skill, moral discipline, and work—husband and wife find it less and less possible to imagine and enact their marriage.
The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.”
The disintegration of marriage, which completes the disintegration of community, came about because the encapsulation of sexuality, meant to preserve marriage from competition, inevitably enclosed competition.
What I have been trying to do is to define a pattern of disintegration that is at once cultural and agricultural.
It is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.
The earth is what we all have in common,
There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. Between our relation to our own sexuality and our relation to the reproductivity of the earth, for instance, the resemblance is plain and strong and apparently inescapable.
Homer’s Odyssey. Nowhere else that I know are the connections between marriage and household and the earth so fully and so carefully understood.
If he chooses Kalypso, he will be immortal, but remain in exile; if he chooses Penélopê, he will return home at last, but will die in his time like other men:
If you could see it all, before you go—
all the adversity you face at sea—
you would stay here, and guard this house, and be
immortal—though you wanted her forever,
that bride for whom you pine each day.
Can I be less desirable than she is?
Less interesting? Less beautiful? Can mortals
compare with goddesses in grace and form?
And Odysseus answers:
My quiet Penélopê—how well I know—
would seem a shade before your majesty,
death and old age being unknown to you,
while she must die. Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home . . .
Odysseus’ far-wandering through the wilderness of the sea is not merely the return of a husband; it is a journey home. And a great deal of the power as well as the moral complexity of The Odyssey rises out of the richness of its sense of home.
The suitors’ sin is their utter contempt for the domestic order that the poem affirms. They do not respect or honor the meaning of the household, and in The Odyssey this meaning is paramount. It is therefore the recognition of Odysseus by Penélopê that is the most interesting and the most crucial.
Now from his heart into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful in his arms,
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down . . .
The order of the kingdom is centered on the marriage bed of the king and queen, and that bed is rooted in the earth.
For Odysseus, then, marriage was not merely a legal bond, nor even merely a sacred bond, between himself and Penélopê. It was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family of both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth.
In Odysseus’ return, then, we see a complete marriage and a complete fidelity. To reduce marriage, as we have done, to a mere contract of sexual exclusiveness is at once to degrade it and to make it impossible.
I have considered the poem so far as describing a journey from the non-human order of the sea wilderness to the human order of the cleansed and reunited household. But it is also a journey between two kinds of human value; it moves from the battlefield of Troy to the terraced fields of Ithaka, which, through all the years and great deeds of Odysseus’ absence, the peasants have not ceased to farm.
The Odyssey begins in the world of The Iliad, a world which, like our own, is war-obsessed, preoccupied with “manly” deeds of exploitation, anger, aggression, pillage, and the disorder, uprootedness, and vagabondage that are their result. At the end of the poem, Odysseus moves away from the values of that world toward the values of domesticity and peace. He restores order to his household by an awesome violence, it is true. But that finished and the house purified, he re-enters his marriage, the bedchamber and the marriage bed rooted in the earth. From there he goes into the fields.
But it is clear that Laërtês has survived his son’s absence and the consequent grief and disorder as a peasant.
To the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope. And Odysseus finds him in an act emblematic of the best and most responsible kind of agriculture: an old man caring for a young tree.
The Odyssey, then, is in a sense an anti-Iliad, posing against the warrior values of the other epic—the glories of battle and foreign adventuring—an affirmation of the values of domesticity and farming. But at the same time The Odyssey is too bountiful and wise to set these two kinds of value against each other in any purity or exclusiveness of opposition. Even less does it set into such opposition the two kinds of experience. The point seems to be that these apparently opposed experiences are linked together.
We know—as Odysseus undoubtedly does also—the extent of his love for Penélopê because he can return to her only by choosing her, at the price of death, over Kalypso. We feel and understand, with Odysseus, the value of Ithaka as a homeland, because bound inextricably to the experience of his return is the memory of his absence, of his long wandering at sea, and even of the excitement of his adventures.
Invariably the failure of organized religions, by which they cut themselves off from mystery and therefore from sanctity, lies in the attempt to impose an absolute division between faith and doubt, to make belief perform as knowledge; when they forbid their prophets to go into the wilderness, they lose the possibility of renewal. And the most dangerous tendency in modern society, now rapidly emerging as a scientific-industrial ambition, is the tendency toward encapsulation of human order—the severance, once and for all, of the umbilical cord fastening us to the wilderness or the Creation.
An essential paradox: the natural forces that so threaten us are the same forces that preserve and renew us.
The farm can exist only within the wilderness of mystery and natural force. And if the farm is to last and remain in health, the wilderness must survive within the farm. That is what agricultural fertility is: the survival of natural process in the human order. To learn to preserve the fertility of the farm, Sir Albert Howard wrote, we must study the forest.
Fidelity to human order makes devotion possible. Fidelity to natural order preserves the possibility of choice, the possibility of the renewal of devotion. Where there is no possibility of choice, there is no possibility of faith. One who returns home—to one’s marriage and household and place in the world—desiring anew what was previously chosen, is neither the world’s stranger nor its prisoner, but is at once in place and free.
The farm must yield a place to the forest, not as a wood lot, or even as a necessary agricultural principle, but as a sacred grove—a place where the Creation is let alone, to serve as instruction, example, refuge; a place for people to go, free of work and presumption, to let themselves alone.
To live by expert advice is to abandon one’s life.
They had neither our statistical expertise nor our doom-prophets of population growth; it just happened that, placed geographically as they were, they lived always in sight of their agricultural or ecological limits, and they made a competent response.
This use of technological means cuts across all issues of health and culture for the sake of an annual quota of production.
Our system of agriculture, by modeling itself on economics rather than biology, thus removes food from the cycle of its production and puts it into a finite, linear process that in effect destroys it by trans-forming it into waste. That is, it transforms food into fuel, a form of energy that is usable only once, and in doing so it transforms the body into a consumptive machine.
The modern urban-industrial society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and the earth. At each of these points of disconnection the collaboration of corporation, government, and expert sets up a profit-making enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.
Our economy is based upon this disease. Its aim is to separate us as far as possible from the sources of life (material, social, and spiritual), to put these sources under the control of corporations and specialized professionals, and to sell them to us at the highest profit. It fragments the Creation and sets the fragments into conflict with one another. For the relief of the suffering that comes of this fragmentation and conflict, our economy proposes, not health, but vast “cures” that further centralize power and increase profits: wars, wars on crime, wars on poverty, national schemes of medical aid, insurance, immunization, further industrial and economic “growth,” etc.; and these, of course, are followed by more regulatory laws and agencies to see that our health is protected, our freedom preserved, and our money well spent. Although there may be some “good intention” in this, there is little honesty and no hope.
Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health—and create profitable diseases and dependences—by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight. And such a solution, unlike the typical industrial solution, does not cause new problems.
The “drudgery” of growing one’s own food, then, is not drudgery at all.
To boast that now “95 percent of the people can be freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food” is possible only to one who cannot distinguish between these kinds of work.
He can see it only as a trade of time for money, and so of course he believes in doing as little of it as possible, especially if it involves the use of the body.
But the society that is so glad to be free of the drudgery of growing and preparing food also boasts a thriving medical industry to which it is paying $500 per person per year. And that is only the down payment.
We do not want to work “like a dog” or “like an ox” or “like a horse”—that is, we do not want to use ourselves as beasts. This as much as anything is the cause of our disrespect for farming and our abandonment of it to businessmen and experts. We remember, as we should, that there have been agricultural economies that used people as beasts. But that cannot be remedied, as we have attempted to do, by using people as machines, or by not using them at all.
That it was never necessary to abuse animals in order to use them is suggested by a passage in The Horse in the Furrow, by George Ewart Evans. He is speaking of how the medieval ox teams were worked at the plow: “. . . the ploughman at the handles, the team of oxen—yoked in pairs or four abreast—and the driver who walked alongside with his goad.”
The counterpart of the driver was termed y geilwad or the caller. He walked backwards in front of the oxen singing to them as they worked. Songs were specially composed to suit the rhythm of the oxen’s work . . .”
The oxen were not used as beasts or machines, but as fellow creatures.
She did continue to do “housework,” of course. But we must ask what this had come to mean. The industrial economy had changed the criterion of housekeeping from thrift to convenience. Thrift was a complex standard, requiring skill, intelligence, and moral character, and private thrift was rightly considered a public value. Once thrift was destroyed as a value, housekeeping became simply a corrupt function of a corrupt economy: its public “value” lay in the wearing out or using up of commodities.
In the mind of Thomas Jefferson, farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked.
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” These bonds were not merely those of economics and property, but those, at once more feeling and more practical, that come from the investment in a place and a community of work, devotion, knowledge, memory, and association.
He held manufacturers in suspicion because their values were already becoming abstract, enabling them to be “socially mobile” and therefore subject preeminently to the motives of self-interest.
JUSTIN MORRILL AND THE LAND-GRANT COLLEGE ACTS
On July 2, 1862, two days less than thirty-six years after the death of Jefferson, the first of the land-grant college acts became law. This was the Morrill Act, which granted “an amount of public land, to be apportioned to each State a quantity equal to thirty thousand acres for each Senator and Representative in Congress . . .” The interest on the money from the sale of these lands was to be applied by each state “to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be . . . to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts . . . in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
In 1887 Congress passed the Hatch Act, which created the state agricultural experiment stations, with the purpose, among others, of promoting “a sound and prosperous agriculture and rural life as indispensable to the maintenance of maximum employment and national prosperity and security.” This act states that “It is also the intent of Congress to assure agriculture a position in research equal to that of industry, which will aid in maintaining an equitable balance between agriculture and other segments of the economy.”
To conduct . . . researches, investigations, and experiments bearing directly on and contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a permanent and effective agricultural industry . . . including . . . such investigations as have for their purpose the development and improvement of the rural home and rural life . . .”
And in 1914 the Smith-Lever Act created the cooperative extension service “In order to aid in diffusing among the people . . . useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same . . .”
Morrill was aware, as Jefferson had been, of an agricultural disorder manifested both by soil depletion and by the unsettlement of population: “.
By encouraging short occupancy and a speedy search for new homes, entailing upon the first and older settlements a rapid deterioration of the soil, which would not be likely to be arrested except by more thorough and scientific knowledge of agriculture and by a higher education of those who were devoted to its pursuit.”
Leaving farmers and mechanics and all those who must win their bread by labor, to the haphazard of being self-taught or not scientifically taught at all, and restricting the number of those who might be supposed to be qualified to fill places of higher consideration in private or public employments to the limited number of the graduates of the literary institutions.”
For Jefferson, the ideals and aims of education appear to have been defined directly by the requirements of political liberty. He envisioned a local system of education with a double purpose: to foster in the general population the critical alertness necessary to good citizenship and to seek out and prepare a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” for the duties and trusts of leadership.
He apparently assumed that if communities could be stabilized and preserved by the virtues of citizenship and leadership, then the “practical arts” would be improved as a matter of course by local example, reading, etc.
He believed that the primary aims of education were to correct the work of farmers and mechanics and “exalt their usefulness.”
That intention was to promote the stabilization of farming populations and communities and to establish in that way a “permanent” agriculture, enabled by better education to preserve both the land and the people. The failure of this intention, and the promotion by the land-grant colleges of an impermanent agriculture destructive of land and people, was caused in part by the lowering of the educational standard from Jefferson’s ideal of public or community responsibility to the utilitarianism of Morrill, insofar as this difference in the aims of the two men represented a shift of public value.
They first reduced “liberal and practical” to “practical,” and then for “practical” they substituted “specialized.” And the standard of their purpose has shifted from usefulness to careerism.
Accompanied a degeneration of faculty standards, by which professors and teachers of disciplines become first upholders of “professional standards” and then careerists in pursuit of power, money, and prestige.
Local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have instead is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another, like airports and motels, made increasingly uniform by the transience or rootlessness of their career-oriented faculties and the consequent inability to respond to local conditions.
“If mechanization has been a boon to agribusiness, it has been a bane to millions of rural Americans. Farmworkers have been the earliest victims. There were 4.3 million hired farm workers in 1950. Twenty years later that number had fallen to 3.5 million . . .
This sort of “agricultural” service is justified under the Smith-Lever Act, Section 347a, inserted by amendment in 1955, and by Representative Lever’s “charge” to the Extension Service in 1913. Both contain language that requires some looking at.
Section 347a is based mainly upon the following congressional insight: that “in certain agricultural areas,” “there is concentration of farm families on farms either too small or too unproductive or both . . .” For these “disadvantaged farms” the following remedies were provided: “(1) Intensive on-the-farm educational assistance to the farm family in appraising and resolving its problems; (2) assistance and counseling to local groups in appraising resources for capability of improvement in agriculture or introduction of industry designed to supplement farm income; (3) cooperation with other agencies and groups in furnishing all possible information as to existing employment opportunities, particularly to farm families having underemployed workers; and (4) in cases where the farm family, after analysis of its opportunities and existing resources, finds it advisable to seek a new farming venture, the providing of information, advice, and counsel in connection with making such change.”
The farmers of such farms “are unable to make adjustments and investments required to establish profitable operations”; such a farm “does not permit profitable employment of available labor”; and—most revealing—“many of these farm families are not able to make full use of current extension programs . . .”
The first two of these definitions of a “too small” or “too unproductive” farm are not agricultural but economic: the farm must provide, not a living, but a profit. And it must be profitable, moreover, in an economy that—in 1955, as now—favors “agribusiness.” (Section 347a is a product of the era in which then Assistant Secretaries of Agriculture John Davis and Earl Butz were advocating “corporate control to ‘rationalize’ agriculture production”; in which Mr. Davis himself invented the term “agribusiness”; in which then Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson told farmers to “Get big or get out.”)
The farm is not to be the measure of the service; the service is to be the measure of the farm.
What is remarkable about Section 347a is that it permitted the land-grant colleges to abandon these problems as such, to accept the “agribusiness” revolution as inevitable, and to undertake non-agricultural solutions to agricultural problems.
That the colleges of agriculture should have become colleges of “agribusiness”—working, in effect, against the interests of the small farmers, the farm communities, and the farmland—can only be explained by the isolation of specialization.
Andre Mayer and Jean Mayer in an article entitled “Agriculture, the Island Empire,” published in the summer 1974 issue of Daedalus.
The founding fathers, these authors point out, “placed agriculture at the center of an Enlightenment concept of science broad enough to include society, politics, and sometimes even theology.”
A BETRAYAL OF TRUST
The educational ideal that concerns us here was held clearly in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, was somewhat diminished or obscured in the mind of Justin Morrill, but survived indisputably in the original language of the land-grant college acts. We see it in the intention that education should be “liberal” as well as “practical,” in the wish to foster “a sound and prosperous agriculture and rural life,” in the distinction between agriculture and industry, in the purpose of establishing and maintaining a “permanent” agriculture, in the implied perception that this permanence would depend on the stability of “the rural home and rural life.” This ideal is simply that farmers should be educated, liberally and practically, as farmers; education should be given and acquired with the understanding that those so educated would return to their home communities, not merely to be farmers, corrected and improved by their learning, but also to assume the trusts and obligations of community leadership, the highest form of that “vigilant and distrustful superintendence” without which the communities could not preserve themselves. This leadership, moreover, would tend to safeguard agriculture’s distinction from and competitiveness with industry.
The land-grant acts gave to the colleges not just government funds and a commission to teach and to do research, but also a purpose which may be generally stated as the preservation of agriculture and rural life. That this purpose is a practical one is obvious from the language of the acts; no one, I dare say, would deny that this is so. It is equally clear, though far less acknowledged, that the purpose is also moral, insofar as it raises issues of value and of feeling.
The tragedy of the land-grant acts is that their moral imperative came finally to have nowhere to rest except on the careers of specialists whose standards and operating procedures were amoral: the “objective” practitioners of the “science” of agriculture, whose minds have no direction other than that laid out by career necessity and the logic of experimentation.
Knowledge without responsibility is merchandise, and greed provides its applications. Far from developing and improving the rural home and rural life, the land-grant colleges have blindly followed the drift of virtually the whole population away from home, blindly documenting or “serving” the consequent disorder and blindly rationalizing this disorder as “progress” or “miraculous development.”
The standard of practical education, on the other hand, is based upon the question of what will work,
What is most practical is what makes the most money.
It is oriented entirely toward the future, toward what will work in the “changing world” in which the student is supposedly being prepared to “compete.”
A practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc., in the future. A liberal education rests on the assumption that nature and human nature do not change very much or very fast and that one therefore needs to understand the past. The practical educators assume that human society itself is the only significant context, that change is therefore fundamental, constant, and necessary, that the future will be wholly unlike the past, that the past is outmoded, irrelevant, and an encumbrance upon the future—the present being only a time for dividing past from future, for getting ready.
One of the purposes of this book is to show how the practical, divorced from the discipline of value, tends to be defined by the immediate interests of the practitioner, and so becomes destructive of value, practical and otherwise.
And in the face of competition from the practical curriculum, the liberal has found it impossible to maintain its own standards and so has become practical—that is, career-oriented—also. It is now widely assumed that the only good reason to study literature or philosophy is to become a teacher of literature or philosophy—in order, that is, to get an income from
The education of the student of agriculture is almost as absurd, and it is more dangerous: he is taught a course of practical knowledge and procedures for which uses do indeed exist, but these uses lie outside the purview and interest of the school. The colleges of agriculture produce agriculture specialists and “agribusinessmen” as readily as farmers, and they are producing far more of them.
Certain “aristocratic” ideas of status and leisure have been institutionalized in this system of education.
Democracy has involved more than the enfranchisement of the lower classes; it has meant also the popularization of the more superficial upper-class values: leisure, etiquette (as opposed to good manners), fashion, everyday dressing up, and a kind of dietary persnicketiness.
Both the stratification and the mobility are based upon notions of prestige, which are in turn based upon these reliquary social fashions. Thus doctors are given higher status than farmers, not because they are more necessary, more useful, more able, more talented, or more virtuous, but because they are thought to be “better”—one assumes because they talk a learned jargon, wear good clothes all the time, and make a lot of money. And this is true generally of “office people” as opposed to those who work with their hands.
The unsettlement at once of population and of values is virtually required by the only generally acceptable forms of aspiration. The typical American “success story” moves from a modest rural beginning to urban affluence, from manual labor to office work.
I am suggesting that our university-based structures of success, as they have come to be formed upon quantitative measures, virtually require the degeneration of qualitative measures and the disintegration of culture.
“The Agriculture of the U.S.,” comes from the September 1976 issue of Scientific American. Its author is Earl O. Heady, Curtiss Distinguished Professor at Iowa State University and director of that university’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.
In the nineteenth century, he tells us, after the United States had expanded to its westward limits and the public land grants had all been taken up, the government’s agricultural policy shifted its emphasis from expansion to productivity.
As a result, production “approximately doubled” in the period from 1910 to 1970, and “by 1970 the nation was producing its food on considerably fewer acres than it had been in 1910.” Rapidly put into use, the new technology “became an effective substitute not only for land but also for labor. The result was that between 1950 and 1955 more than a million workers migrated out of the agricultural sector into other sectors of the economy.”
Nothing is said, here or elsewhere in Professor Heady’s article, about the issues of restoration and maintenance.
The period from 1950 to 1970: “Farms became larger and more specialized, handling either crops or livestock instead of both. Farms growing crops greatly increased their utilization of fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery and other capital items . . . the use of fertilizer increased by 276 percent.
Again, highly problematic changes are cited solely as evidence of the advance of technology, which we are evidently expected to regard as simply good.
In 1974 and 1975, Professor Heady tells us, American farmers produced “record” yields, which brought them a “record” income.
The majority put their higher earnings into acquiring new farm equipment, upgrading their living facilities and enlarging their farms by buying more land. As a result farm real estate values more than doubled between 1970 and 1973.”
“record levels,” as if this is some kind of grand agricultural achievement.
Meanwhile, Professor Heady acknowledges the existence of certain other problems: “The change in the very nature of farming, with its higher productivity and greater degree of mechanization, has severely affected rural communities. . . . With the decline in the farm population the demand for the goods and services of businesses in the country has been eroded. Employment and income opportunities in typical rural communities have therefore declined markedly. As people migrated out of the rural communities, there were fewer people left to participate in the services of schools, medical facilities and other institutions. With the lessened demand such services retreated in quantity and quality and advanced in cost.
“Rapid agricultural development . . . has also had a heavy impact on the environment.” The larger and more specialized farms are “depleting the soil of certain specific nutrients and thus requiring larger amounts of fertilizer.” This increase in the use of fertilizer has been accompanied by an increased use of pesticides and more intensive (that is, more continuous) cultivation. “The burden placed on streams and lakes by the runoff of silt and farm chemicals has therefore increased.”
Professor Heady has just described a serious impairment of rural life that is social, economic, and ecological, and he has said that it is justified and compensated by the growth of “agribusiness.” The sacrifice of many and of much for the enrichment of a few is thus justified as if the Declaration of Independence had never been written.
“The input-processing industry now supplies many things that were once produced on the farm. Today tractors substitute for draft animals, fossil fuels for animal feeds, chemical fertilizers for manure and nitrogen-fixing crops.
First, that large farms do not produce as abundantly or efficiently as small ones.
“mechanized agriculture is very productive in terms of output per man-year, but it is not as productive per unit of land as the highly intensive systems are.”
Second, if the size of farms continues to increase, and the farm population proportionately decreases, will not that population become at the same time more vulnerable, less surely able to reproduce itself?
“The future of American agriculture will depend on a number of factors in addition to its productive capacity. The two most important factors will be the extent to which recent international conditions continue to prevail and the presence or absence of Government policies affecting output either through future supply-control programs or environmental limits on fertilizers, pesticides and soil erosion.”
Academic upper crust that has provided a species of agricultural vandalism with the prestige of its professorships and the justifications of a bogus intellectuality,
His defense is deduction without logic, a kind of disordered scholasticism that proceeds merely by flinging statistics at a premise.
Experience, which is the basis of culture, tends always toward wholeness because it is interested in the meaning of what has happened; it is necessarily as interested in what does not work as in what does. It cannot hope or desire without remembering. Its approach to possibility is always conditioned by its remembrance of failure.
Whereas the voice of experience, of culture, counsels, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” the experimental intelligence, which behaves strangely like the intelligence of imperialists and religious fanatics, says, “This is the only true way.”
Woe to those who add house to house snd join field to field until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants of the land. ISAIAH 5:8
. . it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state. . . . THOMAS JEFFERSON, LETTER TO REVEREND JAMES MADISON, OCTOBER 28, 1785
The symbol of the large corporate farm becomes the trailer house.
“Farmers who have suceeded in increasing their farm size to a scale that will enable them to achieve almost all of the economics of size in production now find that their capital structure is so large that their sons cannot finance a takeover of the family farm.”
External accounting pushes us back into our moral tradition, which asks us to consider that we are members of the human community and are therefore bound to help or harm it by our behavior.
Modern American agriculture has made itself a “science” and has preserved itself within its grandiose and destructive assumptions by cutting itself off from the moral tradition (as it has done also from the agricultural tradition) and confining its vision and its thought within the bounds of internal accounting.
the orthodox presume to know, whereas the marginal person is trying to find out.
Not until recently have we had a widespread orthodoxy of agriculture in the same sense that we have had widespread orthodoxies of religion—an agriculture, that is to say, which is nearly uniform in technology and in its general assumptions and ambitions over a whole continent, and which, like many religions, aspires to become “universal” by means of a sort of evangelism, proclaiming that “Other countries would do well to copy it.”
The governing concept of the agriculture of these Andean peasants, then, is enough, a long-term sufficiency, whereas the governing concept of ours is profit or affluence, without regard for long-term needs.*
“The danger of erosion is avoided in three ways. First, fields are kept small—usually less than one acre. . . . A typical family of four to five persons cultivates between three and four acres, spread among as many fields. The small size of individual plots retards run-off and erosion. Second, each field is surrounded by a hedgerow constructed of rocks, brush, and living plants. Ostensibly built to keep out destructive livestock, these hedgerows effectively limit erosion.
Third, field rotation is practiced in the highest and steepest part of the valley where rainfall is heaviest and erosion most likely. Potatoes are cultivated under a regime of shifting cultivation in which fields are only planted for two or three years before being returned to a long fallow of five years or more.
So that if one crop fails they may rely on one of a different kind.
These means are reinforced by systems of economic reciprocity and mutual dependence which rely primarily on the kinship system.” Within families, “individual households protect themselves from privation by exchanging land, labor, and goods.”
The health of a farm is as apparent to the eye as the health of a person. To look at a farm in full health gives the same complex pleasure as looking at a fully healthy person or animal.
A healthy farm will have trees on it—woodlands, where forest trees are native, but also fruit and nut trees, trees for shade and for windbreaks.
Trees will be there for their usefulness: for food, lumber, fence posts, firewood, shade, and shelter. But they will also be there for comfort and pleasure, for the wildlife that they will harbor, and for their beauty.
A family is married to a farm more by their planting and protecting of trees than by their memories or their knowledge, for the trees stand for their fidelity and kindness to what they do not know.
Related to the principle of diversity is that of carrying capacity: the various crops and animals will be sensibly proportionate to one another; the farm will strive as far as possible toward the balance, the symmetry, of an ecological system; there will not be too much of anything. The fields will not be overcropped; the pastures will not be overgrazed. It will be understood that the plants growing on a farm are not just its produce, but also its protection, and so a row crop will be followed by a cover crop, the cover crop by a sod of grass and clover.
And a healthy farm not only will have the right proportion of plants and animals; it will have the right proportion of people.
On a healthy farm there will be the right proportion between work and rest.
As far as I know, the Amish are the only American community to have formed deliberate strategies to keep enough people on the farms.
Finally, a healthy farm will be so far as possible independent and self-sustaining. It is necessary to say “so far as possible,” for we are by no means talking here about a “closed system.”
Many farms cannot provide their own water. The wild plants, animals, birds, and insects upon which a farm’s health depends will not respect its boundaries any more than the rain.
By proper tillage, rotation, the use of legumes, and the return of manure and other organic wastes to the soil, the fields can be kept productive with minimal recourse to fertilizers from outside sources.
A farm can produce by far the major part of its own energy.
Health, then, does not “come from” independence or “lead to” it. Health is independence. The healthy farm sustains itself the same way that a healthy tree does: by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground.
Around the time of the Second World War, when machines began to replace the horse and mule teams as well as the people, the hillside began to “go back to the bushes.” The thicket growth that follows agriculture began to take it over.
In some places the better forest hardwoods have begun to establish themselves again among the weed trees.
(I have lately been using both bluegrass and fescue, as well as a clover mixture consisting of red, ladino, and sweet clovers, and Korean lespedeza.)
By the standards of orthodox agriculture, as well as by those of the present economy and culture, this old man and his farm were merely anachronisms, leftovers.
The curious thing is that many agriculture specialists and “agribusinessmen” see themselves as conservatives.
Farmers Home Journal, issue of January 2, 1892.
One correspondent writes “to urge every man in Kentucky to set out nut-bearing trees.” And this purpose is urged upon the writer by his sense of the necessity of settling on the land: “The first thing a young man should do is to get him a home; the next thing get him a wife, and next set him an orchard, but do not think an orchard complete till you have set a few nut-bearing trees.”
“When people learn to preserve the richness of the land that God has given them, and the rights to enjoy the fruits of their own labors, then will be the time when all shall have meat in the smokehouse, corn in the crib and time to go to the election.”
I did not realize how compatible organic soil management could be with a large scale of operation.
I thought, were a careful plan of crop rotation (corn for a year or two, oats, soybeans, and then two years of pasture), the use of animal manure on corn ground every year, and the use of a chisel plow rather than the conventional turning plow for the preparation of crop ground.
Even though it was far more diversified than most large farms of these times, and did not use chemical shortcuts, it required only four full-time workers.
On this farm I first had a chance to watch a chisel plow at work and to see the ground it had prepared. This is a favorite tool of many mechanized organic farmers, who give it enthusiastic praise.
This farmer used no herbicides. The reason he gave was that he did not want to contaminate the streams.
Meanwhile, the total mortgage debt of U. S. farms rose from about $8 billion in 1950 to $24 billion in 1971.” During this time there was also a massive shift from diversified farming to monoculture, which reduced the time that the farmland was covered with plant growth, which in turn reduced the amount of solar energy put to use on the farm. The removal of animals from farms growing crops in monocultures reduced the amount of organic waste returned to the fields.
“One can almost admire the enterprise and clever salesmanship of the petrochemical industry. Somehow it has managed to convince the farmer that he should give up the free solar energy that drives the natural cycles and, instead, buy the needed energy—in the form of fertilizer and fuel—from the petrochemical industry.
The overriding issue is economic: the colonization of the farmland by the petrochemical industry.
Dr. Commoner says that “when a farmer uses commercial nitrogen fertilizer, the amount of thermodynamic work expended to produce it is seven times greater than the minimum amount of work that is needed to accomplish the same result by planting vetch.
Amish are a community in the full sense of the word;
What, then, are the reasons that the Amish have been able to survive as a community—or, it might be more correct to say, as a closely bound fellowship of many communities?
First, the Amish communities are, at their center, religious. They are bound together not just by various worldly necessities, but by spiritual authority.
The Amish have not secularized their earthly life
They have not hesitated to see communal and agricultural implications in their religious principles, and these implications directly influence their behavior. The “goal” of Amish culture is not just the welfare of the spirit, but a larger harmony “among God, nature, family and community.”
Second, the Amish have severely restricted the growth of institutions among themselves, and so they are not victimized, as we so frequently are, by organizations set up ostensibly to “serve” them. Though they pay the required deferences to our institutions, they accept few of the benefits, and so remain, in perhaps the most important respects, free of them. They do not become dependent on them and so maintain their integrity. As far as I know, the only institutions in our sense that the Amish have started are their schools—and this, by our standards, for a strange reason: to keep the responsibility for educating their children and so, in consequence, to keep their children. Amish ministers and bishops are chosen by lot, after fasting and prayer (as Mathias was chosen), and so they do not have a professional, a paid, an economically dependent, or an ambitious clergy. Their religious services are held in barns or homes; their charities are not organized or abstract but are usually in direct response to observed needs. And so they do not have a church building fund or church functionaries or administrators. There is little distinction between the church and its members.
There are, one may as well say, only two Amish institutions: the family and the community. And these institutions fulfill directly, humanly, simply, and quietly nearly all the functions that we have delegated to our obtrusive, inhuman, indifferent, clumsy, expensive institutions. Family and community serve as insurance, welfare, social security, public safety. Indeed, they serve as, and replace, government. The simple living together of relatives and neighbors makes unnecessary to them our obsession with security.
Third, the Amish are the truest geniuses of technology, for they understand the necessity of limiting it, and they know how to limit it. They have refused to see “technological innovation as an end in itself.” And so their “religiously enforced family and community values are safeguarded against the social costs of changes which in their estimation did more harm than good to the community as a whole.” Whereas our society tends to conceive of community as a loose political-economic mechanism of mutually competing producers, suppliers, and consumers, the Amish think of “the community as a whole”—that is, as all of the people, or perhaps, considering the excellence both of the neighborliness and their husbandry, as all the people and their land together. If the community is whole, then it is healthy, at once earthly and holy.
They have not the knowledge of experts, which is by definition a homeless or rootless knowledge—the knowledge, in Sir Albert Howard’s words, of people who cannot “take their own advice before offering it to other people”—and which is, as such, dangeous. The do not use knowledge to prey upon one another.
People are making careful, comely, dignified work of the essential tasks defined by modern values as “drudgery.”
When I was there the cover crop was coming up to safeguard the ground over the winter. I looked for marks of erosion. There were none. It is possible, I think, to say that this is a Christian agriculture, formed upon the understanding that it is sinful for people to misuse or destroy what they did not make.
They benefit from exchanges of labor and other forms of neighborliness. In lieu of massive consumption of fossil fuels and electricity, they make the fullest possible use of energies available on the farm—of the wind, of draft animals, and, of course, of their own bodies.
“With our tractors we kept the soil rather permanently compacted because it was necessary to get on the land as soon as surface moisture conditions permitted. And the tire patterns pretty well rolled the entire area in the course of repeated passage. With his horses, this just didn’t happen.
Soil structure improved. Root penetration was facilitated. Water holding capacity as well as internal drainage both benefited, and the alfalfa flourished.
They will say that a farm “works” easier after a couple of years of horse farming.
This compaction problem has to be the explanation.
They can get similar yields with less chemical fertilizer than their mechanized neighbors.
Since the Amish are manifestly excellent farmers, and are so complexly successful in other ways, one wonders why they have been ignored by the officials and the scholars of agriculture—especially since their technology and methods are so well suited to land not even farmable by orthodox methods and to farmers not able to survive in the orthodox economy. I have been able to think of only two answers, aside from the conventional contempt for anything small: first, the Amish are a thrifty people, hence poor consumers of “purchased inputs” from the “agribusiness” industries; and, second, they are living disproof of some of the fundamental assumptions of the orthodoxy.
To turn an agricultural problem over to the developers, promoters, and salesmen of industrial technology is not to ask for a solution; it is to ask for more industrial technology and for a bigger bureaucracy to handle the resulting problems of social upset, unemployment, ill health, urban sprawl, and overcrowding.
And so the first necessary public change is simply a withdrawal of confidence from the league of specialists, officials, and corporation executives who for at least a generation have had almost exclusive charge of the problem and who have enormously enriched and empowered themselves by making it worse.
Second, as a people, we must learn again to think of human energy, our energy, not as something to be saved, but as something to be used and to be enjoyed in use.
Third, we must see again, as I think the founders of our government saw, that the most appropriate governmental powers are negative—those, that is, that protect the small and weak from the great and powerful, not those by which the government becomes the profligate, ineffectual parent of the small and weak after it has permitted the great and powerful to make them helpless.
Fourth, considering that the price of farmland has now been driven up by urban pressures and speculation until farmers often cannot afford to own it, low-interest loans ought to be made available to people wishing to buy family-size farms.
Fifth, there should be a system of production and price controls that would tend to adjust production both to need and to the carrying capacities of farms.
Sixth, there should be a program to promote local self-sufficiency in food. The cheapest, freshest food is that which is produced closest to home and is not delayed for processing.
Seventh, every town and city should be required to operate an organic-waste depot where sewage, garbage, waste paper, and the like would be composted and given or sold at cost to farmers.
Eighth, there should be a strenuous review of all sanitation laws governing the production of food, and those that are unnecessary should be eliminated. Sanitation laws have almost invariably worked against the small producer, destroying his markets or prohibitively increasing the cost of production.
Ninth, we should encourage the greatest possible technological and genetic diversity, in conformation to local need, as opposed to the present dangerous uniformity in both categories. This diversity should be the primary goal of the land-grant schools. To this end, they should be required, as the Hatch Act instructs, “to assure agriculture a position in research equal to that of industry.”
Tenth, to de-specialize the interests of the colleges of agriculture—that is, to shift their loyalty from “agribusiness” and industry back to the farmers—two other measures might be useful: (1) The faculties should be opened, on a part-time basis, to farmers, just as faculties of medicine and law are opened to doctors and lawyers; and (2) faculty members could be paid half their salary in cash and given the use of a boundary of college farmland the potential annual income from which would be equivalent to the other half.
Eleventh, we must address ourselves seriously, and not a little fearfully, to the problem of human scale. What is it? How do we stay within it?
Twelfth, having exploited “relativism” until, as a people, we have no deeply believed reasons for doing anything, we must now ask ourselves if there is not, after all, an absolute good by which we must measure ourselves and for which we must work.
I argue that this kind of agriculture grows out of the worst of human history and the worst of human nature.
For this book certainly was written out of worry.
We were living under the rule of an ideology that was destroying our land, our communities, and our culture—as we still are.
The enormous productivity of industrial agriculture cannot be denied, but neither can its enormous ecological, economic, and human costs, which are bound eventually to damage its productivity. This book’s tragedy is that it is true.
Adherents of the industrial program, which is too powerful, too rich, and too preoccupied with conquest to be diverted by anybody’s mere argument.
Argument itself has become virtually obsolete, a lost art. Public discourse of all kinds now tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which lead to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science.
The response to this book has shown, instead, that the universities are not interested in the pursuit of truth by argument. They are interested in preserving the conclusion of an old argument that for the most part they no longer bother to make: namely, that the world and all its creatures are machines.
1. If the world and all its creatures are machines, then the world and all its creatures are entirely comprehensible, manipulable, and controllable by humans.
2. The humans who have this power are experts.
3. Experts are made by education.
4. Education only happens in schools.
5. Experts are smarter than other people.
6. Thinking is best done by experts in offices and laboratories.
7. People who do work cannot be trusted to think about it.
8. People who work would prefer not to work.
9. Human workers are inefficient machines, encumbered by extraneous needs and desires, and they should be replaced by more efficient machines or by chemicals.
10. In general, the human machine is better at consumption than production.
11. A farm is or ought to be a factory in which plant and animal machines serve the economic machine in the most efficient way.
12. Efficiency has nothing to do with human or biological needs and desires.
13. Farm bankruptcy increases agricultural efficiency.
14. All farmers actually dislike farming and are secretly glad when they go bankrupt, because that gets them out of the sticks and into the bright lights where they have a chance to become experts.
15. Conventional agricultural science (like all conventional science) is disinterested and objective and serves no interest other than the advancement of human knowledge.
Eventually this mechanistic line of thought brings us to the doctrine that whatever happens is inevitable.
Every bad thing that happens is inevitable.
Every good and perfect gift comes from politicians, scientists, researchers, governments, and corporations.
Thus all industrial comforts and laborsaving devices are the result only of human ingenuity and determination (not to mention the charity and altruism that have so conspicuously distinguished the industrial subspecies for the past two centuries), but the consequent pollution, land destruction, and social upheaval have been “inevitable.”
That is to say that what happened happened because it had to happen. Thus the apologists for the ruin of agricultural lands, economies, and communities have shown always that they did nothing to stop it because there was nothing they could have done to stop it. (It’s just progress, folks. Be glad your children won’t suffer the drudgery and degradation of farm ownership.)
Books by Marty Strange, Gene Logsdon, and Wes Jackson, among others; organizations such as the Land Institute, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Land Stewardship Project, Tilth, and the E. F. Schumacher Society; the several conservation organizations; a rapidly increasing number of organizations interested in the local marketing of local products; and thousands of farmers and gardeners.
Our effort to make something comely and enduring of our life on this earth will last as long as our species, I am confident of that; it is, after all, an ancient effort.