Hard Questions for the Year of The Farmer

Thursday, February 23, 2012
AN extract from a speech by Wendell Berry delivered in 1974 in Spokane, Washington. It formed the kernel of his book The Unsettling Of America, 1977. It asks the hard questions we should be asking about Agriculture in the Year of the Farmer.

In the decades since World War II the farms of Henry County [Kentucky] 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. There are not nearly enough people on the farms to maintain them properly, and they are for the most part visibly deteriorating. The number of part-time farmers and ex-farmers increases every year. Our harvests depend more and more upon the labor of old men and little boys. The farm people live less and less upon their own produce, more and more from the grocery stores. The best of them are more worried about money and more overworked than ever before. 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focus of interest has largely shifted from the household to the automobile; the ideals of workmanship and thrift have been replaced by the goals of leisure, comfort and entertainment-for, as my friend, Maurice Telleen says, "this nation has created the world's first broad-based hedonism."

And nowhere that I know is there a market for a hen or a bucket of cream or a few dozen eggs. Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation-but to the enormous enrichment of the large producers. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre. It is, of course, one of the miracles of science that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.

In all of this few people whose testimony would have mattered have seen the connection between "modernization" of agricultural techniques and the disintegration of the culture and the communities of farming. What we have called agricultural progress has, in fact, involved the forcible displacement of millions of people.

I remember, during the fifties, the outrage with which certain of our leaders spoke of the forced removal of the populations of villages in communist countries. I also remember that at that same time, in Washington, the word on farming was "Get big or get out"-a policy that is still in effect. The only difference here is in the 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 were equally cruel, and I believe that in the long run the results will be equally damaging-not just to the concerns and values of the human spirit, but to the practical possibilities of survival.

And so those who could not get big got out-not just in my community but in farm communities all over the country. But bigness is a most amorphous and unstable category. As a social or economic goal it is totalitarian; it establishes an inevitable tendency toward the tyrannical one that will be the biggest of all. Many who got big to stay in are now being driven out by those who are still bigger. The aim of bigness implies not one social or cultural aim that is not noxious. Its influence on us may already have been disastrous, and we have not yet seen the worst.

And this community-killing agriculture, with its monomania of bigness, is not primarily the work of farmers, though it has burgeoned upon their weaknesses. It is the work of the institutions of agriculture: the experts and the agri-businessmen, who have promoted so-called efficiency at the expense of community, and quantity at the expense of quality.

In 1973 1,000 Kentucky dairies went out of business. They were the victims of policies by which we imported dairy products to compete with our own, and exported so much grain as to cause a drastic rise in the price of feed. Typically, an agricultural expert at the University of Kentucky, my colleague, was willing to applaud the failure of 1,000 dairymen, whose cause he supposedly being paid-with their money-to serve. They were inefficient producers, he concluded, who needed to be eliminated.

He did not say-indeed, there was no indication that he had even considered-what might be the limits of his criterion or his logic. Does he propose to applaud this same process year after year until "biggest" and "most efficient" become synonymous with "only"? This sort of brainlessness is invariably justified by pointing to the enormous productivity of American agriculture. But any abundance, in any amount, is illusory if it does not safeguard its producers-and in American agriculture abundance has tended to destroy its producers.

Along with the rest of society, the established agriculture has shifted its emphasis-even its interest-from quality to quantity. And along with the rest of society it has failed to see that, in the long run, quantity is inseparable from quality. To pursue quantity alone is to destroy those disciplines in the producers that are the only assurance of quantity. The preserver of abundance is excellence.

What are the results of such thinking? The results are the drastic decline in farm population and political strength; the growth of a vast, uprooted, dependent and unhappy urban population. (Our rural and urban problems have largely caused each other.) The result is an unimaginable waste of land, of energy, of fertility, of human beings. The result is that the life of the land, which in its native processes is infinite, has been made totally dependent upon the finite, scarce and expensive products of industry. The result is the disuse of so-called marginal lands, potentially productive, but dependent upon intensive human care and long-term familiarity and affection. The result is the virtual destruction of the farm culture without which farming, in any but the exploitive and extractive sense, is impossible.

My point is that food is a cultural, not a technological, product. A culture is not a collection of relics and ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its destruction invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, and aspiration. It would reveal the human necessities and the human limits. It would clarify our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It would assure that the necessary restraints be observed, that the necessary work be done, and that it be done well. A healthy farm culture can only be based upon familiarity; it can only grow among a people soundly established upon the land; it would nourish and protect a human intelligence of the land that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country. We now have only the sad remnants of those communities. If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden that possibility, we will lose it altogether. And then we will not only invoke calamity-we will deserve it.

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