Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.
By Gracy Olmstead
How we farm matters. For the past two centuries, America’s farms have expanded and homogenized, and farming equipment and chemicals have replaced personnel. Farmers have grown older and more isolated and are retiring without successors.
Our embrace of industrialization and “factory farming” has not resulted in greater economic security for most American farmers. The nation has suffered a historic slump in prices for corn, soybeans, milk, wheat and other commodities. It has lost half its dairy farmers in the past 18 years. And The Wall Street Journal warned in early 2017 that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.”
The farmer, essayist and poet Wendell Berry has long argued that today’s agricultural practices are detrimental to ecology, community and the local economies that farms once served. A native Kentuckian, Mr. Berry has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and has received a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.
Mr. Berry argues that healthy forms of agriculture require intentional cultivation on the part of both consumers and farmers. Americans presume there will always be enough — money, clean soil, healthy water — to fulfill our desires. But our ravenous economic disposition goes against the very nature of our world and its finite resources. Advocates for sustainable agriculture argue that we ought to recognize the limits of our world and, as Mr. Berry writes, “live in it on its terms, not ours.”
This year’s proposed Farm Bill awards millions of dollars to wealthy agribusiness and factory farms in the form of commodity subsidies and crop insurance, while cutting funds for important conservation and stewardship programs and offering little to beginning farmers and ranchers or local farmers markets and local food promotion.
Mr. Berry, as an ally of Wes Jackson of the Land Institute and others, has long argued for a 50-year Farm Bill that would rejuvenate our nation’s ecosystems while fostering long-term food security in the United States.
Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?
Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.
If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.
Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.
Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.
Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.
Olmstead: The Farm Bill addresses many issues, including “rural development” — and rural communities desperately need help these days. Could the government help combat these issues, in your community and elsewhere?
Berry: A farm bill sincerely intending to help rural communities might begin by proposing a program of production controls and price supports for every product of farming and forestry. At present, for example, the dairy “industry” is increasing milk production by millions of gallons every year, thus reducing prices and driving small dairies out of business. This of course serves the interests of large dairies.
A bill intending to help rural communities, furthermore, might forbid the large chain stores to underprice their goods in order to destroy locally owned small stores. I don’t see why the government should not enforce honest prices for the same reason that it enforces honest weights and measures. I am sure that a lot of conservatives would object loudly to such “regulation.” But for small farms and small businesses, the “free market” is not a “level playing field.”
Olmstead: Many conservatives and libertarians see the Farm Bill’s handouts to large agribusinesses as the opposite of a free market. If small farmers are given a level playing field, they argue, more will succeed — and industrial agribusiness will no longer have a government-provided financial cushion.
Berry: I distrust entirely the terms “free market” and “level playing field.” Those phrases are intoned as if they were the names of gods, but what do they mean? How exactly do the conservatives and the libertarians think small farmers would be served by the free market and the level playing field?
The problem that has impoverished and destroyed farmers nearly always is that of low prices resulting from surplus production. That is also, obviously, a land-destroying problem. The only solution to that problem that can sustain the small farmers is the combination of production control and price supports as exemplified by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association as it was reorganized in my region under the New Deal in 1941. I dislike recommending my own writing, but that organization and its work are explained pretty fully in “The Art of Loading Brush.” The conservative politicians and their friends in the Farm Bureau hated that program because it protected the small farmers, and they finally killed it. In its absence, our troubles have multiplied.
Recently, for example, 100 family dairy farms have been put out of business in this region, two of them in my county, because Walmart is building its own milk-bottling plant in Indiana. And so 100 self-employed, self-supporting, self-respecting farm families are being severely damaged or destroyed in order to increase the wealth of a family already far too rich. I am unsure what the farmers themselves have concluded, but I can conclude only what I already knew: They have no friends among the conservatives and libertarians. And if the Democrats and the liberals were to capture the government, those small farmers would find no friends among them, as they now are.
Both of the political sides, so far as I am concerned, have to accept responsibility for the emergence of Donald Trump, the autonomous man, the self-made man, economically “free” and sexually liberated, responsible only to himself, starting from scratch and inventing his own way of doing things. To get outside the trajectory that produced Trump, we will have to go back to tradition. I am unsure when we began to think of, for instance, the 15th Psalm and Jesus’s law of neighborly love as optional. They are not optional, as I think the Amish example proves, and as proved by present failure.
Olmstead: Our trade war with China has highlighted American farmers’ reliance on the global market. Do you believe this reliance is a necessary risk in today’s globalized economy? How can these farmers safeguard their own self-sufficiency and well-being?
Berry: I have been arguing for a long time, and I still argue, that an economy worthy of the name should begin with proper care of its sources in the natural world and in the local cultures of land use. Beyond that it should be based upon the principle of a reasonable self-sufficiency, from the household to the local community and on through the categories of political organization.
Such an economy, within the variables of weather and human capability, would be formed within certain prescribed limits. To the extent that it would be limited and formed or formal, we might assume that it would be stable. Because such an economy has never been tried, we should not think of it with too much confidence. But there is certainly nothing limited or stable in our present casting about the “globe” for supplies and demands. This, like our present society, is disorderly if not chaotic.
The so-called global economy, because it is predicated on the exhaustion of natural sources and of the land-use economies, is far from a sure thing. An interesting question, then, is whether we might intentionally reform our economies upon the principle of self-sufficiency or be forced to do so by the failure of the global economy. Farmers by themselves can’t protect themselves in a “free market” economy whether it is national or global. At present they have only the very limited self-protection of supporting their own lives so far as possible from their own land — that is, by producing their own food and fuel, and by harvesting energy from their own sunlight.
Olmstead: An Iowa farmer recently told me that industrial agriculture is inevitable — the natural fruit of technological progress and globalization. The farmer reminded me of others I have talked to who, when asked about farming practices that are industrialized and isolating, reply by saying “We must feed the world.”
Berry: If you can persuade farmers that their hardships are “inevitable,” then you have got them very securely trapped and they can be safely forgotten by their political representatives and exploited by agribusiness corporations. Inevitability and objectivity, like pessimism and optimism, are the names of programs offering freedom from choice and responsibility. If “technological progress” is the same as technological determinism, then there are no remedies.
It can pretty well be demonstrated, however, that technological progress is the result of choices that have been made all the way from the inventors and manufacturers of technologies to the people who buy and use and pay for them. The important questions all have to do with the standards by which these choices are made. If the standards were different, different choices would be made.
And in fact we have plenty of evidence that choices can be made that evidently were not made by your Iowa farmer. That the alternative choices often have to be made against powerful social pressures does not mean that they cannot be made or that they are not valid choices. The finally inescapable standards by which agricultural choices must be made are the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.
The problem of feeding the world should be addressed, first of all, by calculating the waste — from farmland and topsoil to thrown-away food — in the world’s “food systems.” Perhaps somebody has done this. If so, that is the place to start. The people, fairly numerous and highly credentialed, who argue that only industrial agriculture as we now have it can feed the world are arguing in fact that we can feed the world only by an agriculture that destroys both farmland and farmers. There is a point, obviously, beyond which this kind of agriculture will not be able to feed much of anybody.
Olmstead: As farmers grow older, we seem unable to attract or keep young people on the land. For some, this is because of the cost of procuring land and starting a farm. But I have also talked to farmers who were told they were “too smart” to farm by high school counselors and mentors. These admonitions align with a larger cultural prejudice against manual labor and blue-collar work. Considering the challenge to farming’s future which this represents, how can we foster and renew a passion for farming?
These clichés are sustained by the “larger cultural prejudice against manual labor,” which you mention. But there also are active prejudices against farmers, country people, the country, small-town people and small towns. This at least begins the description of a large cultural problem. Because of such prejudices, and also because of economic adversity, farmers encourage their children to leave farming. Their departing children, so few of them as they now are, amount to an invaluable cultural and economic resource, to which our present economy attaches no value at all.
What can we do about this? First, those of us who care must keep trying to bring about improvements, which we can do, and are doing, locally — where, in any event, the improvements will have to be made. Second, we have got to be patient. That this is a cultural problem means that it can’t be simply or quickly solved. What you speak of as a “passion for farming” can grow only from an understanding of the intelligence and the learning involved in the right kind of farming, and we should add an understanding of the better cultures of husbandry and of the traditional agrarian values. These things we must try to keep alive, not because of their “potential value” but because they are now and forever right.
Gracy Olmstead is an Idaho native living and writing outside Washington.