Because life is a series of edits

Wendell Berry for Secretary of Agriculture

In Humanity, Politics on January 6, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I don't know if anyone caught it in the midst of all the tomfoolery going on across our political system of late, but Wendell Berry penned an Op-Ed piece in Sunday's New York Times that's more worthy of reading than what Barack Obama thinks about our economy or what Roland Burris thinks about himself.

Along with a guy named Wes Jackson (plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, KS), Berry (former professor at the University of Kentucky, farmer, and writer in Port Royal, KY), attempts to draw attention away from the headlines of the day to some realities that have been in place at least as far as the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s: that is, the loss of land at the hands of man. They write:

"Soil that is used and abused…is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government."

My father owns and farms 600 acres of land and was Illinois' Soil and Water Conservation Farmer of the Year in 1995. Dad has often said a similar thing for as long as I can remember; his version, however, cuts to the chase with regard to God's green earth:

"They're not making any more of it."

Indeed, "they're" not, nor does it seem "they" have considered what will happen if/when we run out of good soil. According to Jackson and Berry, history gives us a clue:

"Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice."

So who's to blame? Is it city folk who have no clue from where or how food shows up on their grocery store shelves? Perhaps, but it's unfair to lay all the blame on those who live in urban areas, especially when a majority of them don't know what they don't know about agriculture as a result of the urban migration of multiple generations during the past 60 years. Granted, I might recommend a field trip to a local family farm, but that suggestion becomes problematic in that there are so few family farms around to visit anymore.

Unfortunately, either out of financial desperation or personal preference, rural folk have bought into globalization's philosophy that bigger is better by consolidating small family farms into giant corporate ones, exploding the scale of agribusiness and exploiting land and livestock to do it; they've chanted industrialization's mantra that faster is cheaper, developing technology and pushing practices that almost seem to farm for them rather than require one to actually be a farmer.

So what? Aren't we growing food in a petri dish already? Perhaps, but who owns the petri dishes (and who gets to decide what grows in them – and how)? Say Jackson and Berry:

"Industrial agricultural…by substituting technological 'solutions' for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods. Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities."

We're in the middle (though some would say we haven't hit bottom yet) of a financial recession and crisis here in America, and indeed, the negative effects of incredibly unethical business practices continue to ripple out and affect millions on a daily basis. But it's one thing to be stuck in a stagnant economy with food on the shelves; it would be quite another to be in the same (or even a better) situation without something to eat.

"For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations."

I'm not one to advocate throwing money at problems, and the past few months have been incredibly difficult to stomach with everyone and their dog asking for a handout. But if our government continues doling out dinero and spending money like we've got it, then I'd encourage us to heed what Jackson and Berry call for, namely "a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities." If nothing else, taking a longer-term approach on this issue at least seems biblical (numerically speaking, that is).

Until then, be sure to save those newspapers and magazines full of financial and constitutional crises, and hold on to those expired grocery coupons and circulars. The way things are going, we may need to eat them later.
  1. Can’t remember the last time I posted, but I have to agree. My grandpa farmed for years and near the end of his life he and his oldest son had to switch to leasing the land and though they still did a good bit of the work it wasn’t the same. But visiting them as a child and knowing my family had a connection to the land always made me (and my family) value that land. I have often thought of the sabbath rest for the land as being true wisdom. It would be amazing to see this nation, and the world, slow down to the point where they could really follow through on what is taught in Lev 25.

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