A Long, Long Row

by Brian Volck on September 3, 2009 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

“Hontar:  We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

Altamirano: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

From The Mission

Cincinnati, OH. I’m not convinced the Internet has irreparably damaged civil discourse, but I’m sure it hasn’t helped. Ad hominem savagery, the Kudzu of blog comboxes, thrives in disembodied ecosystems, and what climate could be more congenial for flaming than the blogosphere’s steamy gnostic bayous?  Most of us, I hope, still quail at saying face-to-face the same harsh words typed gleefully at a keyboard, but even the best of habits can be unlearned with practice.
That’s why, in those rare, often ill-advised, moments I comment on blog posts (at sites other the FPR, of course), I’m pleasantly surprised by someone who retains, at long last, a sense of decency.

Some months ago, after once more breaking my promise never to wade into the combox swamp again, I entered a surprisingly civil online exchange about Wendell Berry and contemporary agrarianism.  The writer of the original blog post (a friend of mine) quietly stepped back and let the two commenters go at it.  There was a great deal of talking past one another, but the tone remained respectful, and for that I’m grateful.  It was refreshing to agree on next to nothing without descending to name-calling and invective.

To the extent I recall details of the conversation, my well-mannered sparring partner had two main arguments.  First, he insisted, relocalization of food production would require forced depopulation of cities. Second, corporate agriculture is necessary for the US to continue “feeding the world.”
For this post, I’ll dispense with the latter objection first, as I consider it a distraction.  A significant part of my work is in global child health, and on my frequent medical trips to Honduras, I fly into San Pedro Sula, the business and HIV capital of that part of Central America.  The valley in which San Pedro sits accounts for much of the country’s arable land (more than ninety percent of Honduran territory is considered substandard for farming).

On my way south to the Salvadoran Frontera, I pass huge, level plantings of sugar cane and bananas, largely corporate-owned and all destined for export.  The campesinos where I’m headed farm sides of mountains, scraping a living from thin, unterraced soil.  The primary obstacle to feeding the world is not absolute undersupply, but maldistribution fostered and sustained by poor and/or corrupt governance, ruinous IMF policies and absentee corporate profit.

American grain is sometimes, though rarely, a global lifesaver.  Even then, the underlying problem is often not how much food, but where it is.  The most recent Ethopian famine (A politically-created crisis in a country normally able to feed more than ninety percent of its people from domestic production.) included bizarre scenes of emergency convoys of trucks bearing US-grown grain past warehouses full of rotting, locally-grown food.

I don’t think I can put it better than Gene Logsdon, who dissects the “feeding the world” canard as “a euphemism for ‘Push American grain overseas and keep grain cheap here so the American consumer can afford to buy more cars, television sets, houses and ten trillion gadgets.’”

It was the first objection – the one about forced depopulation – that bothered me more, not because I found it persuasive, but because it got so much about agrarianism precisely wrong.   I answered my well-manned sparring partner that the Wendell Berry I’ve come to know through books and in person is not a Kentucky Maoist planning resettlement camps for the urban bourgeoisie. That elicited a good-natured chuckle, but our misunderstanding persisted.  As far as I can tell, our failure to agree on how to proceed arose from a more fundamental disagreement about things as they are.   For him, corporate monoculture is a given, the world as it is. I, however, understand it as an aberration, the product of fifty years of misguided policy and worse practice.

Yet –and there’s the rub – that half century of progressives and planners instructing, encouraging and forcing farmers to “get big or get out,” resulted in a food supply that is superficially desirable: cheap, if not economical in a broader sense; plentiful, if unsustainable; and unencumbered, as long as I value consumer choice over other, more tangible, goods.

In a world stripped of context – which is no world at all, but an economist’s Cartesian plane – it’s the exchange resulting from desire and its satisfaction that matters.  Please understand me: I’m with Augustine on the importance of desire. The hard part, one that takes a lifetime – if not longer – of discipline, is placing desire in context, what Augustine called the Ordo Amoris, “the order of our loves.”

The fifty year farm bill advocated by, among others, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson , is an attempt to reclaim context for North American agriculture.   There’s no more tangible context than land, the soil in which our food is grown. “For 50 or 60 years,” Berry and Jackson write, “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.”

Remediating our offenses against the land may indeed be a revolutionary idea, but it hardly suggests an overall-clad proletarian vanguard waving copies of The Unsettling of America while cheering the removal of hapless urbanites to the Appalachian hills.   It reads to me more as a thoughtful call to the reordering of our loves, turning both V. I. Lenin and Earl Butts on their heads by asking “What is to be Undone?” while inviting the small farm out of economic exile and back into the conversation.

I have no illusions that such undoing will come – if it comes at all – without significant costs, more than just foregoing raspberries in winter.  It took fifty years to lay waste the family farm; it will take at least as many years of hard work for any new family farm network to re-emerge.  Implicit in that sentence is an awareness there’s no going back to what once was.  Old practices and habits may – make that must – be recovered, but recovery will happen in new contexts, take unprecedented forms.

I once heard Jeremy Beer (at least I think it was Jeremy) read a version of his essay, “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy,” during a panel presentation before a small audience.  During the subsequent question period, a woman said she liked some of Berry’s ideas but was appalled that he advocated a return to times and conditions of gross gender inequality, a reinstatement of oppressive patriarchy.  Beer and his fellow panelists asked, without success, for her to cite some source for her accusation.  I, at least, find no such statement in either Beer’s or Berry’s work.

It was another moment of talking past one another.  More importantly, I think, it was a failure of imagination on her part, an inability to see that recovery of traditional wisdom needn’t recapitulate old injustices.  Reclaiming the baby ought not require drinking the bathwater.  I’ve made similar errors myself, either by romanticizing tradition or rejecting it too broadly.  The past may be another country – don’t ask me to live there, please – but its inhabitants are at least as complex and contradictory as you and I.  What lessons they may teach deserve careful reception and thoughtful application.

The difficulty of re-envisioning the context and practices of one’s life through the lens of traditional wisdom reminds me of news industry comments in the aftermath of the Nickle Mines shootings, when Amish villagers visited and comforted the widow and parents of the man who executed their daughters in a one room schoolhouse.  Expressions of admiration and amazement from reporters and columnists were common. “Such forgiveness” they cried, without once exploring how the traditioned limits and habits of the Amish make forgiveness possible.

It takes far longer than a lifetime for a community to learn ways of transforming suffering without transmitting it.  While the talking heads played up the human interest story, they showed no interest in the sustained and costly human effort behind it.  Indeed, for most of us living in the world as we have made it, “such forgiveness,” is inconceivable; it would mean giving up too much.

Anything worthy of cultivation demands effort and renunciation, and the worthiest things are the costliest.  John Lennon to the contrary, peace, like forgiveness, requires much more than a chance. (Whatever his talents as a musician, Lennon’s “peacemaking,” such as his in-bed photo ops with Yoko Ono, consisted largely of exercises, no doubt well-intended, in sentimentality: safe, tarted-up lies standing in, however inadequately, for genuine experience.)  Communities cultivate peace and forgiveness through sustained effort across generations, through habits of the heart that proclaim, “this we esteem highly; we shall not do it’s opposite.”

Making peace with the earth, with the land and water from which we draw life, will likewise require the habits of generations if it is happen at all. Modernity’s relationship with the earth has not resembled an encounter between enemies so much as that of abuser and abused.  Abusive relationships rarely heal in a single generation.  Even among us, the abusers, such healing demands tangible restitution, face-to-face encounters, lives spent in actual neighborhoods, and more than a few arguments.  (The irony that I’m writing this for the disembodied wonderland of the Internet is not lost on me.)

It’s work worth doing. I know I can’t do it alone. I have my shovel ready.  Just tell me where to start digging.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Roger Bennett September 3, 2009 at 5:04 am

On the U.S. “feeding the world,” don’t ever forget how quickly we dropped that mantra for the vision of feeding our cars from the land.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 3, 2009 at 7:53 am

At my own blog I’ve been advocating for some time that the best way to promote localism is to shorten the distance between the farms and the cities, not by moving people but by improving the interaction and the trade channels between them. It’s my contention that the often-maligned suburbs are the best vehicle to do this. They play host to farmer’s markets, they have the elbow room and the labor to run co-op processing plants (a big need here in Kentucky for emerging industries like aquaculture). Suburbs also have a lot of people like myself who love the rural, hunt and fish in the rural, lend a hand to friends with farms, dream of owning a small farm ourselves, etc but are kept in the suburban periphery because we like city schools or have a job in the city and don’t want a 90 minute commute, or have a wife that doesn’t want to be that far away from the mall. We’re the ones who stand at the ready to help promote a better relationship, not just with food, but with cultural exchanges and a shortening of the communication gap. The Front Porch attitude has always struck me as a suburban one. It’s an envy of the rural with an appreciation of the gifts of the urban. Here in the suburbs of Louisville, that is an attitude I see on a regular basis. We appreciate what the city gives us. The arts, restaurants, nightlife, technology, but we find ourselves looking out to the state for our cultural heritage. ‘Southern charm with northern sensibilities’ is the way my city is often described. Another way I prefer would be ‘urban with an affinity for the rural’. Creating more places with that perspective is the best way to promote a localist agenda in my opinion.

avatar Weasly Pilgrim September 3, 2009 at 8:25 am

It takes far longer than a lifetime for a community to learn ways of transforming suffering without transmitting it.

It seems that it doesn’t take nearly as long for a community to forget how to transform suffering, though. Sustained affluence has a curiously numbing effect on a community in this regard, rendering deep changes in attitudes to suffering in something much less than a lifetime, changes which are very difficult to undo or even to moderate.

avatar Albert September 3, 2009 at 10:16 am

I say from experience that this particular issue of small-scale farming is going to be very controversial. What do you think of folks like Norman Borlaug who believe industrial-scale agriculture using chemical fertilizers is the only way to feed the current population?

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it’s better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That’s ridiculous. This shouldn’t even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have–the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues–and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it’s up to them to make that foolish decision. But there’s absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can’t tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it’s better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It’s a free society. But don’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That’s when this misinformation becomes destructive.

Is feeding ourselves compatible with small-scale farming? Can family farms use advances in agriculture technologies in good conscience, i.e. sustainably?

I genuinely don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s one that must be answered, one way or another.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 3, 2009 at 10:28 am

From Albert:

“Is feeding ourselves compatible with small-scale farming? Can family farms use advances in agriculture technologies in good conscience, i.e. sustainably?

I genuinely don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s one that must be answered, one way or another.”

Even small family farms use a lot of ‘commerical’ methods because they have to make a profit too. Where I see most of the organic stuff happening is on operations that cater to a very specific Whole Foods-type customer that will pay top dollar for these products. Organic farming is incredibly destructive to the land and has a very small yield. I think large-scale and comercial farming gets a bad rap. We’ve got to eat. Is there room for imrovement? Always. Can we move completely to local-only agriculture? Not in my opinion.

avatar Albert September 3, 2009 at 11:46 am

Thanks for your input, Mike at the Big Stick. I find it implausible that organic farming is “incredibly destructive” to the land, but I could be wrong. Regardless, I wonder whether Mr. Volck would agree with your sentiments.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 3, 2009 at 11:51 am

Albert,

Don’t take my word for it. Read this piece and tell me if you have the same opinion. Organic farming requires much deeper plowing resulting in erosion, etc.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 3, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Depopulate cities? This might be one of the more addled outcomes of agro-localism I’ve heard postulated.
Perhaps this might be what is accepted as planning logic in Zimbabwe but I would think we might be able to figure out a more prudent method here.

Depopulate suburban sprawl perhaps, that not really close and so no cigar nor even a thought of a cigar farrago that sought to create urb in rus but instead created mal-urb in anti-rus…a kind of purgatory where bearings are thrown out the window because who wants to arrive there in the first place? It is civilization turned into comic book. Don’t get me wrong, there is obviously much authentic life, worthy people and real love within the precincts of our suburbs but it exists in spite of the surroundings.

As to Big Stick Mike and his query about exclusivity of approach….exclusive approaches are never wise but there is something about the homicidally efficient nature of Industrialized agriculture that demands a serious and comprehensive accounting.

Not that mankind is of the comprehensively accounting temperament.

avatar Brian Volck September 3, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Gentlemen:

Your comments are appreciated, but remember that I’m a pediatrician, not an agronomist or (pardon the term) “soil scientist.” As I hoped to make clear, whatever might come of the agrarian vision will be at once traditional and new, but darned if I know what it that will look like.

Yes, Berry did write that the corporate division of farming into petroleum-dependent planting and waste-accumulating livestock operations was effectively “taking a solution and making two problems out of it.” However, I don’t recall him saying, THEREFORE, ALL farming MUST USE ONLY manure for fertilizer. He’s too supple a thinker, too practical a man to reduce matters to simplistic binaries.

To the degree I understand Berry’s analysis, he’s calling for greater attention to the effects of everything we do as we feed ourselves and others. Treating soil as a culture medium, readily and harmlessly altered by chemical additives in order to maximize yield of “food products,” is an dangerous abstraction. Fencerow to fencerow corn planting, for example, rapidly depletes soil, despite it’s short-term productivity. But that doesn’t mean the solution lies in tiny organic garden-boutiques touting their use of night soil. Similarly, concentrating livestock into such small quarters that only megadoses of antibiotics keep them from succumbing to epidemic disease has long term effects, such as the rapid development of resistance-conferring bacterial plasmids, we will soon run out of technological answers to. That said, I’m a pediatrician. When I use antibiotics I try to do so wisely, judiciously, sparingly.

The last time I spoke with Mr Berry, our conversation turned more on the development and use of perennials than manure. Wes Jackson’s Land Institute is similarly intrigued with perennials. (See the fifty year farm bill link in my post or google “Land Institute.”) Is the development of higher-yield perennials a technological advance or an organic one? I neither know nor care. What matters more to me is the Amish question, “How will this technology affect the community?” I suspect you and I will answer differently than an Old Order Amish farmer. I hope whatever answer we arrive at takes into account the effect on humanity across the globe as well. Still, the question is far more useful than determining if technology, in the abstract, is inherently good or bad. Nor are perennials the entire answer. This is, as always, a work in progress.

One more thought. For years, the approach to severe childhood malnutrition in developing countries was to admit such children to Nutritional Rehabilitation Units, where they would receive intensive nutritional support, often via IV, and heavily dependent on foreign assistance. By gathering these children, already ill-suited to fighting off bacteria, viruses and parasites, into one place, rapid spread of disease was almost guaranteed. Until the development of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTFs) such as Plumpy’nut, there seemed no way to avoid this. Now, using peanut preparations, often grown in the country where it will be used, these children can be re-fed to nutritional health at home or in dispersed living quarters. So.. there’s less epidemic disease, less reliance on foreign aid, and a market for locally-grown peanuts. Surprisingly, the developing world has almost none of the problems with severe peanut allergy supposedly rampant in the developed North.

Few, if any, saw RUTFs coming, but they revolutionized nutritional response to severe childhood malnutrition, and a few other realities as well. Was that a technological advance or an organic one? I don’t think it matters, as long as the children don’t starve.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 3, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I think much of the way the land is used is often dictated by the land itself. For example, here in Kentucky we don’t have the huge flat plains of the midwest. So when we do plant corn it’s in small patches and usually rotated yearly with soybeans. Our natural landscape of rolling hills and an overabundance of streams (KY has more navigable waterways that any state in the lower 48)naturally divide the landscape and facilitate a diversified agriculture system. It’s my sincere belief that the answer to the problems of industrial farming is not organics, but diversification. As consumers, we have to demand a greater variety of food stuffs, thus creating diversity in our farming by demand. The simplest way to view farming is that it is driven first and foremost by profit. If the public demands it and pays for it, the farmers will follow. But how do you get the public to start drinking goat milk, wearing wool clothing and demanding beef from rare European breeds of cows? Or how do you persuade the public to give up their corn-laden diets and move to other additives that are healthier and more environment friendly, but a lot less tastier on you table?

These are the questions I cannot answer. Culture is a mighty thing to try and shift with public policy.

avatar Jim September 4, 2009 at 2:04 pm

People defending the status quo, in this case conventional farming, often throw out a lot of disinformation to derail progress. Maybe just because they are simply not very well informed themselves. Research has already shown that organic crops contain higher levels of vitamins, trace minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids and lower levels of chemicals shown by research to cause heart disease and cancer among other things. This research is not new:http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/10587.php is an article written five years ago! complete with documentation. Not just prejudicial opinion-ation. Organic methods are not more highly destructive either. Deep plowing is not required for organic farming nor is it excluded from conventional farming – that’s a complete red herring. Saying that organic methods are more destructive to the land simply shows a complete lack of understanding of the methods required and their effects, not just on the soil, but on the living organisms that make up the soil. Dried out, hard packed, chemical laden, dusty soil does a terrible job of transferring nutrients. And don’t let the hard pack fool you, it will wash away quickly in a downpour or a flood. Any good organic farmer knows many methods for improving resistance to erosion, such as the use of cover crops, etc. I read the article linked by Mike above and found it lacking in real evidence to support the prejudiced opinions spouted. The writer views organic supporters as “agri-intellectuals,” presumably a bad thing. Perhaps that writer is just too intellectually lazy to pick up a book, read a scientific study or learn anything that might induce a change to his old habits. As to healthy alternatives being tasteless: Are you serious? Have you ever had the opportunity to grow your own vegetables and compare them to those from the supermarket? Does organic butter make your mouth water any less than conventionally produced butter? (Yet research shows that it is higher in omega 3 fatty acids – those are good for you btw). As for relocating people from urban areas – thats already happening naturally here in Cleveland. The people who are left behind are using the vacant land next door to start small urban farms. Imagine.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 6, 2009 at 10:32 am

It’s a pretty simple equation: if organic farming was cost effective it would be more widespread. But the impact on the land and the more expensive methods don’t seem to be supported by the public.

avatar davidxxz September 13, 2009 at 4:00 am

Your article is reaasuringly thoughtful.

I’m increasingly open to the idea that internet may be doing more harm than good, especially to local community which Wendell Berry writes about so beautifully, I imagine he would object to it because it makes globalism too easy.

Of course local community had to be pretty close to death for the net to explode the way it did.

I find even on localist sites people are usually babbling like drunks or getting into fights like drunks (that includes me).

Increasingly I’m only using the net for information , not “communing” or “converation”.

avatar Albert September 14, 2009 at 12:25 pm

It’s a pretty simple equation: if organic farming was cost effective it would be more widespread. But the impact on the land and the more expensive methods don’t seem to be supported by the public.

But it isn’t that simple. One could just as easily respond: if industrial farming were cost effective, it wouldn’t need the massive federal subsidies it enjoys now through legislation like the Farm bill. Until the subsidies are eliminated or otherwise accounted for, one would be hard pressed to persuasively argue for the effectiveness of methods made possible by those subsidies.

That was an interesting article you linked to. What about it did you find particularly persuasive? It seemed to me that his argument was “things are the way they are because it’s easier that way” and ignored completely the substance of critical arguments.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick September 15, 2009 at 10:25 am

Subsidies are meant to encourage production. They aren’t a supplement for a flawed business model. Farming is risky. If people don’t farm, we starve. Therefore the government creates incentives.

As for the article, the point of it, in my opinion, was to explain that the market is driving production methods. There isn’t a majority of people who want to pay the extra costs for organic food.

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