tractor, farm, economy, local economy, wendell berry
Well, we are all localists here, watching our national economy stagger and moan.  Is there any room for a conversation about local economies? What would a local economy mean?

One of the false notions Wendell Berry tries regularly to expose is the idea that we live in a service economy.  We in the U.S. have a service-heavy economy, yes, but services aren’t the fundamental sources of the livings we make.  To make a homely analogy, to say we live off of services is like saying I eat off a plate. I do, but that doesn’t mean I eat the plate.  The plate only serves the dinner, and I eat the dinner—if I wish to continue existing.  And so the service economy must itself be based on, and ought to serve, the real economy that lies behind it, what Mr. Berry calls the land economy.

The fact is that the service economy often exploits the land economy, the way a plate seldom exploits a chicken leg, and so my analogy breaks down.  But the land economy is the economy we really live from.  We can’t eat financial advice, or insurance, or increased computer capacity, any more than we can eat air.  As human animals we have to eat food and have clothing and shelter.  Whatever service may be offered to bring us those essentials, none of those essentials is itself a “service,” but is instead a concrete thing that one way or another comes out of the ground.

Yet we operate in this country as though the land economy were unimportant, unnecessary, and even an economic drag.  Experts and business executives of all sorts regularly make the argument that the United States should get out of the business of making shoes, or cars, or growing wheat, to concentrate more profitably on the services in which we so excel.  (In farming the most assured arguer of this is Stephen Blank, who is, of all things, an extension service economist in California at UC-Davis.  See his book, The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio.)  The assumption is that we will never have trouble obtaining from others the food or shoes we disdain to provide for ourselves.

That’s a rosy assumption.  A nation that is no longer making anything has put itself in the extremely vulnerable position of depending for essentials on farmers and fabricators who live far away, and who can hardly be expected to care much about distant consumers.  Such a nation also depends on an international transportation system that can be disrupted much more easily than anyone cares to imagine.  Yet if we can’t ship in our foreign food, we can’t eat it.  We live in a city that at any moment could be under siege.

Local economies have their own vulnerabilities.  Any local food economy is prey to the weather, for starters.  We had a bad drought in Kentucky just two years ago, and were we more dependent on locally produced food than we are, we might have had a hard time of it.  As it is, even in a (normally) well-watered and largely rural state such as mine, the bulk of our meat and produce comes from Florida, California, Mexico, and the slaughterhouses in the West.  And China is looming in the background.

Food insecurity as a technical term generally refers to the poor.  But the truth is that absent more vigorous local land economies in my state and yours, we are all food insecure.  We are just ignoring the fact.

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto.  She lives in her native Kentucky.


  1. It’s amazing how often this basic point goes unsaid, but some people do get it. One thinks of the Japanese who insist on protecting agriculture, and give an almost spiritual priority to consuming their own rice. Of course the Japanese remember starvation and blockade courtesy of the US Navy circa 1945. Will it take a similar blow to awaken us?

  2. Well said, Front Porcher Dalton. One of the problems brought on by cheap energy–which replaced human labor and intelligence on the land–is that it allowed us to know nothing about food but still be fed. Many of us eat in complete ignorance of the land economy–and ought to be required to eat plates instead of chicken legs until we do something about the shameful benightedness. You might say cheap energy has been the great enabler, that it has lead to such mischief as we find coming out of UC-Davis.

    And of course there’s other mischief, as when economists tell us not to worry about climate change because the only thing it will affect is agriculture, and agriculture accounts for so little of the GNP. Herman Daly has done a credible job of responding to this lunacy in “People, Patterns, and Philanthropy in Rural America” (a symposium featuring Daly, Wendell Berry, and Wes Jackson at the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center). An edited pdf transcript is available online. Here’s a taste of what Daly says:

    And if we do leave it to the economists, how does agriculture fare? Well, I’ll try to answer that with three quotations. The first is from the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, William Nordhaus: “Agriculture, that part of the economy that is sensitive to climate change, accounts for just three percent of national output. That means there is no way to get a very large effect on the US economy.” (Pause.) In case that went by too fast (laughter), what he’s saying is that climate change affects only agriculture. Agriculture is only three percent of GNP. Therefore, we don’t have to worry about climate change; it can’t hurt the economy.

    Well, maybe that’s just one person on a bad day. (Laughter.) Oxford economist Wilfred Beckerman, in his small 1995 book entitled Small Is Stupid: Blowing the Whistle on the Greens, also tells us that greenhouse gas-induced climate change is no worry because it affects only agriculture, and agriculture is only three percent of GNP. But he then goes on to elaborate a little bit. “Even if net output of agriculture fell by 50 percent by the end of next century, this is only a 1.5 percent cut in GNP.”

    And one final question [sic] from Thomas Schelling, former president of the American Economic Association and in 2005 a Nobel laureate: “In the developed world, hardly any component of the national income is affected by climate. Agriculture is practically the only sector of the economy affected by climate, and it contributes only a small percentage – three percent in the United States – of national income. If agricultural productivity were drastically reduced by climate change, the cost of living would rise by one or two percent, and at a time when per capita income would likely have doubled.”

    So there’s no need to worry, right?

    Well, it is not true that agriculture is the only climate-sensitive sector of the economy; just ask the insurance companies or the folks in New Orleans. But that’s not the error that concerns me. The error that concerns me is to treat the importance of agriculture as if it were measured by its percentage of GNP. Surely these distinguished economists all know about the law of diminishing marginal utility, consumer surplus, the fact that exchange value reflects marginal use value and not total use value, and so on. Presumably they also know that the demand for food in the aggregate is famously inelastic. So in the light of all of those things, it seems pretty obvious that the percentage of agriculture in GNP is not a constant of nature, and that in the event of a collapse of agriculture, it could increase enormously.

  3. I fear dual problems. We DO make nuclear weapons, and sufficient hunger could create a reason to use them. Feed us and we won’t nuke you.

    The second one is the stupidity of asymmetry. And the only issue I can think of disagreeing with Ron Paul on: MFN for China. We demand clean, safe factories. Insurance against hurting, much less maiming or killing a worker. Not dumping toxic waste into the river in back. There are parallel things in agriculture.

    But everything is politicized. If Brazil can produce ethanol more cheaply, let them, and let US farmers feed us. Instead, they burn 9 gallons of fossil fuel to produce 10 gallons of ethanol.

    We can make everything for ourselves – if the federal government would let us. Instead, through corporatist agreements like NAFTA they subsidize foreign companies (mainly through regulatory arbitrage) at the expense of US citizens.

    But everything depends on what happens in the future. And one can hope the Somali pirates will spread and increase the price of transoceanic shipping in the Pacific too. Or we need to charge for our “protection”, which was my first point.

  4. Considering “Land Economy,” we can also understand three dimensions of value – a “LAND Cube” – that Land represents:

    1. “Land And Natural-resource Distribution” (utility in efficient allocation of raw material & natural capital);
    2. “Location ANd Demographics” (Location values, Access to markets & services, Network effects & infrastructure, Demographic gravity & energy);
    3. “Limiting Assets of Natural Development” (Land and land-like phenomena, fundamental means of production that are the limiting factors of all other economic processes).

    We tend to compartmentalise all of these values as seperate, but all sets of these elements overlap the ownership and use of any parcel of physical land (although no. 3 also includes money, credit & cultural capital).

    Mr. Berry isn’t just talking about efficient allocation of natural resources of course, but about the social capital and demographic networks of vibrant communities; the unofficial “added value” of social infrastructure that runs with the land like a title deed.

  5. Most of this is way over my head, I just ask that God give grace and favor to the labors of my hands; bring snow and rain for irrigation of our land; bless the birthing of our stock; and please no grasshoppers this year. An interesting point Katherine Dalton makes that perhaps we are missing is,’what will we do when foreign nations hold us captive over food as they have done with oil’? We shutter and react to our dependancy on foreign oil but shrug at the idea of dependance on foreign food. Go figure. If I were a conspiracy advocate I would watch the huge global and national organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and how they are aquiring the lands that can serve as production of food, (nationally & globally). In many of our childrens classrooms their curriculum teaches that farmers rape and pillage the land. How does this stimulate the desire to localize food production. I hail the organizations who are trying to educate both children and we farmers in sustainable agriculture. We are turning the course of agriculture, but its more like turning a mac truck than a BMW.

  6. Mr. Berry makes two points pertinent to these replies. First, that we have to have a more honest accounting in which now-ignored costs are allocated against benefits. And second, that we stop regarding money as an end, and hence a sufficient thing in and of itself, instead of an instrument of exchange, a means of trade.

    I suggest we stage an eat-in, in which we dress up as prominent economists and economic writers and serve ourselves a meal of money. I volunteer to be Richard Florida (“The Rise of the Creative Class”)and to try eating change, but we need someone for dollars, and someone for Euros.

    I’m always glad to know whom I’m replying to, so I encourage everyone to use his or her real name. The connections we make on the web are tenuous enough as it is. Thanks.

  7. Half in jest but, I don’t give a rat’s patootie if the ill-termed “Global Warming” is true or not. The vigorous discussion regarding an up or down on this issue deflects attention away from the more fundamental fact that we have evolved way past the fundamental lesson of the mother Robin to her fledgelings: Defecate in your own nest at hazard to your own comfort.

    The British Art Museum at Yale has a sterling exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin. Given it is an art museum, a fine Louis Kahn one at that, the exhibit dwells heavily on how Darwin’s theories affected the development of art and society in his time. The exhibit includes a page from Darwin’s notebook where he first scratches out his dendritic “tree of life” concept but tempers it with a cryptic and humble “I Think” floating above the sketch like a cloud full of rain.

    What the exhibit ably conveys is the strong connection between aesthetics and science during earlier times. Men of science informed their scientific attempts at disinterested classification and documentation with a very interested form of aesthetic awareness. This generation of Americans seems to have embraced an extended deflation in the currency of aesthetics and that, as much as anything else is what we should be talking about now. Regardless of whether or not the ice will melt and Gotham sink below the waves, whatever small New England Town that might see Palm Trees or Spruce Muskeg appear on the horizon will be long buried under an ugly and degrading filth that is emblematic of the brutish louts we are fast becoming. We proudly wade knee-deep through the abattoir in search of a place to squat and defecate and still we argue about whether global warming is true or not.

    If we are to reconvene upon a proper course of life, we must work harder at reinvigorating a greater degree of aesthetic intelligence. Science without beauty is simply a better guillotine.

  8. Apropos of nothing,

    that doesn’t mean I eat the plate

    Where we went in the small ship the seaweed
    Parted and gave to us the murmuring shore
    And we made feast and in our secret need
    Devoured the very plates Aeneas bore:

    Where derelict you see through the low twilight
    The green coast that you, thunder-tossed, would win,
    Drop sail, and hastening to drink all night
    Eat dish and bowl–to take that sweet land in!

    Where we feasted and caroused on the sandless
    Pebbles, affecting our day of piracy,
    What prophecy of eaten plates could landless
    Wanderers fulfill by the ancient sea?

    We for that time might taste the famous age
    Eternal here yet hidden from our eyes
    When lust of power undid its stuffless rage;
    They, in a wineskin, bore earth’s paradise.

    –Allen Tate, The Mediterranean

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