I learned tonight, courtesy of American Media’s Marketplace, that there is a letter-writing campaign currently afoot protesting the organic garden that was planted and is tended by Mrs. Obama.  The campaign’s proponent is “CropLife” – an agricultural “media group” whose main mission, it seems, is the promotion of pesticides –  which back in March wrote this letter objecting to the implicit disapproval of industrial and chemical farming by the official sanction of an organic vegetable garden at the White House.  (A recent story in the Washington Post – pointing out that the Obama’s restaurant choices have further signaled support for sustainable agriculture – must have the folks at CropLife ready to snort some of those pesticides).

These sentences from CropLife’s letter were particularly noteworthy:

Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today. If Americans were still required to farm to support their family’s basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation, and the arts?

 [“Transportation”?  Really? Good thing they didn’t include finance on this list.  But it does raise questions about the legitimacy of the overall claim, doesn’t it…]

We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family’s year-round food need

On the one hand, it seems, our “liberation” from the farm has permitted us unparalleled freedom to develop advances in every area of life.  On the other hand, it seems, we are so damned busy in our liberated lifestyles – “juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents” – that there just isn’t time to tend even a family garden, even if one wanted to.  The beautiful chains that adorn us all – from commuters to soccer moms – freed from the necessity of farming, yet having no time to garden!

I compare these sentiments to a several passages written in 1853 by Henry Lester, a Vermont farmer.   The essay is entitled  “Man Made For Agriculture” and won the award of “Premium Essay” at the Rutland County Fair of that year.  It is reproduced as an appendix of a fine book written by Professor Charles Fish – a person of long acquaintance, but whom I have not seen in some time, alas – entitled In Good Hands: The Keeping of a Family Farm.  (Read a wonderful review of Fish’s book by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, here. Carey introduced me to Charles Fish more years ago than I can count, half-appropriately enough at the New England Political Science conference). Just over a century and a half ago, Henry Lester wrote,

“To make a man long-lived, it is necessary that he should have pure air, pure water, wholesome food used in reasonable quantities, a regular systematic diet and habits, temperance in all things, be cheerful and contented with his occupation, rise early and be industrious, and never complain of his hard lot, his poor occupation.  In fine he must not sigh for the fleshpots of Egypt.  He must [be] thankful that the supreme being created him and ordained him for an agriculturalist, placed him on goodly soil in a good country, surrounded by a good society of his fellows in genial clime where hill, dale, and mountain forest, the grasses, fruit and grains make the scenery both desirable and beautiful….

“Young men and maidens, agriculture is your most safe employment, the most sure of competence, long life, and happiness.  But few fail that pursue this with alacrity, when in the mercantile and other professions, but few are prospered, and those few mostly, whether statesmen, jurists, or merchant princes, retire at last to agriculture that their last days be serene and happy.  Again, agriculture not only being the most useful, healthful, and independent occupation, tends more than any other to lead the mind to religion, morality, and virtue, and make man feel and act towards his fellow man like the good Samaritan, and how few educated in the rural districts in schools and high schools and learn and follow the agricultural profession through their minority, fall into vicious habits and are [a] curse to themselves and community thereafter….

“Further, the agriculturalist, raising most things for their own use and for the support of all, is the most independent class.  They have the creator’s promise that seedtime and harvest shall not fail.  They are the grand conservators of freedom and democracy throughout the world.  On their will rests the continuance of this republic. “

Yes, one can only marvel at CropLife’s claims that we have gained so much in leaving the land – that great freedom to juggle jobs and burdened with children and old people whose care many seek to farm out to low-paid labor.  Thank goodness we are all so “free.”

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  1. “The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens”

    This seems like a dubious claim. Most Americans have a significant amount of time they choose to spend on various things – such as watching television for an hour or two a day.

  2. Anthony,
    I guess TV-watching is one of those extraordinary modern achievements to which CropLife is referring when speaking of advancements in “communication.” Or, maybe that’s “education.” Yes, we have gained so much over our primitive forbears…

    By the way, in this latter vein, I didn’t include some subsequent lines in Henry Lester’s essay that will resonate in particular with Caleb Stegall:

    “A man’s education must not be measured by the years of common school attendance, the length of his academic course, or the size of his college diploma [!!]. The two first are useful when young to give him an introduction to a habit, a desire to learn in his leisure moments that may grow with his growth and strengthen with his strength until mature in years he will be found to possess much useful knowledge. It is folly to suppose that a few years at our institutions of learning alone will make a man deeply read [AMEN!]. The collegiate course is almost sure to spoil a man for an agriculturalist, a merchant, any useful mechanical trade or profession that requires manual labor. Six years of youth spent, and one-half that is studied that will never be in the least beneficial or practical for use. In these six years, he will have contracted the habit of idleness, of a superiority to others not pursuing the same course, and practically reversing the order laid down by the God of nature who said that the day was made for labor, the night for repose.”

    Considering how our “busy” lives are spent today, from youth to senescence, one is tempted to say that we have gotten dumber as a people as we have gotten more “schooled.” Dumb enough that many would buy the arguments of the “CropLife” gang…

  3. This is rich…..The Corporate Office no doubt spent somewhere north of $20,000.00 concocting, reviewing, vetting, editing, focus grouping and conferring with lobbyist on the letter before submitting it, thus making them look like utter morons for wringing their hands over a small garden plot at the White House or where the First Couple might dine.

    But, perhaps they are right. As the Chief Executive of the great Agricultural Complex of Corn marching to yon horizon or multi-injected beef “finishing” on their dirt mounds, the President should be happy to support a combine or two on the front greensward, perhaps 13 tons of erosion a year into the Potomac and maybe a crop duster or two buzzing the garden and hazarding a Stinger Missile response from the Department of Hapless Security.

    No doubt CropLife’s Corporate Manual has a detailed section on how “Green” they are and it likely reads almost as full of comic relief as their letter.

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