Will Wendell Be Jailed?


Claremont, CA. Wendell Berry, writer and farmer and hero to the people, might move from the farmhouse to the big house.

Speaking at one of the USDA’s National Identification System (NAIS) “listening sessions,” Berry told the crowd that he would go to jail if the NAIS – the “animal ID” program – becomes law.

“I understand the principles of civil disobedience, from Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King,” he told the assembled USDA officials. “If you impose this program on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you’re going to have to send the police for me. I’m 75 years old. I’ve about completed my responsibilities to my family. I’ll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program – and I’ll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator.”

Electric words, for a decidedly nonelectric cause.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of the NAIS – and the massive opposition to it – because Jerry Salyer has already done that dirty deed, and with great panache. If you’re interested, you might also read descriptions of the NAIS offered by the USDA and NoNAIS.org, respectively.

Instead, I want to pick up on Berry’s language of “civil disobedience.” (So far, as far as my search of the archives can discern, not a single person has uttered those two words on Front Porch Republic.)

Civil disobedience, Hannah Arendt argued, is a particularly American tradition – part of a broader tradition of voluntary associations which are the “specifically American remedy for the failure of institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertain nature of the future.”

Reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of voluntary association – “the citizens who form the minority associate in order, first, to show their numerical strength and so to diminish the moral power of the majority” – Arendt saw the logic of civil disobedience.

While our shorthand descriptions of civil disobedience usually take the form of reference to specific individuals – think of how Berry invoked the singular figures of Throreau and King, or how I invoked the singular figure of Berry himself to begin this piece – Arendt emphasized that civil disobedience is properly understood as a communal activity.

“The civil disobedient is a member of a group,” she wrote, not an “individual lawbreaker.” Civil disobedience is the activity of “organized minorities” whose joint and public action allows them to be seen from afar.

It’s worth noting that the opposition to the NAIS began with little fanfare – no celebrity endorsement, no kick-off gala, no campaign fund, and certainly no corporate sponsor – about half a decade ago. Since then, the movement against mandatory animal identification has strengthened through organization – not to mention lots of relentless, principled speech from a lot of relentless, principled people.  (You can find some really inspired lines in two New York Times articles on the Animal ID program from 2006 and last week, respectively.)

Howard Dean has gotten lots of credit for being the grassroots guru of the internet millennium, but I think that award should in fact be shared by the many small farmers and activists who have opposed the NAIS from the beginning.  In only a few years, they have spurred broad awareness of and opposition to this program, though they are separated by vast distances and have lots of other things to do – like, you know, run farms.

Although many of the farmers opposing mandatory animal tagging speak in the language of self-interest – many small farmers are worried that the program will run them into bankruptcy – the opposition to the NAIS has been driven by deep political and communal commitments.

Berry’s recent words testify to that.  “I’m willing to go to jail to defend the young people who, I hope, will still have a possibility of becoming farmers on a small scale in this supposedly free country,” he told the crowd in Kentucky. In other words, Berry understands his willingness to go to jail not only on his own behalf – to keep his conscience clean, say – but also on behalf of others. That makes his a disobedience of the most civil sort.


  1. A Crushed Pabst Can and Yawp to the Starry Heavens for Wendell Berry. Half the Brezhnev era Politburo would blanche at the level of spectacular idiocy entrenched in much of the United States Department of Agriculture.

    We are experts at growing corn we are but beyond that, the curve verily plunges.

  2. I respect Berry’s dedication and his willingness to fight for a cause he believes in…but I must repeat that I am not on his side here. The program is both necessary and a good idea to protect consumers at a time when farmer’s markets and CSA programs are exploding across the country.

  3. No one has ever explained how NAIS will actually, you know, protect consumers. There are hand-waves aplenty about this or that fantastic application of technological wizardry and databases (always gotta have databases, the bigger the better) and how it will protect us from ourselves like any good government program should, but no one has ever explained to my satisfaction how chipping cattle does anything useful. None of the scenarios I’ve heard pass the “Which is more likely?” test. (e.g. Which is more likely? That an E. Coli contamination will be tracked back to the animal it came from, or that bad data in the system will cause the destruction of the wrong herd?)

    Of course, if you’re a NAIS supporter, you probably also think the TSA’s No-Fly list is actually effective. After all, it does prevent people from flying on occasion, so it must be effective. Of course, there is the small matter that these people tend to be innocent people, but hey, that’s the price of protecting us all from danger, right?

    And while I’m on my high horse, I would like to claim that I used the words “civil disobedience” on this here site, although it was in a comment. Does that count?

  4. Sure, Big Stick Mike, it’s “necessary.” Goodness gracious, however did we get on these 10 millenia in agriculture without being able to track, log and report every single livestock animal to the government?

  5. Mr. Pilgrim,

    Congrats! But did you ever do “civil disobedience?” And, getting arrested for drunken behavior at a frat party doesn’t count.

  6. Questioning my bona-fides, Mr. Cheeks? You are right to do so, since, among other things, I hide behind my semi-permeable pseudonym. I must admit that my civil disobedience is mostly theoretical. I grew up pacifist—in the Anabaptist sense—and my forebears bequeathed a rich heritage of civil disobedience to their descendants. You may argue over the merit of the principles they stood firm on, but they did stand firm, even in the face of great persecution.

    My own history of real civil disobedience is short and actual instances are limited to one, namely, that I traffic in The Great White Poison and encourage others to do so. I give actual cash to a local dairy farmer for milk direct from the cow sans processing of any sort. Said farmer is not permitted, inspected, NAIS’ed, organic, or any other buzzword. He is strictly conventional in his methods, but he is also: a.) local; and b.) struggling to keep the family farm under stagnant milk prices and increasing costs. There is a slowly growing group of us black-market buyers who support him, but the truth of the matter is it may not be enough. And if he gets caught, it will probably be the end of the farm.

    So, am I actually being disobedient? Or am I just an enabler, participating in a more-or-less risk-free (to me) delusion of rebellion? I would like to think that when push comes to shove, and I need to adhere to principle in the face of real risk, I will be able to do so. But inevitably, there are a host of factors that make this an uncertain thing, among them that I have a young family for whom I have responsibility. That uncertainty frightens me, to be honest, because as I see things, there will come a point in the near future when I will be called upon to make an irrevocable decision to obey or to stand on principle, a decision fraught with risk to myself and to those around me whom I love. Whether that moment of truth will come in the context of homeschooling or in ratification of the UNCRC or the implementation of NAIS or even just in having chickens in my backyard without getting permission, I don’t know. That I and the authorities are in for a conflict is a virtual certainty. Whether that conflict will be conducted within or without the law is an open question at this point.

  7. Mr. P,
    Much impressed with your CV. Yes, you are a rebel, uniquely American and properly unrepentent. I much admire the AnaB’s, have some Mennonite, Amish friends. Years ago in Tiffin, Ohio we got our milk, fresh from a farmer that had served jail time for refusing to pay fed taxes…helped him put a birth-bag back in Old Bessie…loved that American hero.
    And, yes be careful, you gotta get the babies raised and balance that with the yearning for freedom….good luck with that.
    Glad to make your acquaintance.

  8. I’m not one of these people who like to bash on the FDA. All I need to see is the number of mad cow cases in other countries verses the U.S. to know they are doing something correctly.

    Yes, we need the ability to track animals. I’ve seen guys selling freshly-butchered poultry out of a cooler in the back of a pickup truck at farmer’s markets. I’m not questioning the safety of the meat, but I would like to know the government can easily trace the source if someone comes up sick.

    As I said earlier, we all license our pets (or at least we’re supposed to). This is no different and I don’t understand why it would need to be any more expensive or complicated than the process thousands of towns use to track cats and dogs.

  9. Mike: As I understand it, NAIS doesn’t track the source of end-product (meat sold at farmer’s markets, for instance). Obviously, the chip is discarded at butchering time, and the flow of meat beyond that point is traced via the usual methods. My example above, re: E. Coli is actually erroneous—I blame the heat of composition. NAIS is designed to track animal diseases, like BSE, bovine tuberculosis and so forth. Supposedly, it is to give the USDA a means to more quickly trace an animal disease outbreak and therefore move more quickly to prevent it. So NAIS will do absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of the meat you eat. NAIS is all about the safety of the herds, mainly the sick, disease-prone, centralized herds at the CAFOs to be specific. So, in your farmers market scenario, you err. NAIS won’t help you find the source of infected chicken. Plain old epidemiology is the only tool you have there.

    Pet licensing is nothing like NAIS. The primary purpose of pet licensing is to ensure that pets are vaccinated against rabies, and its secondary purpose is to raise a little revenue. Pets aren’t tracked in any real sense other than to verify that the owner has paid the requisite license fee for a years supply of license compliance. It is basically an inspection regime, which we already have in the meat world (and its plain how well that works…)

    NAIS, presuming it actually gets implemented and actually works, may or may not work to speed up detection and containment of animal epidemics. Huge databases of any kind are generally full of useless and just flat wrong information, especially databases whose content comes from direct update by users (witness the craptacular accuracy of credit reporting databases for instance), so I am extremely pessimistic on that count. And it seems to me a solution in search of a problem. It turns capability into imperative—since we can do it, we must do it. I argue the proper way to view it is: just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it. But beyond that, the further institutionalization of a system of centralized industrialized agriculture that is utterly broken just infuriates me. Especially when it is coupled with the arrogance and tone-deafness of the powers that be to the very real concerns of people on the ground. You know, the ones who have to put up with the requirements of the program and who will have to bear the bulk of the cost?

  10. I can’t take a deer I killed myself to a local processor without a check number. Then if I want to have that meat processed a second time (I use a second butcher to have it made into sausage, bacon, etc) then I have to give them that same number that is also now linked to the first butcher. They know when the deer was killed, what county, etc. And this, mind you, is meat that is only for myself and my family, not for sale.

    If NAIS isn’t an effective program for tracking meat grown in small herd and then sold then we need a system that IS effective. But simply saying it’s unnecessary to monitor small agricultural operations when farm markets are proliferating like crazy is, well, crazy.

  11. Mike – I might appreciate your points if I agreed with the underlying assumption that the feds actually are interested in protecting us carnivores. But just the thought that we have to be protected from farmers market and CSAs but not from the FDA and the Monsanto and Smithyfield goons that run it is clue number one that this is not about consumer protection.

  12. What is it called when a prosecutor refuses to enforce totalitarian laws passed by bureaucratic busy-body do-gooders that break the back of hard won liberty?

    Ummm… civil servant disobedience?

  13. In other words, Berry understands his willingness to go to jail not only on his own behalf – to keep his conscience clean, say – but also on behalf of others. That makes his a disobedience of the most civil sort.

    To get back to dealing directly with the post we’re attaching our comments to, I think the conclusion quoted above is key. When there is significant shear between the laws enacted by our governments and the commonsense understanding of the governed, disobedience becomes civil disobedience.

    Bureaucracy thrives on apathy; it is beaten back by force. Joel Salatin makes the observation in Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal that if people make trouble for bureaucratic do-gooders, increasing the friction encountered as the ‘crats try to do their jobs, then they tend to back off. The key is reaching that critical mass of resisters where the friction overcomes the inertia of the bureaucracy. This is a hard mass to reach in our bread-and-circuses culture.

  14. Caleb, I believe it is called “the end of a political career in the Justice Dept.” but the start , likely …..of something more gooder.

    You know if we would all just assume our dutiful positions in the maw of the Great Hall Of Regulatory Box Checkers and ate algae byproduct produced in Carbon Sequestration and Biofuels Production instead of these pesky animals, things sure would be more ordered and modern and sweller.

    Standardized food is a gateway drug to something not yet invented but sure to come in the fullness of the Bureaucrats Timeline.

  15. Oh the less-than-delicious irony of big-shouldered Chicago, stockyards of record having within it a University producing not only a neo-con mecca of sorts but a cheering section for this feed called “in vitro meat”. Let us hope this madness does not creep down Route 61 toward the juke joints and smoky bbq’s of the Delta.

  16. My sister and her husband have had a herd of beautiful grass-fed Polled Herefords most all with pedigrees. The herd began in the ’60s as a 4-H project. They know the 200+ individuals by there cute little faces. NAIS is more about totalitarian gubmint, agri-business and massive feedlots. Bah.

  17. I believe the serious answer to Mr. Stegall’s question is “interposition.” Normally it’s only applied vis-a-vis the Kentucky & Virginia Resolutions, but I have seen it used to describe local officials positioning themselves (and their careers) between what they regard as a manifestly unjust law and its targets.

    Great piece on a timely topic. Personally I’m doubtful that the Big Shots are quite stupid enough at this juncture to take on as strong-willed, well-known, and perceptive an individual as Mr. Berry.

    They would much prefer to go after those who are confused, unsure of themselves, and anonymous — in incidents nobody will ever hear or care about. Apropos of Mr. Pilgrim’s last comment, one way of looking at it is a question of bureaucratic inertia vs. spirited friction.

    Another way of looking at it is that like all bullies, they only pick on those whom they regard as weak.

  18. Mr. Salyer, exactly right! Congratulations, you win today’s blue ribbon.

    Interposition is a subject worthy of its own discussion. Perhaps I will take it up in a future post.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version