Sierra Magazine

For Love of the Land

A farmer and conservationist is tired of being on two losing sides.

By Wendell Berry

I am a conservationist and a farmer, a wilderness advocate and an agrarian. I am in favor of the world's wildness, not only because I like it, but also because I think it is necessary to the world's life and to our own. For the same reason, I want to preserve the natural health and integrity of the world's economic landscapes, which is to say that I want the world's farmers, ranchers, and foresters to live in stable, locally adapted, resource-preserving communities, and I want them to thrive.

One thing that means is that I have spent my life on two losing sides. As long as I have been conscious, the great causes of agrarianism and conservation, despite local victories, have suffered an accumulation of losses, some of them probably irreparable-while the third side, that of the land-exploiting corporations, has appeared to grow ever richer. I say "appeared" because I think their wealth is illusory. Their capitalism is based, finally, not on the resources of nature, which it is recklessly destroying, but on fantasy. Not long ago I heard an economist say, "If the consumer ever stops living beyond his means, we'll have a recession." And so the two sides of nature and the rural communities are being defeated by a third side that will eventually be found to have defeated itself.

Perhaps to survive its inherent absurdity, the third side is asserting its power as never before: by its control of politics and the news media; by its dominance of science; and by biotechnology, which it is commercializing with unprecedented haste and aggression in order to control totally the world's land-using economies and its food supply. This massive ascendancy of corporate power over democratic process is probably the most ominous development since the start of the Civil War, and for the most part the "free world" seems to be regarding it as merely normal.

My sorrow in having been for so long on two losing sides has been compounded by knowing that those two sides have been in conflict, not only with their common enemy, but also, and by now almost conventionally, with each other. And I am further aggrieved in understanding that everybody on my two sides is deeply implicated in the sins and in the fate of the self-destructive third side.

As a part of my own effort to think better, I decided not long ago that I would not endorse any more wilderness-preservation projects that do not seek also to improve the health of the surrounding economic landscapes and human communities. Whatever its difficulties, my decision to cooperate no longer in the separation of the wild and the domestic has helped me see more clearly the compatibility and even the coherence of my two allegiances. The dualism of domestic and wild is, after all, misleading. It has obscured for us the domesticity of the wild creatures. More important, it has obscured the absolute dependence of human domesticity upon the wildness that supports it and in fact permeates it. In suffering the now-common accusation that humankind is "anthropocentric" (ugly word), we forget that the wild sheep and the wild wolves are respectively ovicentric and lupocentric. The world, we may say, is wild, and all the creatures are home-makers within it, practicing domesticity: mating, raising young, seeking food and comfort. Likewise, though the wild sheep and the farm-bred sheep are in some ways unlike in their domesticities, we forget too easily that if the "domestic" sheep becomes too unwild, as some occasionally do, they become uneconomic and useless: They have reproductive problems, conformation problems, and so on. Domesticity and wildness are in fact intimately connected. What is utterly alien to both is corporate industrialism-a dislocated economic life that is without affection for the places where it is lived and without respect for the materials it uses.

The question we must deal with is not whether the domestic and the wild are separate or can be separated; it is how, in the human economy, their indissoluble and necessary connection can be properly maintained. But to say that wildness and domesticity are not separate, and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for the proper maintenance of their relationship, is to come under a heavy responsibility to be practical. I have two thoroughly practical questions on my mind. The first is: Why should conservationists have a positive interest in, for example, farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can't be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to assume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their other concerns for the welfare of nature.

Do conservationists, then, wish to eat well or poorly? Would they like their food supply to be secure from one year to the next? Would they like their food to be free of poisons, antibiotics, alien genes, and other contaminants? Would they like a significant portion of it to be fresh? Would they like it to come to them at the lowest possible ecological cost? Such questions, if responsibly asked and answered, will influence production, will influence land use, will determine the configuration and the health of landscapes. If conservationists are willing to eat whatever the supermarket provides and the government allows, they are giving economic support to all-out industrial food production: to the animal factories; to the depletion of rivers and aquifers; to crop monocultures and the consequent losses of biological and genetic diversity; to the pollution, toxicity, and overmedication that are the inevitable accompaniments; to a food system based on long-distance transport and the resulting waste of petroleum and the spread of pests and diseases; and to the transformation of the countryside into ever-larger farms and ever-larger fields receiving always less human affection and human care. But if conservationists are willing to insist on having the best food, produced in the best way, as close to their homes as possible, and if they are willing to learn to judge the quality of food and food production, then they are going to give economic support to an entirely different kind of land use in an entirely different landscape. This landscape will have a higher ratio of caretakers to acres, of care to use. It will be at once more domestic and more wild than the industrial landscape. Can increasing the number of farms and farmers in an agricultural landscape enhance the quality of that landscape as wildlife habitat? Can it increase what we might call the wilderness value of that landscape? It can, and the determining factor would be diversity. Don't forget we are talking about a landscape that is changing in response to an increase in consumer demand for local food. Imagine a modern agricultural landscape devoted mainly to corn and soybeans and to animal factories. And then imagine its neighboring city developing a demand for good, locally grown food. To meet that demand, local farming would have to diversify.

If that demand is serious, and if it is taken seriously, if it comes from informed and permanently committed consumers, if it promises the necessary economic support to farmers, then that radically oversimplified landscape will change. The crop monocultures and animal factories will give way to the mixed farming of plants and animals. Pastured flocks and herds of meat animals, dairy herds, and poultry flocks will return, requiring, of course, pastures and hay fields. If the urban consumers would extend their competent concern for the farming economy to include the forest economy and its diversity of products, that would improve the quality and care, and increase the acreage, of farm woodlands. And we should not forget the possibility that farmers might, for their own instruction and pleasure, preserve patches of woodland unused. As the meadows and woodlands flourished in the landscape, so would the wild birds and animals. The acres devoted to corn and soybeans, grown principally as livestock feed or as raw materials for industry, would diminish in favor of the fruits and vegetables required by human dinner tables.

As the acreage under perennial cover increased, soil erosion would decrease and the water-holding capacity of the soil would increase. Creeks and rivers would grow cleaner and their flow more constant. As farms diversified, they would tend to become smaller; the landscape would acquire more owners. As the number of farmers and the diversity of their farms increased, the toxicity of agriculture would decrease-because less and less chemical poison would be used to replace labor and to defray the biological costs of monoculture. As food production became decentralized, animal wastes would be dispersed, and would be absorbed and retained in the soil as nutrients rather than flowing away as wasted nutrients and as pollution. The details of such a transformation could be elaborated almost endlessly. To make short work of it here, we could just say that a dangerously oversimplified landscape would become healthfully complex, both economically and ecologically.

Since we are talking about a city that would be living in large measure from its local fields and forests, we are talking also about a local economy of small, decentralized, nonpolluting, value-adding factories and shops that would be scaled to fit into the landscape with the least ecological or social disruption. And thus we can also credit to this economy an increase in independent small businesses and in self-employment, and a decrease in the combustible fuel needed for transportation and (I believe) for production.

Such an economy is technically possible, there can be no doubt of that; we have the necessary methods and equipment. The capacity of nature to accommodate, and even to cooperate in, such an economy is also undoubtable; we have the necessary historical examples from many parts of the world. The surviving or remembered Indian agricultures of North America are instructive; so are surviving white American traditional practices such as those of the Amish. And proven new ways are coming into use. This is not, from nature's point of view, a pipe dream.

What is doubtable, or at least unproven, is the capacity of modern humans to choose, make, and maintain such an economy. For at least half a century we have taken for granted that the methods of farming could safely be determined by the mechanisms of industry, and that the economies of farming could safely be determined by the economic interests of industrial corporations. We are now running rapidly to the end of that assumption. The social, ecological, and even economic costs have already become too great, and they are still increasing, all over the world.

Now we must try to envision an agriculture founded not on mechanical principles, but on the principles of biology. Sixty years ago Sir Albert Howard, the pioneer of modern organic farming, and, more recently, the Kansas agricultural reformer Wes Jackson, argued for such a change in standards. If you want to farm sustainably, they have told us, then you have got to make your farming conform to the natural laws that govern the local ecosystem. You have got to farm with both plants and animals in as great a diversity as possible, you have got to conserve fertility, recycle wastes, keep the ground covered, and so on. Or, as the economic geographer J. Russell Smith put it 70 years ago, you have got to "fit the farming to the farm"-not to the available technology or the market, as important as those considerations are, but to the farm. It is necessary, in short, to maintain a proper connection between the domestic and the wild. The paramount standard by which the work is to be judged is the health of the place where the work is done.

The urgent point is that this is not a transformation that we can just drift into, as we drift in and out of fashions, and it is not one that we should wait to be forced into by large-scale ecological breakdown. It won't happen if a lot of people-consumers and producers, city people and country people, conservationists and land users-don't get together deliberately to make it happen.

Those are some of the reasons conservationists should take an interest in farming and make common cause with good farmers. Now I must get on to the second of my practical questions.

Why should farmers be conservationists? Or maybe I had better ask why are good farmers conservationists? The farmer lives and works in the meeting place of nature and the human economy, the place where the need for conservation is most obvious and most urgent. Farmers either fit their farming to their farms, conform to the laws of nature, and keep the natural powers and services intact-or they do not. If they do not, then they increase the ecological deficit being charged to the future. (And I had better admit that some farmers do increase the ecological deficit. But they are not the farmers I am talking about. I am not asking conservationists to support destructive ways of farming.)

Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land's inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.

All that is what farmers ought to do. But since our present society's first standard in all things is profit and it loves to dwell on "economic reality," I can't resist a glance at these good farmers in their economic circumstances, because these farmers will be poorly paid for the goods they produce, and for the services they render to conservation they will not be paid at all. Good farmers today may market products of high quality and perform well all the services I have listed, and still be unable to afford health insurance, and still find themselves mercilessly caricatured in the public media as rural simpletons, hicks, or rednecks. And then they hear the voices of the "economic realists": "Get big or get out. Sell out and go to town. Adapt or die." We have had 50 years of such realism in agriculture, and the result has been more and more large-scale monocultures and factory farms, with their ever larger social and ecological-and ultimately economic-costs.

Why do good farmers farm well for poor pay and work as good stewards of nature for no pay, many of them, moreover, having no hope that their farms will be farmed by their children (for the reasons given) or that they will be farmed by anybody?

Well, I was raised by farmers, have farmed myself, and have in turn raised two farmers-which suggests to me that I may know something about farmers, and also that I don't know very much. But over the years I, along with a lot of other people, have wondered, Why do they do it? Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love. Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and do work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide. I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone to a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed, to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.

And so the first thing farmers as conservationists must try to conserve is their love of farming and their love of independence. Of course they can conserve these things only by handing them down, by passing them on to their children, or to somebody's children. Perhaps the most urgent task for all of us who want to eat well and to keep eating is to encourage farm-raised children to take up farming. And we must recognize that this only can be done when the economics are fair. Farm children are not encouraged by watching their parents take their crops to market only to have them stolen at prices less than the cost of production.

But farmers are obviously responsible for conserving much more than agrarian skills and attitudes. I have already told why farmers should be, as much as any conservationist, conservers of the wildness of the world-and that is their inescapable dependence on nature. Good farmers, I believe, recognize a difference that is fundamental between what is natural and what is manmade. They know that if you treat a farm as a factory and living creatures as machines, or if you tolerate the idea of "engineering" organisms, then you are on your way to something destructive and, sooner or later, expensive. To treat creatures as machines is an error with large practical implications.

Good farmers know too that nature can be an economic ally. As Sir Albert Howard and Wes Jackson have told us, nature's way of preserving the health and fertility of the soil is the only correct model for agriculture. And nature works cheap. Natural fertility is cheaper-often in the short run, always in the long run-than purchased fertility. Natural health, inbred and nurtured, is cheaper than pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Solar energy-if you know how to capture and use it: in grass, say, and the bodies of work animals-is cheaper than petroleum. The highly industrialized factory farm is entirely dependent on "purchased inputs." The agrarian farm, well-integrated into the natural systems that support it, allied with nature, runs to an economically significant extent on resources and supplies that are free.

Are we to suppose, then, that good farmers are interested in the natural world only for reasons that are utilitarian or economic? I don't think so. I think we must go on a little further.

It is now commonly assumed that when humans took to agriculture they gave up hunting and gathering. But hunting and gathering remained until recently an integral and lively part of my own region's traditional farming life. People hunted for wild game; they fished the ponds and streams; they gathered wild greens in the spring, hickory nuts and walnuts in the fall; they picked wild berries and other fruits; they prospected for wild honey. There is no denying the fact that these activities contributed to the economy of farm households, but a further fact is that they were pleasures; they were wilderness pleasures, not greatly different from the pleasures pursued by conservationists and wilderness lovers. Most of the farmers I have known, and certainly the most interesting ones, have had the capacity to ramble about outdoors for the mere happiness of it, alert to the doings of the creatures, amused by the sight of a fox catching grasshoppers or by the puzzle of wild tracks in the snow.

As the countryside has been depopulated and the remaining farmers have come under greater stress, these wilderness pleasures have fallen away. But they have not yet been altogether abandoned; they represent something probably essential to the character of the best farming, and they should be remembered and revived.Those, then, are some reasons why good farmers are conservationists, and why all farmers ought to be.

What I have been trying to do is define a congruity or community of interest between farmers and conservationists who are not farmers. To name the interests that these two groups have in common, and to observe, as I did at the beginning, that they also have common enemies, is to raise a question that is becoming increasingly urgent: Why don't the two groups publicly and forcefully agree on the things they agree on, and make in good faith an effort to cooperate?

I don't mean to belittle their disagreements, which I acknowledge to be important. Nevertheless, cooperation is now necessary, and it is possible. If Kentucky tobacco farmers can meet with antismoking groups, draw up a set of "core principles" to which they all agree, and then support one another, then something of the sort could happen between conservationists and certain land-using enterprises: family farms and ranches; small-scale, locally owned forestry and forest-products industries; and perhaps others. Something of the sort, in fact, is beginning to happen, but so far the efforts are too small and too scattered. The larger organizations on both sides need to take an interest and get involved.

If these two sides, which need to cooperate, have so far been at odds, what is the problem? The problem, I think, is economic. The small land-users, on the one hand, are struggling so hard to survive in the money economy controlled by the corporations that they are distracted from their own economy's actual basis in nature. They also have not paid enough attention to the difference between their always-threatened local economies and the always-thriving corporate economy that is exploiting them.

On the other hand, the mostly urban conservationists, who mostly are ignorant of the economic adversities of, say, family-scale farming or ranching, have paid far too little attention to the connection between their economic life and the despoliation of nature. They have trouble seeing that the bad farming and forestry practices that they oppose are done on their behalf, and with their consent implied in the economic proxies they have given as consumers.

These clearly are serious problems. Both of them indicate that the industrial economy is not a true description of economic reality, and moreover that this economy has been wonderfully successful in getting its falsehoods believed. Too many land users and too many conservationists seem to have accepted the doctrine that the availability of goods is determined by the availability of cash, or credit, and by the market. In other words, they have accepted the idea always implicit in the arguments of the land-exploiting corporations: that there can be, and that there is, a safe disconnection between economy and ecology, between human domesticity and the wild world. Industrializing farmers have too-readily assumed that the nature of their land could safely be subordinated to the capability of their technology, and that conservation could safely be left to conservationists. Conservationists have too-readily assumed that the integrity of the natural world could be preserved mainly by preserving tracts of wilderness, and that the nature and nurture of the economic landscapes could safely be left to agribusiness, the timber industry, debt-ridden farmers and ranchers, and migrant laborers.

To me, it appears that these two sides are as divided as they are because each is clinging to its own version of a common economic error. How can this be corrected? I don't think it can, so long as each side remains closed up in its own conversation. I think the two sides need to enter into one conversation. They have got to talk to one another. Conservationists have got to know and deal competently with the methods and economics of land use. Land users have got to recognize the urgency, even the economic urgency, of the requirements of conservation.

Failing this, these two sides will simply concede an easy victory to their common enemy, the third side, the corporate totalitarianism that is now rapidly consolidating as the "global economy," and that will utterly dominate both the natural world and its human communities.

Wendell Berry, author of The Unsettling of America (Sierra Club Books, 1996), is a writer who farms in Henry County, Kentucky, where both his children and five grandchildren also farm.

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