I recently read Wendell Berry’s book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Written in 1977, the book criticizes the dominant strain of thinking about agriculture at the time, the drive towards profitable agribusiness by the USDA. Berry contrasts “agribusiness” with agricultural practices on the “margins” (for example those practiced by the Amish and indigenous potato farmers in the Andes), heavily favoring the latter while mourning and lampooning the shift towards the former. He connects this agricultural shift to cultural shifts in marriage, health, democracy, and others, stressing rightly that all culture builds upon agriculture.
Two of Berry’s ideas are worth building upon here today. The first is the way the Amish relate to technology. Berry rightly points out most Americans assume that new technology is good. This is true with agriculture and culture. Most people assume a bigger tractor is better than a horse and plow; most people also assume the world is better with the Internet, for example. The Amish have done a remarkable job of creating a culture that pauses to consider new technologies. Do we really want to integrate this into our community?
As a result, they still plow their fields with animals. It is known that this is better for the earth than using a tractor because heavy machinery compacts the soil, diminishing aeration. I suggest that the technique offers farmers a chance to do something spiritually moving: learn to work together with a horse or mule. To get to know their animal, to watch it live and die. This practice also puts the farmer closer to the action. She can observe the process as it’s happening and pleasantly get to know her soil. The tractor driver, on the other hand, merely presses the gas pedal. I’m having trouble articulating my feelings on the subject, but I suggest asking yourself who will feel better at the end of the day: horse user or tractor user? How about this question: have you ever thought you’d be less anxious without your cell phone? Many people do leave theirs off on vacation.
Having touched the issue of technology, I’ll move onto my second topic, revolving out from Berry’s discussion of agriculture and democracy. He draws heavily from Thomas Jefferson here. The idea is that self-sufficient farmers are beholden to nobody, and are therefore independent from government. They do not need anything from government, so they can criticize it openly and strongly. This is important to make sure government doesn’t impacting many people negatively, or restrict freedoms. Therefore, Berry suggests, democracy is weakened as family farms batten their hatches and sell to wealthier, consolidating owners.
There is a connection to be made between the concentration of ownership of wealth and land we have today and the problems with hunger and poverty and the seeming ineffectiveness of government to solve these problems. Are we due for a global land reform movement, that would give small parcels of land to the poor, in the hopes they could learn to manage the land productively? I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish…feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish…feed him for a lifetime. It is beyond my current means to examine this in more detail now, but it poses some good questions for further study.
What is the most beneficial balance between self-sufficiency and specialization/trade? Would we see a decrease in obesity due to exercise and diet improvements? Would we see a decrease in depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia due to people being more connected with their lives and their land?
Revised land reform 2015 proverb: Give a man some land and teach a man to farm…make the world a better place.Just some thoughts.CDC