Land reform? You don’t hear a lot about that these days…(pun intended)…

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

The Founding Fathers and Joel Salatin: A reflection on Joel Salatin’s Folks This Ain’t Normal

By Maggie Rogers

Joel Salatin defines himself as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” (142), and Folks This Ain’t Normal justifies each of these descriptors. Throughout his book he gives a fair amount of life advice, numerated at the end of each chapter. I appreciated this because although some of his writing reads like an angry old tea partier ranting about the government, he does make a few good points about entitlement and a lack of resiliency in our society.

I think the extent to which Salatin aligns himself with the founding fathers is very interesting. For example, he asks “What happened to Jefferson’s intellectual agrarian dream” (241). He makes it very clear that he considers himself to be an intellectual, describing elitist visitors to the farm praising him for being so articulate. He recounts high school guidance counselor as having the gall to discourage his desire to farm because it would be a waste of a college degree. He also name drops University speaking engagements throughout the book.

Salatin also compares himself to Jefferson in more tangible ways, such as their shared love of water cisterns. He claims that Jefferson had as many water cisterns as possible constructed at Monticello, as Salatin does at Polyface Farm.  Salatin uses this as a point of departure to discuss water policy preventing homeowners to hold rain water on their own property. These policies are most common in the western United States, especially along the Colorado River where water is scarce and water politics are a high tension topic. Salatin does not approach the issue from a larger standpoint, but as his values dictate, only from the point of view of a single person being unjustly prevented from doing what he wants on his own land.

Jefferson is not the only founding father that Salatin venerates. He quotes large passages from Benjamin Franklin as well. He relates the passages to the idea of the American dream, claiming that the founding fathers did not value wealth but rather saw farming the embodiment of American virtue. Salatin claims that because by farming an individual works to build up their wealth it is different than European society where wealth is passed down. What I fail to understand is how Salatin sees the next generation. A post-colonial farmer who has amassed a fair amount of property and formed a productive farm will surely pass it along to his son, who then has considerable unearned wealth compared to a recent immigrant pursuing their own American dream.

I find Salatin joining himself with the founding fathers problematic in two ways. First, it is narcissistic compare your radical way of living with actual revolutionaries. There is a wide gap between moving chickens around in a pasture and starting a war for independence against the most powerful government on the Earth. Second, and in a way in contradiction to the first issue, the founding fathers had a lot of issues Salatin does not acknowledge such as sexism and racism so engrained in early American institutions that we are still battling its effects. Joel Salatin may be a lot of things, but his discussion of the founding fathers shows that slightly ignorant narcissist can be added to the list.

A Healthy Sense of Awe and Wonder: A Reflection on Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

By Maggie Rogers

In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold moves through one year on his small Wisconsin farm. For each month, he shares his detailed amazement at the workings of the plants and animals that surround him.  Clearly he has a great respect for the ineffable beauty and complexity of the ephemeral natural world.

Throughout the year, Leopold displays a pattern of rejoicing at sights and circumstances most others might not. In April, he is filled with “inner glee” as flood waters cover the road and surround his hilltop. He marvels at the history of old boards floating by, as he guesses their age and intended purpose. There is no mention of frustration or pragmatism as Leopold’s farm becomes increasingly isolated. Instead, he praises the isolation of the high water as being far superior to that of an island or mountain top which are not as wonderfully secluded.

“Draba Ramosissima”

Also in April, Leopold discusses Draba, a small wild flower that marks the coming of spring. He humorously and poetically describes it saying “Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. It leaves wear a sensible woolly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance- just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.” He claims this very tiny flower has no importance, and yet even in that lack of importance or recognition, he finds beauty.

As Leopold describes pausing during a grouse hunt to ponder at different varieties of pines and wildflowers, a find myself missing a tradition from a camp where I worked last summer called sky breaks. They could be expected but never planned, a welcome unscheduled activity. Often during evening games or around that time at the golden hour, someone noticing a particularly beautiful sky would shout out “sky break”.  At those words everyone would pause and look up. In those few minutes of calm, everyone would marvel at the picturesque hues of orange, red, purple, and blue playing on the clouds as the sun slipped behind the mountains. With necks craned upwards, the mundane faded away as everyone was filled with awe for the Earth’s beauty. Lifting my gaze to the sky in those moments would make me feel impossibly small, as small as a Draba flower when compared with the universe, but also impossibly important, to be able to experience such incredible fleeting beauty.

What do I do with all this produce? Prepare and preserve!

Barbara Kingsolver’s book Vegetable, Animal, Miracle is a memoir covering a year in the author’s family’s life on a small farm in rural Virginia. It was an extreme lifestyle experiment: they minimized their fossil fuel footprint by growing much of their own food and supplementing with locally produced food as much as possible.

The moral of the story is that they lived well. As it goes, local and fresh foods taste better and are more nutritious. The family worked hard in the garden and the kitchen, but it was therapeutic work and it brought them into closer relationships.

VAM began to demystify the following question: what is a “locavore” to do during the winter? I’ve been eating well and eating locally for the past month on a farm and garden diet, but none of that is going to be available come November, much less December, January, February.

The above question pairs well with another question I’ve been asking myself in the garden: what can I do with all this produce? Well, one answer covers both questions, and I’m grateful to Barbara for pointing out the obvious: it’s food preservation! Barbara and her family did a ton of canning, drying/curing, and freezing during the months of harvest. They set a good example for what we should be doing in the garden with our excess produce.

I’m beginning to learn about this topic from another angle, too. I have a book called The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, which demystifies food preservation much further. The difference between processes like canning/freezing/drying and fermentation is that fermentation employs bacteria and yeast to preserve and alter foods. It’s microbial gardening!

So far I’ve worked on two batches of honey mead (with honey from a friend down in Scottsville) and garden sauerkraut. It’s a completely new field for me, but it has an enormous potential within the garden’s mission to explore marginalized food systems. I’m proud to say I have garden vegetables (in the form of sauerkraut) in my refrigerator. They should last into the winter!

I did not expect to experiment in these ways before the internship began. I thought I would be focusing on growing food. However, I can not separate those activities from the activities that follow them: preparing and preserving food. They are just as necessary, and just as interesting.


Agriculture as a Cultural Response to God’s Creation: A Reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture &Agriculture”

By Maggie Rogers

Written in 1977, almost thirty years before Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the agricultural systems that Wendell Berry critiques in The Unsettling of America appear remarkably similar to the systems Pollan describes in 2006. Biases aside, there luckily seems to be some improvement since The Unsettling of America was written in the shape of a greater acceptance and demand for organic farms and permaculture.  One of the major philosophical differences in these two books is that unlike Pollan, Berry clearly sees a connection between agriculture and spiritual health, both on a personal and community scale.

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY.  Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY. 2011
Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.

Berry declares “Creation is a unique, irreplaceable gift, therefore to be used with humility, respect, and skill” (213).  Throughout the book, Berry makes a clear differentiation between those who exploit and those who nurture. Big agricultural corporations, or “agribusiness” as Berry calls it, exploit the earth, degrading the soil and polluting waterways. He clearly favors the small family farm, where farmers work with natural processes and value and respect their land and tools.

A continuing theme is the negative effects of specialization in our society, where everyone is confined to one area of expertise and labor. Berry claims that the modern worker “has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people” (20). This differentiates the modern specialized worker from the small farmer, whose labor directly provides food for his family, and often also has their own source of water and the ability to build their own shelter as well.

Berry makes a determined point that “By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else” (106), meaning that by not being in control of fulfilling our own needs, we are separated we lose the ability to fulfill the needs of our souls, and so community degrades.  I think it’s very interesting that Berry provides the Amish as an example of a successful community that does not create this division between body and soul, explaining that “Whereas most contemporary sects of Christianity have tended to specialize in the interests of the spirit, leaving aside the issues of the world, the Amish have not secularized their earthly life. They have not hesitated to see communal and agricultural implications in their religious principles, and these implications directly influence their behavior” (211).

These understood implications are important because they can have a great effect on the world we live in. Agribusiness focuses almost solely on profits and ignores the resulting pollution, soil degradation, and social effects of taking away jobs from the agriculture. According to Barry, it is irresponsible to assume that anything is self-sufficient, saying “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence” (111). Even the Amish contribute to the greater society, paying taxes and providing charity to their surrounding communities. They are not, however, especially dependent on those systems, which gives them the freedom to continue to value and respect the Creation they understand they did not create and so have no right to destroy or degrade.

I find the relationship Wendell Barry discusses between sustainable agriculture and spirituality to be very interesting. In the Abrahamic religions, many of the metaphors used to describe God and our relationship to God are based on agriculture, because at the time the major religious texts were written, almost everyone had a very close connection to agriculture and the production of their food. How can these metaphors and parables be truly understood, and so how can our relationship to God be truly understood, when as a society we attempt to separate ourselves from the need to nurture God’s Creation as a means of survival?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: – Human-resource relations and local food economics

Maggie and I have now read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s an informative and investigative book exposing America’s mainstream food system, which ravages natural resources, animal quality of life, and human health. The book is also a song of the restorative majesty of conscious, “clean-food” sources like Polyface Farm, and the joys of knowing how the food in your mouth came to be. In peripheral passages, Pollan fires off fasinating information about various topics, from mushroom biology to the invention of chemical fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process). It’s an enjoyable read and a must for any American who cares about her food.

Reading TOD made me realize how cynical I had become towards natural resource issues. The media influence how I think, and most environmental media says either: we are ruining our environment, or we must make sacrifices to heal the environment. I  thought both sides were a bit misleading. I don’t expect environmental catastrophe any time soon, and I think most campaigns to “heal” the environment are closer to conscience-laundering feel-good rhetoric than true, systemic resource progress. Yeah, pretty cynical. And pretty confused.

Pollan, however, suggests a different possibility for human-resource relations in his description of Polyface Farm.

Consider this passage from TOD:

“By the end of the season Salatin’s grasses will have been transformed by his animals into some 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs. This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process – in fact, it will be the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot (this thanks to the increased earthworm traffic).” (My bold – CDC.)

Astonishing, I agree! We are not making sacrifices! We get great meat and eggs out of the deal. We are not having a net negative effect on the land! The land even becomes more comfortable for us to run and walk on! This description of Polyface Farm gives me new optimism about the possibility for symbiotic human-resource relations. I’m convinced of a noble life option for anyone with money: buy some land and take care of it.

Of course, this makes perfect sense when I think historically. Flash back to when the Earth first formed – there was no life here. Over time, since then, the amount of life has only increased. The amount of biomass has never been a zero sum game. Occasionally, human artifacts pervert this natural symbiosis: harmful government regulations, an unyielding belief in profit, lack of ecological education, etc. With the right dedication and education, however, we can learn to feed ourselves and heal our land at the same time. This is a benchmark to aspire to in the UVA Garden. Thanks to MP and Joel Salatin (of Polyface Farm) for the refreshing perspective!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has also inspired me to get into local food. I used to get depressed thinking about my food: how the money I spend at the grocery store would partly shoot up the system into the bank accounts of far-off stockholders and owners who are already rich and who don’t know me at all. That’s not progressive. I’m much happier knowing and engaging the alternative offered by the local food movement and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) models of agriculture. They take great care of the land and their livestock, and I can enjoy these resources because they’re local. I’m joyful to indulge this happiness all summer long!

Just one of the benefits of following Michael Pollan as he takes a hard look at our food systems in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.


Let there be Summer

Dear readers,

Our names are Maggie Rogers and Connor Campbell and we have the broad joy of doing the UVA Sustainable Agriculture Internship this summer. There are three parts to the internship:

  1. Managing the UVA Garden! Having such a special patch of earth in our stewardship can be daunting at times. So far, we have have had around 10 unique volunteers hang out and enjoy the theory and practice of gardening with us. Okra, squash, cabbage and carrots look to be lovely, we lost our chard to a pest and our brussel sprouts to a groundhog, and we’ve been indulging in the pleasure of ripe, warm, fresh strawberries. On Thursday, we transplanted some cantaloupe, watermelon, and bok choy – wonder how they will fare? Quick plug: Please come out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 3pm for community workdays. Contact either of us for more information or to get on an email list! (,
  2. An apprenticeship with Jamie Barrett, Michelle McKenzie and crew at Bellair Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It has been about two weeks since we started, and it has been educational and amazing. We have so much respect for the operation and are humbled by how much we have to learn. It’s a honor to work with such a model for progressive food.
  3. Scholarship. We have a list of books about agriculture and food (Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, etc.) to read and reflect on right here in blog post form. Please stick around for our books reviews and other internship updates! Also, please like us on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram.

Without further ado, let there be Summer at the UVA Garden!