The Memo War started when Kamyar Enshayan wrote a letter promoting sustainable agriculture to the editor of the academic Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Enshayan coordinated Ohio State University's farmer-to-farmer extension program and persistently challenged the university to throw its weight behind rural communities and sustainable agriculture. His letter had the effect of a lit match being thrown into a barrel of gasoline - it started a firestorm of arguments, counterarguments, rebuttals and downright attacks.
Here is an excerpt from The Memo War. The main text is part of an article Enshayan wrote for The Ohio Farmer, an agricultural magazine. The gray post-it notes contain some of the comments that Fred Miller, the head of Ohio State's Agronomy Department, wrote on a draft of the article. The white, paper-clipped notes contain Ohio farmer and writer Gene Logsdon's rebuttal to Miller's notes. The Ohio Farmer printed Enshayan's article, unchanged, on March 15, 1991.
Rethinking Ohio's Agriculture
by Kamyar Enshayan
We do know that we cannot long endure if we continue to degrade the soil, the water, the landscape and the human spirit, while depending almost entirely on fossil energy.
MOST OF WHAT I'VE SEEN AROUND THE WORLD SUGGESTS THAT LOW INPUT SYSTEMS DEGRADE THE HUMAN SPIRIT.
For the past many years, farmers, consumers, philosophers, poets, writers and some agricultural scientists have been providing us with their visions of an enduring agriculture; they include Aldo Leopold, Louis Bromfield, Rachel Carson, Gifford Pinchot, Russell Smith, and more recently, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, David Kline, Marty Strange, just to name a few.
MOST OF THESE PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE TO BE IMMEDIATELY ACCOUNTABLE TO THE NATION'S 2 MILLION FARMERS WHO ARE ASKING TODAY (THIS HOUR) FOR TECHNOLOGICAL OPTIONS AND PRACTICES TO MAKE A LIVING, GENERATE WEALTH-THE TAXES FROM WHICH PAY FOR THE LAND GRANT SYSTEM AND OTHER INSTITUTIONS. WE MUST BE IMMEDIATELY RESPONSIVE - OFTEN 24-48 HOURS ITS TOO LATE FOR A TREATMENT. WE CANNOT QUOTE POETRY OR MASSAGE THEIR SPIRITUALITY-THEY'LL BE BANKRUPT IN 90 DAYS!
Did it ever occur to you that this is as fine as proof as you will ever have that YOU ARE PREACHING THE WRONG SOLUTION TO THEM?
The many dimensions of sustainable agriculture include: a land ethic, greater local and regional food self-reliance, land stewardship and economic renewal for farm comunities.
WHY? WE HAD THIS KIND OF AGRICULTURE 50-70 YEARS AGO. ALL CONSUMER SURVEYS I'VE SEEN DONE IN TODAY'S SUPERMAKERS DO NOT SUPPORT ANY TREND WHATSOEVER TO GO BACK TO GO BACK. IN FACT, MARKETS THAT HAVE SUPPORTED ORGANIC SECTIONS ARE CUTTING BACK BECAUSE OF LOW DEMAND (COST) AND SHORT SHELF LIFE.
Having worked in a land grant university for several years, I know that there is a wealth of talent and intellect within this system and that the Ohio State University can chose and commit to a sustainable agriculture. We Ohioans must encourage our College of Agriculture to recommit to establishing a permanent agriculture and thriving rural communities.
HOW WOULD YOU SUGGEST THIS BE DONE? WOULD-SHOULD WE GIVE UP OUR GRADUATE SCHOOL, FOR EXAMPLE? IF SO, MOST FACULTY WILL LEAVE SINCE SERVING THE LOCAL NEEDS TOTALLY OF OHIO FARMERS WILL RESULT IN A PROVINCIAL PROGRAM, THUS NOT PEER SUPPORTED NATIONALLY.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry describes how the colleges of agriculture failed their mission. "The land grant college legislation obviously calls for a system of local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have instead is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another, like airports and motels, made increasingly uniform by the transience or rootlessness of their career-oriented faculties and the consequent inability to respond to local conditions."
THIS IS CRAP! CERTAINLY, WE CAN IMPROVE AND BECOME A MORE INTEGRATED SYSTEM. BUT AS I SAID EARLIER, WENDELL BERRY NEVER HAD TO ANSWER 25-40 PHONE CALLS A DAY AND DRIVE THOUSANDS OF MILES EACH MONTH RESPONDING TO ALL THOSE LOCAL, INDIVIDUAL CALLS WE GET MONTHLY.
I hate to disillusion you, but the university is not, has not, and never can, respond to the local conditions of young people in this area who are trying to get into farming. Do you understand that most farmers here do not talk to the county agent at all, that county agents have always been viewed with a kind of polite disdain. My cousin spent lots of time with the county agent, and he went broke. Young people I know would burn your ears good, if they decided to speak plainly to you, which I doubt they would. The university doesn't matter to them and never did. They are smarter than you, Fred. Ohio State could disappear tomorrow and it would not affect them one iota. They believe, and I agree, that if three-fourths of the money now funnelled into universities for agricultural work, were given directly to young farmers, we, as a farm society, would be in a far better economical position.
At the Ohio State University, we have the Sustainable Agriculture Program with a focus on applied soil ecology, research on farming systems and their impact on watersheds, and several educational projects such as the Farmer-to-Farmer mentorship program, summer research internships, in-service workshops and quarterly meetings. Our program at the University is funded almost entirely by private foundations. There are also individual faculty members within the University system whose work directly relates to various components of a sustainable agricultural system, such as weed ecology, composting, recycling and soil ecology.
WHAT ABOUT THE MULTIMILLION DOLLAR OARDC BREEDING PROGRAM IN AGRONOMY THAT HAS NOT ONLY INCREASED YIELDS BUT MADE GERMPLASM MORE TOLERANT-RESISTANT TO PESTS, THUS REDUCING NEED FOR PESTICIDES, ETC., OR THE FERTILITY PROGRAMS THAT HAVE FINE-TUNED EACH CROP'S NUTRIENT NEEDS, THUS ELIMINATING THE NEED TO OVERFERTILIZE AS WELL AS CAPTURE ON-FARM NUTRIENT SOURCES. WHAT ABOUT TILLAGE INNOVATIONS, EROSION CONTROL METHODOLOGIES ETC., ETC., ETC., ETC., ETC. DOES NOT ANY OF THIS COUNT AS SUSTAINABLE? THIS IS WHY THE "SUSTAINABLE" MOVEMENT DOES NOT GET WARMLY EMBRACED BY THE MAIN-LINE UNIVERSITY-GOVERNMENT RESEARCHERS-BECAUSE YOU'VE BIFURCATED THE SYSTEM WHEN, IN FACT, IT IS A CONTINUUM WITH MUCH COMMON GROUND.
Recently one of your hotshot economists came up to Wyandot County and told us we were "just going to have to live with $2.20 corn." Do you realize how angry you made us? As one farmer growled out of earshot: "And you, professor, are just going to have to live on a $15,000 salary." Which of course your oligarchy made damn sure will never happen. If the university did not keep alive an obsolete system with tax money and other forms of welfare accompanied by the oligarchical power you wield in the statehouse, many of your professors would have to "go to town" to get a job, just like you bastards tell farmers to do. What is even more outrageous about all this is that the bulk of taxes is paid by the lower middle income citizens who usually don't go to college or who can't afford to. Thus the poor once more are overburdened with taxes so thay the rich can get richer ...
You say farmers won't accept the kind of advice we "radicals' are giving them. Of course they aren't going to accept it all at once now that they are virtually helpless to a system you promulgated, but even then, how do you know what they will accept? There are quite a few farmers who who accept it because they never stopped farming that way. But what have you done, really, to bring about reform in farming? ... I have never heard the universities suggest that it is wrong for rich old widows in town and university professors to collect subsidy payments, or rents that are articificially high because of subsidy payments, on land they inherited and perhaps have not set foot on in years, if ever. I have never heard the ag departments of the land grant colleges rise in concert to protest any social injustice at all in agriculture...
It is not the university's job to find ways for the greediest sons of bitches in the farming community to make yet more money, but to act as a thoughtful and, yes, philosophical voice of reason and morality in the conduct of farm affairs. The greedy don't need any help ...
I have a lot more to say, but I've insulted you too much already. I mean nothing personally. You have to stand in the place of your obsolete university and its hyprocrisy. You may even be a nice guy. So am I, normally. But dammit, Fred, turning farming into an oligarchy of rich landlords is not good and not right, and you must take part of the blame. So must I, for that matter. I worked for Farm Journal for nine years and helped with the Great Brainwash.
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