Three agricultural fallacies

The poet laureate of cultivated land challenges the 'experts'

  • Pastoral farm scene drawing

    Diane Sylvain

That agriculture may be understood and dealt with as an industry

This assumption is false, first of all, because agriculture deals with living things and biological processes, whereas the materials of industry are not alive and the processes are mechanical. That agriculture can produce only out of the lives of living creatures means that it cannot for very long escape the qualitative standard; that is, in addition to productivity, efficiency, decent earnings, and so on, it must have health. Thus, the farmer differs from the industrialist in that the farmer is necessarily a nurturer, a preserver of the health of creatures.

Second, whereas a factory has a limited life expectancy, the life of a healthy farm is unlimited. Buildings and tools wear out, but the topsoil, if properly used and maintained, will not wear out. Some agricultural soils have remained in continuous use for four or five thousand years or more.

Third, the motives of agriculture are fundamentally different from the motives of industry. This is partly accounted for by the differences between farming and industry that I have already mentioned. Another reason lies in the fact that, in our country and in many others, the best farms have always been homes as well as workplaces. Unlike factory hands and company executives, farmers do not go to work; a good farmer is at work even when at rest. Over and over again, experience has shown that the motives of the wage earner are inadequate to farming. American experience has shown this, but it is perhaps nowhere so dramatically demonstrated as in the Soviet Union, where small, privately farmed plots greatly outproduce the communal fields.

Finally, the economy of industry is inimical to the economy of agriculture. The economy of industry is, typically, an extractive economy: It takes, makes, uses, and discards; it progresses, that is, from exhaustion to pollution. Agriculture, on the other hand, rightly belongs to a replenishing economy, which takes, makes, uses and returns. It involves the return to the source, not just of fertility or of so-called wastes, but also of care and affection. Otherwise, the topsoil is used exactly as a minable fuel and is destroyed in use. Thus, in agriculture, the methods of the factory give us the life expectancy of the factory - long enough for us, perhaps, but not long enough for our children and grandchildren.

That productivity is a sufficient standard of production

By and large, the most popular way of dealing with American agricultural problems has been to praise American agriculture. For decades we have been wandering in a blizzard of production statistics pouring out of the government, the universities, and the "agribusiness' corporations. No politician's brag would be complete without a tribute to "the American farmer" who is said to be single-handedly feeding 75 or 100 or God knows how many people. American agriculture is fantastically productive, and by now we all ought to know it.

That American agriculture is also fantastically expensive is less known, but it is equally undeniable, even though the costs have not yet entered into the official accounting. The costs are in loss of soil, in loss of farms and farmers, in soil and water pollution, in food pollution, in the decay of country towns and communities, and in the increasing vulnerability of the food supply system. The statistics of productivity alone cannot show these costs. We are nevertheless approaching a "bottom line" that is not on our books.

From an agricultural point of view, a better word than productivity is thrift. It is a better word because it implies a fuller accounting. A thrifty person is undoubtedly a productive one, but thriftiness also implies a proper consideration for the means of production. To be thrifty is to take care of things; it is to thrive - that is, to be healthy by being a part of health. One cannot be thrifty alone; one can only be thrifty insofar as one's land, crops, animals, place, and community are thriving.

The great fault of the selective bookkeeping we call "the economy" is that it does not lead to thrift; day by day, we are acting out the plot of a murderous paradox: an "economy" that leads to extravagance. Our great fault as a people is that we do not take care of things. Our economy is such that we say we "cannot afford" to take care of things: Labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials - the stuff of creation - are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them. The wrecking ball is characteristic of our way with materials. We "cannot afford" to log a forest selectively, to mine without destroying topography, or to farm without catastrophic soil erosion.

A production-oriented economy can indeed live in this way, but only so long as production lasts.

Suppose that, foreseeing the inevitable failure of this sort of production, we see that we must assign a value to continuity. If that happens, then our standard of production will have to change; indeed, it will already have changed, for the standard of productivity alone cannot permit us to see that continuity has a value. The value of continuity is visible only to thrift.

There are too many farmers

This idea has been accepted doctrine in the offices of agriculture - in governments, universities, and corporations - ever since World War II. Its history is a remarkable proof of the influence of an idea. In the last 40 years, it has aggravated and excused, if indeed it has not caused, one of the most consequential migrations of history: millions of rural people moving from country to city in an exodus that has not ceased from the war's end until now. The motivating force behind this migration, then as now, has been economic ruin on the farm. Today [1987], with hundreds of farm families losing their farms every week, the economists are still saying, as they have have said all along, that these people deserve to fail, that they have failed because they are the "least efficient producers," and that America is better off for their failure.

It is apparently easy to say that there are too many farmers, if one is not a farmer. This is not a pronouncement often heard in farm communities, nor have farmers yet been informed of a dangerous surplus of population in the "agribusiness' professions or among the middlemen of the food system. No agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.

The farm-to-city migration has obviously produced advantages to the corporate economy. The absent farmers have had to be replaced by machinery, petroleum, chemicals, credit, and other expensive goods and services from the "agribusiness" economy (which ought not to be confused with the economy of what used to be called farming). But these short-term advantages all imply long-term disadvantages to both country and city. The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country.

Excerpts from "Six Agricultural Fallacies" from Home Economics by Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1987 by Wendell Berry. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.

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