The bad modern history of farming.

Author:Berry, Wendell

To make the economies of the land and of land use something like sustainable, we would have to begin with attention to the difference between the industrial economy of inert materials and monetary abstractions and an authentic land economy that must include the kindly husbanding of living creatures. This is the critical issue.


If farming is no more than an industry to be unendingly transformed by technologies, then farmers can be replaced by engineers, and engineers finally by robots, in the progress toward our evident goal of human uselessness. If, on the contrary, because of the uniqueness and fragility of each one of the worlds myriad of small places, the land economies must involve a creaturely affection and care, then we must look back three or four generations and think again.

From its beginning, industrialism has depended on its own, and on most people's, willingness to ignore everything that does not serve the cheapest possible production of merchandise and, therefore, the highest possible profit. And so to look back and think again, we must acknowledge real needs that have continued through the years to be unacknowledged: the need to see and respect the inescapable dependence even of our present economy, as of our lives, upon nature and the natural world; and upon the need, just as important, to see and respect our inescapable dependence upon the economies--of farming, ranching, forestry, fishing, and mining--by which the goods of nature are made serviceable to human good.

To think well of such enterprises, and of the possibility of combining them in a diverse and coherent local economy, is to think of the need for sustaining all of the necessary occupations. Because a local, a placed, economy would be built in sequence from the ground up, from primary production to manufacturing to marketing, a variety of occupations would be necessary. Because all would be necessary, all would be equally necessary. Because of the need to keep them all adequately staffed, it would be ruinous to prefer one above another by price, custom, or social prejudice. There must be a sustained economic parity among them.

The land-using occupations, then, are of primary importance, but they are also the most vulnerable. We must notice, to begin with, that almost nobody in the supposedly "higher" occupational and social strata has ever recognized the estimable care, intelligence, knowledge, and artistry required to use the land without degrading or destroying it. Farmers may be the last minority that even liberals freely stereotype and insult. If farmers live and work in an economic squeeze between inflated purchases and depressed sales, if their earnings are severely depressed by surplus production, if they are priced out of the land market, it is assumed that they deserve no better. Their success is their ability to produce too much, which amounts to a kind of failure.

Surplus production is a risk native to commercial agriculture. This is because farmers individually and collectively do not know, and cannot learn ahead of time, the extent either of public need or of market demand. Either because the market is good and they are encouraged, or because the market is bad and they are desperate, farmers tend to produce as much as they can. This has only to be allowed by a political indifference prescribed by the evangels of the "free market." Farm subsidies without production controls further encourage overproduction. In times of high costs and low prices, such subsidies are paid ultimately, and quickly, to the corporations.

The traditional home economies of subsistence, while they lasted, gave farmers some hope of surviving their hard times. This was true especially when the chief energy source was the sun, and the dependence on purchased supplies was minimal. As farming became less and less subsistent and more and more commercial, it was exposed ever more nakedly to the vagaries and the predation of an economy fundamentally alien to it. When farming is large in scale, is highly specialized, and all supplies are purchased, the farmer's exposure to "the economy" is total.

When agricultural production is not controlled by a marketing cooperative such as the tobacco program once was in my part of the country, the...

To continue reading