Agrarianism Reborn

Dateline: 20 June 2008

Allan C. Carlson

[A]t this very apogee of the mega-farm, something new—and yet very old—may be stirring. Industrialized farming appears to be “pregnant”: not with some newly bioengineered chimera nor with the latest super-machine, but with agrarianism, a humanistic approach to agriculture that would re-attach people to the soil. The farming future may not lie with the consolidators, speculators, and agribusiness. Rather, it may lie with the resurrection of a family-centered agriculture. On the surface, this would seem to be among the least likely of twenty-first-century possibilities. All the same, as the land-use expert Eric Freyfogle enthuses, “agrarianism is again on the rise” and “agrarian ways and virtues are resurging in American culture.” Oddly enough, there is evidence to back up these claims.

Those optimistic words come from a Spring 2008 article in the Intercollegiate Review titled Agrarianism Reborn: On the curious return of the small family farm. The article is authored by Allan Carlson, one of my favorite faith-family-and-agrarianism writers. Carlson wrote the book, The New Agrarian Mind. Here are a few more quotes from the beginning of Mr. Carlson’s excellent article:

What is agrarianism? The poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer, Wendell Berry—America’s leading agrarian voice—describes this worldview as the countervailing idea to industrialism.
Lynn Miller, publisher of Small Farmer’s Journal, says that agrarianism rets on two principles: “First, provide for the family [from the farm] and second, always be looking for ways to help family, friends, and neighbors.”
Agrarianism means reinvigorating the household as “a center of economic productivity,” restoring women and men to their natural and necessary tasks.
As the price of fossil fuels soar, as the costs of farm machinery become prohibitive, and as the machine-driven depopulation of the land nears its end, a deeper accounting grows necessary and the reality of limits returns. Agrarians insist that a new agriculture, resting on respect for these limits, is the only alternative.

After presenting evidence to support his thesis of agrarian renewal, Carlson presents some “Troubles and Dilemmas.” Under that heading, he states that the current agrarian revival has “its weird elements. Most of them cluster around the concept of ‘biodynamic’ farming. This approach counts Rudolph Steiner as its architect.” Then the author goes on to explain what he means by “weird elements.”

Other problems and possible solutions are presented. One solution I think is a particularly good idea is that of prohibiting corporations from owning farmland.

In the end, Carlson concludes with these words:

…the American countryside is now in the early stages of ferment. Old dreams and old ways, mixed with new tools, techniques, and opportunities, have given fresh life to the agrarian spirit. A way of life preserved through the twentieth century by sectarian religious groups such as the Old Order Amish has found new energy and new recruits in the opening years of the third Millennium. The prospects for building a well-settled landscape of productive homes rich with the laughter of children seem more promising than has been the case for decades.

CLICK HERE to read the entire article.


Anonymous said...

You said.......
"One solution I think is a particularly good idea is that of prohibiting corporations from owning farmland."

I am a "family farmer", and most all family farms I know have incorporated out of necessity. It is a way to reduce taxes, and reduce liability, thus making it harder for someone to sue us right out of business. It also enables us to pass on the farm to our heirs over time to reduce another burden known as estate taxes.

You talk about the family farm and I wonder what your definition is of a "family farm". Our farm supports our 4 families (parents & siblings with families), we work the farm together, but in order to support this many families we farm about 2000 acres.

I feel like we're caught in the middle. We work ourselves to death to support our families, we don't live lavish lifestyles, we go to church every Sunday and are the backbones of the community. We are there to pitch in when everyone else is at their 9-5 jobs.

What exactly is a corporate farm, a farm that is incorporated? and why is everyone against them? It's just another way for us to stay in business. Yes, it is a business, this is how we make our living.

Please don't take this the wrong way, I just feel no matter what we do someone is condemning us.

Herrick Kimball said...

I'm not condeming you. I'm condeming an agricultural system that so many farmers are in bondage to. They take on more work, more debt, more risk, and "work themselves to death" to make ends meet, yet making ends meet is harder and harder because the system is not designed to benefit family farmers.

Many "family farms" like yours have a spouse working off the farm to provide extra income and health insurance. That is not "family friendly" and is indicative of a failed agricultural system.

A farmer I know recently explained to me how most big farmers lock into contracts with buyers for their harvest before they even plant it, sometimes even years ahead. If the prices for corn, soybeans, etc. go up, the farmer doesn't get paid any extra. If the crop fails, the farmer has to fulfill the contract, even if he has to buy the grain somewhere else at a higher price. If his fuel and other production costs go up, that doesn't mean he gets any more money for his crop. Do I understand that right? Is that what your farm does? That does not strike me as a good system for family farmers.

The way I see it, farmers should be able to farm independent from the Industrial Masters who control the whole system. You buy your seed from them, you buy your fertilizer from them, you buy your pesticides from them. and you sell your crop to them. They have incredible control over "the market." Farmers who work within that paradigm are dependent on these forces, and they are suffering. It's not a good or sustainable system.

I'm not condeming you. I'm sympathetic to the problems that so many decent farm families like yours face because they are in the grip of an agricultural system that sees such people as their "cash cow" and take so much while giving so little. Yes, you are caught in the middle.

As for incorporation, if I were in your situation, I would probably incorportate too. My offhand comment about corporations not owning land was based on my belief that the primary purpose of incorporation is to avoid responsibility.

Large corporations have a history of destroying the environment and avoiding responsibility for their actions because they are incorporated. I can think of a half dozen instances of that (I'm sure there are many more) just in my region of NY. Lakes and groundwater supplies are chemically polluted beyond repair by corporations that are no longer around. No one was held responsible and thousands of people now suffer because of it.

I was not thinking so much of "family farmers." But I think the same probably holds true. If farmers are spraying toxic chemicals that harm their neighbors, shouldn't they be held responsible? If a confinement feeding operation lets manure runoff flow into the streams and lakes, shouldn't they be held responsible? Sometimes they get fines but, by and large, from what I have seen, they get away with it, over and over again.

I don't believe that farming should poison and destroy the environment.

Again, I don't say any of this to condem you and your family. I have no doubt that you and so many other American farm families are good people doing the best they can within the confines of an agricultural system that is exploiting them.

That is why this article by Alan Carlson, "Agrarianism Reborn," is so encouraging to me. Who can get into farming on your scale without a small fortune? Who would want to? But when agriculture is small, diversified, independent, and focused on supplying localized markets, it is truly "family friendly." It isn't easy and it won't generate huge amounts of money, but if it supports a simplified, healthful lifestyle on the land, I would consider that successful farming.

That is what is happening. That is what I see as sustainable agriculture. That is what I support.

Sincere best wishes,

Herrick Kimball

Andy said...

Interesting thoughts - and article... :)
Certainly makes intelligent people think!
Visit us at Bluebird Meadow Farms

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there, I guess that's what bothers me more than anything.

I don't know of contracts that are written years in advance. All of the contracts we've entered into were for the current crop or the crop that has already been harvested. We know what our inputs are for these crops because we have paid for them months before we go to the field to plant. When we feel the price is good we lock in that price by contracting our grain. As far as market fluctuations, that's just part of the game. It's really no different than people who own stocks, we are playing with the markets too. Farmers deal with a global economy, what happens in South America and even the Middle East affects our markets.

We also have confinement buildings. We have pits under these buildings to store the manure and use it for fertilizer on the cropland. I agree that sometimes lagoons, which are different than pits, can be more of a pollution problem if not properly constructed and maintained. I don't see anyone getting away with anything, we have the Dept. of Environmental Management and our neighbors keeping a close on all of us.

I agree, farming should not poison and destroy the environment, using excessive fertilizers and chemicals cost too much money and we don't use more than what is needed.

It would be great if everyone wanted to work as hard as you do but the reality is that most do not. That's why some of us farm and most others don't. It takes a few hard workers to feed many people and most people do not care how that food is produced, they are more concerned with buying food that is affordable. People could go a long way in supporting themselves in a sustainable manner if they would just put out a garden, and I find that most don't even want to go to that much trouble.

Sorry this has been so long-winded, I have struggled with both sides of this coin for a long time and am still trying to figure out what's best for my family. There is just not an easy answer, I think the world needs both of us.

Nathan said...

It sounds like your family are not farmers. They are agribusiness people. You produce a cash product (a crop or crops) for sale and then you spend that money in the world system. You cannot work 2000 acres with 4 families and not be completely dependant on fossil fuel inputs.

The industrial world needs a small percentage of agribusinesses to feed it. It's not sustainable and will come to an end. Does that mean billions will starve? Probably, if the Lord tarries.

Agrarianism is not agri business. It is living a life that produces what people need to survive - for the people in that immediate community (or watershed if you prefer a natural geograhical boundary)

Christian Agrarianism is living that life BECAUSE it's the way the people doing it think the Bible says we should live.

Cheers from Australia
Nathan Chattaway