December 30, 2016
As 2016 winds down to a close, it seems fitting to turn to an octogenarian for words of hope and council.
Wendell Berry is one of our country’s national treasures. He’s a farmer, writer, poet and above-all, a humanitarian who advocates for the protection of the land and of farmers.
In this John Hopkins Center For a Livable Future talk, Mr. Berry speaks of the necessity of imposing certain human limits and the need to respect their existence. Limitless agriculture—Berry argues— where farmers are free to produce as much as they can and encouraged to do so, is a proven path to both success and resulting bankruptcy for the farmer and the farmland. Berry asks, what kind of freedom does the farmer have for the freedom to produce as much as he can, when he must confront a market where boundless (over) supply results in depressed crop and livestock prices with commensurate higher profits only for the corporations who are the buyers?
It may surprise some when Mr. Berry refers to his own state of Kentucky and their longstanding cash crop, tobacco, as a public policy model for the future of agriculture. For sixty years Berry tells us, small, individual family tobacco farmers were able to make a decent living (in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia) because of government price supports that ensured tobacco farmers would always make enough from their harvest to remain profitable. And, because the price supports insured that a minimum price would be paid for the crop, and production limits imposed upon the farmer, these government supports also protected the land from becoming overused and depleted. Remarkably, unlike today with millions of dollars in crop subsidies paid annually to commodity growers, this government program did not cost taxpayers a dime.
Also of note, Wendell Berry talks about think tanks, academics and land-grant colleges in the 1950’s that began advocating for fewer farms and toward greater farming efficiency. Providing the fodder that became public policy for modern agriculture, the goal was to encourage farmers to move away from diversified farming to farm a specialized crop (mono-crop farming) and purchase their inputs (feed, chemical poisons, fertilizer, etc.) from corporations. Farmers would soon come to rely upon agricultural experts to help them increase their production capabilities and yields by using the latest technologies and scientific farming practices. Seemingly lost in this corporate vision of industrial agriculture was a care for the farmer, nature and for local communities. Increasing yields and lowering costs through economy of scale became the higher objective. But who ultimately prospers under such a model?
From a recent USDA Economic Services Report that bears out much of what Mr. Berry characterizes about the changing face of agriculture, albeit in almost a celebratory tone:
“American agriculture and rural life underwent a tremendous transformation in the 20th century. Early 20th century agriculture was labor intensive, and it took place on a large number of small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half of the U.S. population lived. These farms employed close to half of the U.S. workforce, along with 22 million work animals, and produced an average of five different commodities. The agricultural sector of the 21st century, on the other hand, is concentrated on a small number of large, specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives. These highly productive and mechanized farms employ a tiny share of U.S. workers and use 5 million tractors in place of the horses and mules of earlier days.
As a result of this transformation, U.S. agriculture has become increasingly efficient and has contributed to the overall growth of the U.S. economy. Output from U.S. farms has grown dramatically, allowing consumers to spend an increasingly smaller portion of their income on food and freeing a large share of the population to enter nonfarm occupations that have supported economic growth and development. As a part of the transformation spurred by technological innovation and changing market conditions, production agriculture has become a smaller player in the national and rural economies. While the more broadly defined food and agriculture sector continues to play a strong role in the national economy, farming has progressively contributed a smaller share of gross domestic product (GDP) and employed a smaller share of the labor force over the course of the century (see box, “Farming’s changing role in the Nation’s economy”). Over the same period, the share of the U.S. population living on farms also declined (fig. 1), as did agriculture’s central role in the rural economy; while farming dependent counties once comprised most of the rural economy, only 20 percent of nonmetro counties were considered farming-dependent in 2000 (fig. 2).
The altered role of farming in the overall economy reflects changes at the farm and farm household level. Since 1900, the number of farms has fallen by 63 percent, while the average farm size has risen 67 percent (fig. 3). Farm operations have become increasingly specialized as well (fig. 4)— from an average of about five commodities per farm in 1900 to about one per farm in 2000—reflecting the production and marketing efficiencies gained by concentration on fewer commodities, as well as the effects of farm price and income policies that have reduced the risk of depending on returns from only one or a few crops. All of this has taken place with almost no variation in the amount of land being farmed.” — Source: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy (PDF):
Since the turn of the 20th century not only have millions of farms disappeared, farmers who have become commodity growers have lost their ability to feed themselves in hard times that once was possible through subsistence farming. Berry argues against the mindset of the corporate economy (he refers to it as,”industrialism”) and its singular pursuit of profit by instead arguing for agrarian policies similar to the tobacco program described above and in more detail in the video (35:56).
As always, Mr. Berry speaks as a pure wind and for the soul of the land upon which his life and work eternally springs. His agrarian vision measures true economic progress in the wellbeing of people and their local communities. A successful economic outcome is intricately entwined with the continued care for the land.
The idea of limits is the idea that we must understand our place in the world. Not just the world of commerce, but of nature and all forms of life that comprise it. To deny our dependence on nature or to place our faith in future technologies to save us from climate change or other reckless ecological human behavior is sheer folly.
Wendell Berry seems to understand well that his worldview is not the dominant perspective in our society today. On the other hand, who amongst us wishes to stand up and cheer over what a just and enduring society we have ourselves thoughtfully created!