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The New Agrarianism: Quixotic or Not?

One of the comments on my recent post about Front Porch Republic -- a new blog where traditionalist conservatives with agrarian and distributist leanings opine -- contained a fairly typical response to agrarianism: "Oh, Id love to live in an ecologically sound world that retains the beauty God conferred on it, but farming for everyone?"Well, no. Not even earnest agrarians propose farming for everyone.But I do understand this response. Most of us dismiss agrarian thinking as being either innocently or dangerously romantic. We're obviously not going to return to a pre-industrial society so why kid ourselves? I know -- that's often been my reaction, too.Still, something in me senses a major disconnect here. Yes, most of us are permanently and hopelessly detached from our agrarian roots. And yet we constantly invoke the beauty and fragility of nature or "the environment" (wretched, wretched term). We can spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort praising nature, and frolicking in it -- hiking, skiing, kayaking, etc. -- hell, we even love nature from the comfort of our armchairs.But somehow when we speak of nature as mediated by human effort -- the farm -- we lose interest and talk about how unlikely it is that any of us will become farmers anytime soon.Huh?If you ask me, the most dangerous form of nature romanticism today centers around the cult of the "wild" -- for all its virtues, it is a sensibility that tends to discount agriculture. As if the human touch, even in the careful stewardship of the land, is somehow tainted and uninteresting. (There's a big philosophical can of worms beneath this way of thinking, but a blog post ain't the place to run it under the electric can opener.)So, in short: Is talk about localism and sustainability, the importance of a regional, versus a global, economy, and the role that regional agriculture can play in these issues nothing but quixotic blather? Is the effort to think about how the food we eat is made -- and what it does to us -- merely prissiness? I don't think so.Sadly, the current frantic effort to prop up the economic status quo ante makes it highly unlikely that anyone -- including President Obama -- will pause to seriously reflect on the true radicalism of sustainable regional agriculture. We're just so desperate for things to get back to the way they were....In one of the comments on my post, Brian Volck presents a wonderful short list of serious authors exploring these issues: not only Wendell Berry, but Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Norman Wirzba, among many others. Read his comment for specific titles.


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So what is New Agrarianism?Smaller farms? More organic methods? Movement toward less processed food? More humane treatment of animals raised for meat? Less processing, preserving and transport of food? No-till farming? Home canning?

Hi Gregory: I think you are discussing an important topic, but I currently do not share your optimism about regional agriculture. Unfortunately, today is a midterms day and I am extra crazy, so my post on this must be shorter than I would like it to be. Let me be clear up front: I do not object to doing what one can to support local agriculture. I just do not think it is a viable pro-environment/pro-economy/anti-poverty agenda. Here are my objections to the position advanced by Barry, et. al.1) Scale: I have never seen a proposal for how to do this that adequately accounts for 300 million Americans.2) Assumes a depopulation of cities. In order to make this work, the proposals I have read assume that folks will move out of cities and closer to agriculture. I do not think this is likely, nor do I think it is a good idea. A strong case can be made for the economic importance of big cities, especially with regard to human capital networking, wealth creation (that is, new ideas that emerge from such networking), and economic opportunity for all levels of income. Jane Jacobs and Robert Lucas have written important discussions of these issues.3) The poor: the ones most likely to left behind in large numbers assuming such proposals were adopted would be the poor, and they would also be the ones left more isolated from opportunity than they are now.4) There is lots and lots that can be done before focusing on regional agriculture. Two excellent books on this topic are Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and The Natural Advantage of Nations by Karlson Charlie Hargroves and Michael Harrison Smith.Sorry to post and run. I will check in today when I can.

There should be more topics like this, esp. since Commonweal (and, by implication, dotCommonweal) is a review of religion, politics, and culture. Yes, the three are linked. Yes, "culture" is more elusive than politics or religion. Still, "culture" tends to receive much less attention than other two.Like Joe Petit it's grading day & I'll have to be brief. I'd agree with Gregory Wolfe to the extent that the cult of the wild is nature exoticism. As for the title question, I'd say that it is more quixotic than not: a quixoticism enhanced by the fact that "New Agrarianism" is not exactly new. But it wouldn't surprise me if there will be growing advocacy for this sort of agrarianism in the days ahead. These kinds of ideas have often accompanied economically challenging times. Reach back to late 19th century America to movements such as Arts and Crafts, or to Great Depression 1930s when the Southern Agrarians drew attention.

I, too, would love to see more in Commonweal on food supply and ethics. I don't know that I would fall under the description of agrarianist, but Alisa Smith and J B MacKinnon's book _Plenty_, in which two urbanites try to stick to a year of eating only what's been grown within 100 miles of them convinced me that I could try to pay more attention to where food comes from. I can't say enough good things about Smith and MacKinnon -- they are the poor woman's Kingsolver, and pay constant attention to the problems that limited budget poses to sustainable eating. They also do a great job of showing how macro-scale farming erases local history, not just local ecologies. Michael Pollan recommends this best practice as a tiny step toward healing our disordered approach to growing foods: "Eat a food in inverse proportion to how much its lobby spends to push it."

Joe:I'm a pediatrician and writer with a keen interest in the relation between nutrition and health, especially for the poor, but I'm not a farmer, an agronomist or an economist, so I can't speak to your comments with the authority and background that others might. Nor do I qualify as a political conservative in the common American parlance. Nonetheless, I have some initial thoughts on your comments above.1) Scale: For more than a half century, the US government has been actively -- and as a matter of policy -- destroying small farms and regional agricultural networks in favor of large scale agribusiness. That this began in earnest during the same administration that inaugurated the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is no accident. (Yes, Ezra Taft Benson was telling farmers to "Get Big or Get Out" years before Earl Butz joined the chorus.) Based on rather awkwardly theories regarding "economies of scale," this approach assumed that fossil fuel derived energy in general and petroleum-based energy in particular

Mr. Pettit's comments are excellent - specifically his last point about those living in poverty in the inner city.(Bias - my extended family have been cotton farmers for 4 generations in Texas)Reality - government programs since Eisenhower have decreased family farms by 80%+. It is rare these days for a son or daughter to continue to farm even the family farm. You basically have only two choices these days: operate as a large corporation (for a family, that means debt; multiple payrolls; high risk since farming is the closest thing to gambling) or watch government provide millions of dollars in subsidies to large agri-businesses (e.g. AMD).Dr. Volck is correct. Along these lines, there is a recent book with a long title but the first word is "Nudge" by a couple of researchers out of Chicago. They show excellent examples of setting policy - state, local, federal, health, retirement - so that various social actions (positive social actions) that support the common good e.g. green environement, green energy, truck farms - food grown regionally, fresh vs. manufactured, etc. so that folks automatically get this unless they choose to opt out. There is something to be said for moving federal/state policies in this direction.If you are involved in healthcare at all, one significant issue today is weight and its impact on health, illness, expensive chronic conditions. Regional, sustainable agriculture could re-educate folks and, at the same time, improve health and wellness. Examples from "Nudge" - tax manufactured food; give tax incentives to those who buy local and raise local; connect health insurance to these movements in the same way auto insurance reduces premiums for drivers education, good driving record, fuel efficient cars, etc. It would also encourage folks to spend more time on food preparation, family meals, planning, growing, obtaining food - some would object (give them a choice - continue as is but pay a tax for the convenience).My family would love to see "city folks" learn and understand where their food, meat, milk, eggs come from. It requires hard work, dirty work, smelly work - it is not antiseptic. That might be a good thing.

Brian (let me know if first names are too informal): I see no obvious reason to endorse the history that led to the elimination of most smaller farms, nor would I object to a resurgence of such farms. My only concern is whether or not strategies designed to promote sustainable food supplies can rely on such farms. Given the size of the U.S. population, my sense is that they cannot.One thought for general consumption that is only slightly off topic. Proposals to create "closed-loop" production cycles such as those proposed in Cradle to Cradle note that one reason to support them is that they might lead to the return of production facilities to the United States since it is much easier to "capture" and reuse the waste from production when that production takes place closer to the "home" locations of businesses. If I had to vote, I would rather see a repopulation of manufacturing businesses committed to sustainable production than a focus on regional agriculture. The former just seems more likely and manageable to me. But, of course, the two routes are not mutually exclusive.

Joe:My laptop failed to deliver 80 percent of my post, which seems all too fitting in a discussion of current US food policy. Let me quickly reconstitute my other remarks and I'll attempt to re-post.Brian

OK. Here we go with "the rest of the story":...Based on rather awkward theories regarding economies of scale, this approach assumes that fossil fuel derived energy in general and petroleum-based energy in particular are inexhaustible. (Similar mistakes were made regarding the apparent inexhaustibility of topsoil.) Absent a serious engagement with the problems of peak oil (and I have little reason to believe Mr. Obama will so engage this issue, certainly not in a first term.), I suspect the United States will continue to postpone an inevitable reckoning, at a staggering cost. Current agricultural policies encourage heavy fossil fuel use for fertilizing, long distance transportation and refrigeration. How this network will handle increased post-recession demand for oil, with attendant rise in prices, is an interesting question. Those who know more about peak oil than I claim the first real problem ahead is not absolute scarcity, but large scale instability. Things grow even more complicated when taking into account the cost of global food production. On a recent medical trip to Honduras, I once again pointed out to the doctors and nurses in our group the contrast between the vast fields owned multinational corporations which grow single products for export in the choice bottomlands near San Pedro Sula, with the marginal lands planted on unterraced hillsides in rural Intibuca. In order for Americans to eat fresh bananas, a farmer has to scratch his milpa into a gravelly mountainside: such, it seems, are the requirements of scale in a global economy. If, by scale, youre talking about sizing projects to meet local needs, then we have fruitful conversations ahead of us. If by scale, you mean supplying enough food to meet needs, then we have still another set of fruitful conversations ahead. If, however, you mean, as apparently every US administration including the current one does when it comes to energy, that scale means never having to limit American consumption and never having to apologize for the way Americans live, then Im not sure where to go with this. From what I can tell by my cursory review, I dont see that Cradle to Cradle or other program you mention preclude attention to good farming practices on an appropriate scale. Is there some larger issue I, a non-economist, am missing? 2) Depopulation of cities: The changes in agricultural practices advocated by new agrarians will be somewhat more labor intensive (current large scale agriculture favors retail cheapness -- mainly through reduced labor costs over nutrition or actual economy and places most or all the risk on the farmer, not the supplier, further encouraging false economies of scale), but I dont see how this will depopulate cities. If anything, new agrarianism wonderfully complements New Urbanism, with its emphasis on livable neighborhoods with recognizable centers and a de-emphasis on liquid-fueled transportation. My own city of Cincinnati is moving closer to agriculture in all the wrong ways throwing up new exurbs while parasitizing its decaying city core. Whether such destruction of farmland for new tract housing is even remotely sustainable in a future restricted (most likely) by peak oil phenomena is uncertain at best. Cities will almost certainly and perforce grow denser, but this neednt preclude sustainable farming practices or shorter transportation routes. 3) The poor: Having recently returned from an international conference on indigenous child health in which a quarter of the presentations dealt with childhood obesity, I have no doubt current US food supply systems are more effective at poisoning the poor than feeding them. In a mere fifty years, the Navajo people for whom I once worked have replaced protein-calorie malnutrition with obesity and diabetes as the major nutritional diseases. The US is very good at supplying those is poverty with cheap, calorie dense, highly processed, fat and sugar laden foods, but is lousy when it comes to providing fresh produce or other healthy foods. I ask the residents and students in our Poverty, Justice and Health course to ask the poor families they care for where their food comes from. The answers arent often pretty. Among the few bright spots is Findlay Market in Over the Rhine, where I still shop on Saturdays (like my father and grandfather before me), and where ghetto and suburb dwellers mix in ways unusual for in this or any city. I recently learned of a program in Louisville that brings farm produce to an economically poor neighborhood to simultaneously provide good foods and jobs. Federal programs like WIC encourage food choices from farmers markets. While Im not a public policy geek, this seems worth emulating. 4) Theres lots to be done: Aint that the truth. Arguments in Washington argue over competing schemes to sustain the unsustainable seem a particularly poor place to start. In our own corner of the world, however, there may be more common ground for us than either you or I may, at first, suspect.Thats all I have time for myself. Sorry about the technological interruption.

Brian: I don't find much to disagree with in your post. Just to clarify, by scale I meant two things: 1) enough food to meet needs, and more importantly 2) enough wage earning opportunity in work consistent with the envisioned transformation. From what I understand about these proposals (limited to a few essays by Wendell Berry, a brief read through David Korten's new book, and then second hand from others who have read more about this) what is proposed is not just a change in where we get our food from (scale problem = meeting food needs of hundreds of millions) but also a transformation into a more agragrian focused workforce (scael problem = employing all those who need jobs).Now, regarding local farmers in Honduras and elsewhere, I do not wish defend denying anyone access to land to grow food on a small scale. However, I am not convinced that huge bannna farms are necessarily horrible. Having access to good land has always been a problem in agrarian societies; that is, some have had, others have not. Poverty was very much with us when everyone was farming. It is much less with us now that many fewer people are farming (no doubt some will dispute this claim, but I would be happy to defend it). One difficulty is that many nations that are resource intentive (especially oil, but also minerals and other resources) have often failed to pursue policies that would diversify their economies and increase the amount the wealth present in those economies.Regarding the depopulation of cities, again, it is my understanding that this is in fact part of many proposals, I cannot go and put my finger on any textual support just now, but I will try later.You will get no disagreement whatsoever about the link between povety and poor diets, but I think it is the economic and social isolation of poor communities that drives this; not an inability to distribute food. The food is not well distributed in poor communities because large grocery stores do not see much profit in locating in such neighborhoods. MLK used to speak of a poverty"tax" in poor supermarkets, and he would note the poor quality of much of the produce found in these stores. For my money, the link between poverty and poor diet is best addressed by reducing poverty.No arguments either about peak oil; but I guess I think the social and economic disruption that may well result from peak oil is not going to be stopped by calls for smaller farms.

Why stop with agriculturalism and not go all the way back to a hunter-gatherer society? Some anthropologists (Sahlins, Diamond) are skeptical about the benefits of the earlier transition.Heres a an economists review of Michael Pollans Omnivores Dilemma

Alice Waters was interviewed on 60 Minutes yesterday. Her efforts in Berkeley at getting some middle schools to plant sustainable gardens as a way of teaching students about food, where it comes from and the difference between fresh and processed were touted. She also spent a lot of time talking about only using locally-grown, fresh, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables in her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. I have eaten there and there is NO comparison between the taste of fresh and what passes as wholesome in almost all restaurants.She also has been after the White House for plant a vegetable garden on the grounds in lieu of one of the flower beds. The current occupants might be more open to it than any in the past.

Nowhere does Wendell Berry say that everyone should go back to the land. He does say that a healthy economy depends on healthy agriculture, and that a healthy agriculture would involve more farms and more farmers. Until World War II, about a third of the population worked on or near a farm; today, fewer than two percent do. This is largely the effect of fuel-instensive technologies, but it's also the effect of changes in public policy and cultural priorities, and these are always subject to reconsideration and reform. At its best, the long tradition Berry represents challenges our commercial preconceptions about what counts as good work and what counts as a healthy economy. The argument is only partly about food. It is also about the relationship of productive labor to other elements of the economy, and about its relationship to democracy. It's true that when more people farm, food tends to be better -- better tasting, healthier. But skilled work that involves the body is also a source of health, and such work can be found in a shop or on a constructions site as well as on a farm. Such work also trains the mind for the work of citizenship, as Richard Sennett has argued in The Craftsman, a book that connects the social democratic tradition to ideas about work and wealth often associated with agrarianism.

This is what I love about being a blogger. You can post something about a topic you know only a small bit about and then watch people with passion and depp knowledge run with it. Perfect! So thanks, guys.

We all know that petroleum-based fertiizer is becoming has become for even large farmers. Now considEr this. In the U.S. water is fast becoming a problem. Some months ago the NYT had an article about the desertification of much of the lower half of the U.S., a region that extends from coast to coast. We already know about the forest fires in California, but in the last week there were problematic forest fires not 30 miles from New Orleans. Further, a friend from Miami told me just yesterday that there hve been such fires near Miami. Most frightening, not very long ago Atlanta was 6 weeks away from a total lack of reservoir water. Atlanta even started a law-suit claiming that part of a neighboring couny which happens to havve a large reservoir is actually part of Atlanta. Not as urgent for us perhaps, I read just this week that world-wide the banana crops are being ravaged by a mold, and soon such farms will go the way of the Dutch elms. And bananas are something like the 4th largest crop world-wide after wheat, rice and one other thing (i forget what). I agree with whomever said that Commonweal should give a lot more attention to such topic.

Joe:Thanks for answering. I appreciate any opportunity for a civil discussion. There seems to be something about Wendell Berry that some folks find terribly threatening. The most famous example is the reaction to his Harper's Magazine essay, "Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer," in which, among other things, he revealed that he write his essays, poetry and fiction longhand, which his wife, Tanya, types out afterward. Rather than discussing his ideas about technology and the body, the bulk of the resultant hate mail accused him of enslaving his wife. (I know Tanya Berry well enough to realize that she insists on typing her husband's work and that no one, not even Wendell, could force her to do anything against her will or inclination.) Last year, at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, a panel discussion of Wendell Berry's work with regard to community (Mr. Berry was not present) prompted one member of the audience to denounce Berry for wanting to return us all (and women in particular) to some unspecified "backward era." Not understanding where in any of Berry's writing she could have gotten this, I asked Berry later what he thought of such claims. His reply: " I can't think of which century I'd want to return to. From what I read, they were all pretty bad." My point here is to avoid any mistaken notion that Berry, or any of the agrarianists I've read, advocates a Maoist (agri)Cultural Revolution which would force people out of cities and into retrograde, low-paying farm jobs. Berry rather likes cities, though he's quite suspicious of urbanites who imagine they know how to run a farm. Furthermore, he's a self-described Jeffersonian democrat, strongly allergic to state-dictated social engineering. He's also quite suspicious of all who trade in abstractions: those who treat farmland as a machine from which caloric products can be manufactured, those for whom "community" designates a locale rather than a complex series of human interdependencies, or those who freely substitute the word "consumer" for "person." I have yet to see a comprehensive agrarianist legislative agends beyond a plea to end federal and state policies bent on the destruction of family farms, rural communities, and the soil from which our food grows. This in the face of economists who, noting that agriculture comprises only three percent of US GDP, propose outsourcing most or all US food production to other countries. If you've read agrarianists whose endorsement of enhanced regional agriculture necessitates an enforced end to other forms of agriculture or a compulsory exodus from cities, please let me know. I want to know whom I ought to be afraid of. It's important to recall the fifty years of federal policy it took to destroy small scale American agriculture. It will surely take as long to reverse the damage and will never happen if imposed from above. It's also worth remembering that large financial interests want nothing of the sort to happen, rather like those Americans who responded to the modest land reforms of Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz Guzman by overthrowing him in a 1954 coup, thus precipitating the deadly thirty-six year Guatemalan Civil War. (That most of the nine percent of Honduras considered arable is still in the hands of foreign multinationals is as much a cause of continued poverty in that country as it is its result.)I appreciate and share your focus on poverty and concede your point about distribution in impoverished neighborhoods. At the same time, however, I recognize that the supermarket comapnies are merely part of a larger food production/distribution network that has cares little, if at all, for the farmer who grows the "commodity," and has no incentive to improve access or selection in poor neighborhoods. The poor I know tell me they buy fresh produce when they can get it. Programs like the one I mentioned in Louisville make that possible.Thanks for staying in the conversation and for teaching me a few things along the way. I appreciate that. Note to Ann Oliver: You have every reason to worry about water supply. The book Cadillac Desert could have been a third shorter and told the same tale, but it's an important read nonetheless. the complexities of water law and water scarcity west of the hundredth meridian make my head hurt. Things are comparatively simpler in the East, but the events you refer to in the Southeast remind us how serious and widespread the problem is.

Brian: If somehow we could channel the spirit of Jane Jacobs, I would love to get her in a room with Wendell Barry. Givern her real appreciation of cities, the conversation would be fascinating.One more clarification. I think local farming is great. Here in Baltimore, we have many produce markets and the state of Maryland actually has begun active efforts to link local farmers with both individual shoppers and entire neighborhoods. I am all for it. I just don't think it is a model that can/should replace large scale farming.It is a longer conversation, but I do not think it is just the Maoist (that made me laugh) fears that folks have of Berry. I think his critique of economic globalization is not nearly as on the mark as some clearly think. But that is a conversation for another day.