Wendell Berry-Death of the
American Family Farm

From Agribusiness Examiner #156
By Al Krebs <avkrebs@earthlink.net>



On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist,
published in The New York Review of Books an article on genetic
engineering and the controversy about it. In the latter part of his article,
Lewontin turns away from his announced premise of scientific objectivity
to attack, in a markedly personal way, the critics of industrial agriculture
and biotechnology who are trying to defend small farmers against exploitation
by global agribusiness.

He criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the
traditional agricultures of the Third World, for her appeal to "religious
morality," and calls her a "cheerleader." He speaks of some of her allies as
"a bunch of Luddites," and he says that all such people are under the
influence "of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced." He
says that present efforts to save "the independent family farmer . . . are
a hundred years too late, and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are the
wrong target." One would have thought, Lewontin says wearily, that
"industrial capitalism . . . has become so much the basis of European and
American life that any truly popular new romantic movement against it would
be inconceivable."

Lewontin is a smart man, but I don't think he understands how conventional,
how utterly trite and thoughtless, is his reaction to Shiva and other
advocates of agricultural practices that are biologically sound and
economically just. Apologists for industrialism seldom feel any need to
notice their agrarian critics, but when a little dog snaps at the heels of a
big dog long enough, now and again the big dog will have to condescend.

On such occasions, the big dog always says what Lewontin has said in his
article: You are a bunch of Luddites; you are a bunch of romantics motivated
by nostalgia for a past that never existed; it is too late; there is no
escape. The best-loved proposition is the last: Whatever happens is
inevitable; it all has been determined by economics and technology. This is
not scientific objectivity or science or scholarship. It is the luxury
politics of an academic islander.

The problem for Lewontin and others like him is that the faith in industrial
agriculture as an eternal pillar of human society is getting harder to
maintain, not because of the attacks of its opponents but because of the
increasingly manifest failures of industrial agriculture itself: massive
soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution by toxic chemicals, pollution by
animal factory wastes, depletion of aquifers, runaway subsidies, the spread
of pests and diseases by the long-distance transportation of food, mad cow
disease, indifferent cruelty to animals, the many human sufferings
associated with agricultural depression, exploitation of "cheap" labor, the
abuse of migrant workers. And now, after the catastrophes of September 11,
the media have begun to notice what critics of industrial capitalism have
always known: The corporate food supply is highly vulnerable to acts of
biological warfare.

That these problems exist and are serious is indisputable. So why are they
so little noticed by politicians of influence, by people in the media, by
university scientists and intellectuals? An increasing number of people
alerted to the problems will answer immediately: Because far too many of
those people are far too dependent on agribusiness contributions,
advertising, and grants. That, I think, is true but another reason that
needs to be considered is modern society's widespread prejudice against
country people. This prejudice is not easy to explain, in view of modern
society's continuing dependence upon rural sustenance, but its existence
also is indisputable.

Lewontin's condescension to country people and their problems is not an
aberration either in our society or in The New York Review of Books. On June
29, 2000, that magazine published this sentence: "At worst, [Rebecca West]
had a mind that was closed and cold, like a small town lawyer's, prizing
facts but estranged from imaginative truth." And on December 20, 2001, it
published this: "The Gridiron dinner, as the affair is known, drags on for
about five hours, enlivened mainly by the speeches of the politicians, whose
ghostwriters in recent years have consistently outdone the journalists in
the sharpness and grace of their wit (leaving journalists from the provinces
with a strong impulse to follow the groundhogs back into their holes)."

It is possible to imagine that some readers will ascribe my indignation at
those sentences to the paranoia of an advocate for the losing side. But I
would ask those readers to imagine a reputable journal nowadays that would
attribute closed, cold minds to Jewish lawyers, or speak of black
journalists wanting to follow the groundhogs into their holes. This, it
seems to me, would pretty effectively dissipate the ha-ha.

Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as
"provincial" can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper
editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic
affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article
entitled "The Idiocy of Rural Life." And I remember a Kentucky high school
basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
"Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team's no good."

I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and
economic power, that the world's small farmers and other "provincial" people
have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the
objects of small, "humane" consideration, but if they are damaged or
destroyed "collaterally," then "we very much regret it," but they were in
the way --- and, by implication, not quite as human as "we" are.

The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many
dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of
economic genocide --- less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but
just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in
ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people
of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic
stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to
say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially,
intellectually, and culturally inferior to "us."

Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are
all good farmers or that they live the "idyllic life"? I certainly am not.
And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the
negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent
son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected
over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images
serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable
vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local
culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the
gravest kind.

I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or
rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and
others have said many times before: These stereotypes don't fit. They don't
work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are "closed and
cold," but some, too, have minds that are open and warm.

And some "provincial" journalists may be comparable to groundhogs, I
suppose, though I know of none to whom that simile exactly applies, but some
too are brilliant and brave and eminently useful. I am thinking, for
example, of Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in
Whitesburg, Kentucky, who for many decades have opposed the coal companies
whenever necessary and have unflinchingly suffered the penalties, including

Do I think the Gishes would be intimidated by the frivolous wit of
ghostwriters at the Gridiron dinner? I do not. I have been attentive all my
life to the doings of small town lawyers and "provincial" journalists, and I
could name several of both sorts who have not been admirable, but I could
name several also who have been heroes among those who wish to be just. I
can say, too, that, having lived both in great metropolitan centers of
culture and in a small farming community, I have seen few things dumber and
tackier --- or more provincial --- than this half-scared urban contempt for

The stereotype of the farmer as rustic simpleton or uncouth redneck is, like
most stereotypes, easily refuted: All you have to do is compare it with a
number of real people. But the stereotype of the small farmer as obsolete
human clinging to an obsolete kind of life, though equally false, is harder
to deal with because it comes from a more complicated prejudice, entrenched
in superstition and a kind of insanity.

The prejudice begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work
outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work
is bad, all "labor-saving" is good. The insanity is to rationalize the
industrial pillage of the natural world and to heap scorn upon the
land-using cultures on which human society depends for its life. The
industrialization of agriculture has replaced working people with machines
and chemicals.

The people thus replaced have, supposedly, gone into the "better" work of
offices or factories. But in all the enterprises of the industrial economy,
as in industrial war, we finally reach the end of the desk jobs, the indoor
work, the glamour of forcing nature to submission by push-buttons and
levers, and we come to the unsheltered use of the body. Somebody, finally,
must lift the garbage can, stop the leaks in the roof, fix the broken
machinery, walk in the mud and the snow, build and mend the pasture fences,
help the calving cow.

Now, in the United States, the despised work of agriculture is done by the
still-surviving and always struggling small farmers, and by many Mexican and
Central American migrant laborers who live and work a half step, if that,
above slavery. The work of the farmland, in other words, is now accomplished
by two kinds of oppression, and most people do not notice, or if they notice
they do not care. If they are invited to care, they are likely to excuse
themselves by answers long available in the "public consciousness."

Farmers are better off when they lose their farms. They are improved by
being freed of the "mind-numbing work" of farming. Mexican migrant field
hands, like Third World workers in our sweatshops, are being improved by our
low regard and low wages. And besides, however objectionable from the
standpoint of "nostalgia," the dispossession of farmers and their
replacement by machines, chemicals, and oppressed migrants is "inevitable,"
and it is "too late" for correction.

Such talk, it seems to me, descends pretty directly from the old pro-slavery
rhetoric: Slavery was an improvement over "savagery," the slaves were happy
in their promotion, slavery was sanctioned by God. The moral difference is
not impressive.

But the prejudice against rural people is not merely an offense against
justice and common decency. It also obscures or distorts perception of
issues and problems of the greatest practical urgency. The unacknowledged
question beneath the dismissal of the agrarian small farmers is this: What
is the best way to farm --- not anywhere or everywhere, but in every one of
the Earth's fragile localities? What is the best way to farm this farm? In
this ecosystem? For this farmer? For this community? For these consumers?
For the next seven generations? In a time of terrorism? To answer those
questions, we will have to go beyond our preconceptions about farmers and
other "provincial" people.

And we will have to give up a significant amount of scientific objectivity,
too. That is because the standards required to measure the qualities of
farming are not just scientific or economic or social or cultural, but all
of those, employed all together. This line of questioning finally must
encounter such issues as preference, taste, and appearance. What kind of
farming and what kind of food do you like? How should a good steak or tomato
taste? What does a good farm or good crop look like? Is this farm landscape
healthful enough? Is it beautiful enough? Are health and beauty, as applied
to landscapes, synonymous?

With such questions, we leave objective science and all other specialized
disciplines behind, and we come to something like an undepartmented
criticism or connoisseurship that is at once communal and personal. Even
though we obviously must answer our questions about farming with all the
intellectual power we have, we must not fail to answer them also with
affection. I mean the complex, never-completed affection for our land and
our neighbors that is true patriotism.

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