Down on the Farm

On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist, published an article in The New York Review of Books on the genetic engineering controversy. In it, Lewontin criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the traditional agriculture 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 said: 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.

Lewontin’s condescension to country people and their problems is not an aberration in our society. Disparagement 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. 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.

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 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.

HAVING LIVED BOTH in great metropolitan centers and in a small farming community, I have seen few things dumber and tackier–or more provincial–than this half-scared urban contempt for “provinciality.” 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.

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.

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer in Port Royal, Kentucky. From The Progressive (April 2002). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421 Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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