The Good Farmer

Kentucky native Barbara Kingsolver reclaims her rural roots

Sometime around my 40th birthday I began an earnest study of agriculture. I worked quietly on this project, speaking of my new interest to almost no one because of what they might think. Specifically, they might think I was out of my mind.

Why? Because at this moment in history it’s considered smart to get out of agriculture. And because I was already embarked on a career as a writer, doing work that many people might consider intellectual and therefore superior to anything involving the risk of dirty fingernails. Also, as a woman in my early 40s, I conformed to no right-minded picture of an apprentice farmer. And finally, with some chagrin I’ll admit that I grew up among farmers and spent the first decades of my life plotting my escape from a place that seemed to offer me almost no potential for economic, intellectual, or spiritual satisfaction.

It took nigh onto half a lifetime before the valuables I’d casually left behind turned up in the lost and found.

The truth, though, is that I’d kept some of that treasure jingling in my pockets all along: I’d maintained an interest in gardening always, dragging it with me wherever I went, even into a city backyard where a neighbor who worked the night shift insisted that her numerous nocturnal cats had every right to use my raised vegetable beds for their litter box. (I retaliated, in my way, by getting a rooster who indulged his right to use the hour of 6 a.m. for his personal compunctions.) In graduate school I studied ecology and evolutionary biology, but the complex mathematical models of predator-prey cycles only made sense to me when I converted them in my mind to farmstead analogies — even though, in those days, the Ecology Department and the College of Agriculture weren’t on speaking terms. In my 20s, when I was trying hard to reinvent myself as a person without a Kentucky accent, I often found myself nevertheless the lone argumentative voice in social circles where “farmers” were lumped with political troglodytes and devotees of All-Star wrestling.

Once in the early 1980s, when cigarette smoking had newly and drastically fallen from fashion, I stood in someone’s kitchen at a party and listened to something like a Greek chorus chanting out the reasons why tobacco should be eliminated from the face of the earth, like smallpox. Some wild tug on my heart made me blurt out, “But what about the tobacco farmers?”

“Why,” someone asked, glaring, “should I care about tobacco farmers?”

I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t form the words to answer: Yes, it is carcinogenic, and generally grown with too many inputs, but tobacco is the last big commodity in America that’s still mostly grown on family farms, in an economy that won’t let these farmers shift to another crop. If it goes extinct, so do they.

I couldn’t speak because my mind was flooded with memory, pictures, scents, secret thrills. Childhood afternoons spent reading Louisa May Alcott in a barn loft suffused with the sweet smell of aged burley. The bright, warm days in late spring and early fall when school was functionally closed because whole extended families were drafted to the cooperative work of setting, cutting, stripping, or hanging tobacco. The incalculable fellowship measured out in funerals, family reunions, even bad storms or late-night calvings. The hard-muscled pride of showing I could finally throw a bale of hay onto the truck bed myself. (The year before, when I was 11, I’d had the less honorable job of driving the truck.) The satisfaction of walking across the stage at high school graduation in a county where my name and my relationship to the land were both common knowledge.

But when I was pressed, that evening in the kitchen, I didn’t try to defend the poor tobacco farmer. As if the deck were not already stacked against his little family enterprise, he was now tarred with the brush of evil along with the companies that bought his product, amplified its toxicity, and attempted to sell it to children. In most cases it’s just the more ordinary difficulty of the small family enterprise failing to measure up to the requisite standards of profitability and efficiency. And in every case the rational arguments I might frame in its favor will carry no weight without the attendant silk purse full of memories and sighs and songs of what family farming is worth. Those values are an old currency now, accepted as legal tender almost nowhere.

I found myself that day in the jaws of an impossible argument, and I find I am there still. In my professional life I’ve learned that as long as I write novels and nonfiction books about strictly human conventions and constructions, I’m taken seriously. But when my writing strays into that muddy territory where humans are forced to own up to our dependence on the land, I’m apt to be declared quaintly irrelevant by the small, acutely urban clique that decides in this country what will be called worthy literature. (That clique does not, fortunately, hold much sway over what people actually read.) I understand their purview, I think. I realize I’m beholden to people working in urban centers for many things I love: They publish books, invent theater, produce films and music. But if I had not been raised such a polite Southern girl, I’d offer these critics a blunt proposition: I’ll go a week without attending a movie or concert, you go a week without eating food, and at the end of it we’ll sit down together and renegotiate “quaintly irrelevant.”

This is a conversation that needs to happen. Increasingly I feel sure of it; I just don’t know how to go about it when so many have completely forgotten the genuine terms of human survival. Many adults, I’m convinced, believe that food comes from grocery stores. In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, a farmer coming to the failing end of his long economic struggle despaired aloud, “I’ve wished sometimes that the sons of bitches would starve. And now I’m getting afraid they actually will.”

Like that farmer, I am frustrated with the imposed acrimony between producers and consumers of food, as if this were a conflict in which one could possibly choose sides. I’m tired of the presumption of a nation divided between rural and urban populations whose interests are permanently at odds, whose votes will always be cast different ways, whose hearts and minds share no common ground. This is as wrong as blight, a useless way of thinking, similar to the propaganda warning us that any environmentalist program will necessarily be anti-human. Recently a national magazine asked me to write a commentary on the great divide between “the red and the blue” — imagery taken from election-night TV coverage that colored a map according to the party each state elected, suggesting a clear political difference between the rural heartland and urban coasts. Sorry, I replied to the magazine editors, but I’m the wrong person to ask: I live in red, tend to think blue, and mostly vote green. If you’re looking for oversimplification, skip the likes of me.

Better yet, skip the whole idea. Recall that in every one of those red states, just a razor’s edge under half the voters likely pulled the blue lever, and vice versa — not to mention the greater numbers everywhere who didn’t even show up at the polls, so far did they feel from affectionate toward any of the available options. Recall that farmers and hunters, historically, are more active environmentalists than many progressive, city-dwelling vegetarians. (And, conversely, that some of the strongest land-conservation movements on the planet were born in the midst of cities.) Recall that we all have the same requirements for oxygen and drinking water, and that we all like them clean but relentlessly pollute them. Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.

We don’t much care to think of ourselves that way — as creatures whose cleanest aspirations depend ultimately on the health of our dirt. But our survival as a species depends on our coming to grips with that, along with some other corollary notions, and when I entered a comfortable midlife I began to see that my kids would get to do the same someday, or not, depending on how well our species could start owning up to its habitat and its food chain. As we faced one environmental crisis after another, did our species seem to be making this connection? As we say back home, not so’s you’d notice.

Our gustatory industries treat food items like spoiled little celebrities, zipping them around the globe in luxurious air-conditioned cabins, dressing them up in gaudy outfits, spritzing them with makeup, and breaking the bank on advertising, for heaven’s sake. My farm-girl heritage makes me blush and turn down tickets to that particular circus. I’d rather wed my fortunes to the sturdy gal-next-door kind of food, growing what I need or getting it from local “you-pick” orchards and our farmers’ market.

It has come to pass that my husband and I, in what we hope is the middle of our lives, are in possession of a farm. It’s not a hobby homestead, it is a farm, somewhat derelict but with good potential. It came to us with some 20 acres of good, tillable bottomland, plus timbered slopes and all the pasture we can ever use, if we’re willing to claim it back from the brambles. A similar arrangement is available with the 75-year-old apple orchard. The rest of the inventory includes a hundred-year-old clapboard house, a fine old barn that smells of aged burley, a granary, poultry coops, a root cellar, and a century’s store of family legends. No poisons have been applied to this land for years, and we vow none ever will be.

Our agrarian education has come in as a slow undercurrent beneath our workaday lives and the rearing of our children. Only our closest friends, probably, have taken real notice of the changes in our household: that nearly all the food we put on our table, in every season, was grown in our garden or very nearby. That the animals we eat took no more from the land than they gave back to it, and led sunlit, contentedly grassy lives. Our children know how to bake bread, stretch mozzarella cheese, ride a horse, keep a flock of hens laying, help a neighbor, pack a healthy lunch, and politely decline the world’s less wholesome offerings. They know the first fresh garden tomato tastes as good as it does, partly, because you’ve waited for it since last Thanksgiving, and that the awful ones you could have bought at the grocery in between would only subtract from this equation. This rule applies to many things beyond tomatoes. I have noticed that the very politicians who support purely market-driven economics, which favor immediate corporate gratification over long-term responsibility, also express loud concern about the morals of our nation’s children and their poor capacity for self-restraint. I wonder what kind of tomatoes those men feed their kids.

I have heard people of this same political ilk declare that it is perhaps sad but surely inevitable that our farms are being cut up and sold to make nice-sized lawns for suburban folks to mow, because the most immediately profitable land use must prevail in a free country. And yet I have visited countries where people are perfectly free, such as the Netherlands, where this sort of disregard for farmland is both illegal and unthinkable. Plenty of people in this country, too, seem to share a respect for land that gives us food; why else did so many friends of my youth continue farming even while the economic prospects grew doubtful? And why is it that more of them each year are following sustainable practices that defer some immediate profits in favor of the long-term health of their fields, crops, animals, and watercourses? Who are the legions of Americans who now allocate more of their household budgets to food that is organically, sustainably, and locally grown, rather than buying the cheapest products they can find? My husband and I, bearing these trends in mind, did not contemplate the profitable option of subdividing our farm and changing its use. Frankly, that seemed wrong.

It’s an interesting question, how to navigate this tangled path between money and morality: not a new question by any means, but one that has taken strange turns in modern times. In our nation’s prevailing culture there exists right now a considerable confusion between prosperity and success — so much so that avarice is frequently confused with a work ethic. One’s patriotism and good sense may be called into doubt if one elects to earn less money or own fewer possessions than is humanly possible. The notable exception is that a person may do so for religious reasons: Christians are asked by conscience to tithe or assist the poor; Muslims do not collect interest; Catholics may respectably choose a monastic life of communal poverty; and any of us may opt out of a scheme that we feel to be discomforting to our faith. It is in this spirit that we, like you perhaps and so many others before us, have worked to rein in the free market’s tyranny over our family’s tiny portion of America and install values that override the profit motive. Upon doing so, we receive a greater confidence in our children’s future safety and happiness. I believe we are also happier souls in the present, for what that is worth. In the darkest months I look for solace in seed catalogs and articles on pasture rotation. I sleep better at night, feeling safely connected to the things that help make a person whole. It is fair to say that this has been, in some sense, a spiritual conversion.

Modern American culture is fairly empty of any suggestion that one’s relationship to the land, to consumption and food, is a religious matter. But it’s true; the decision to attend to the health of one’s habitat and food chain is a spiritual choice. It’s also a political choice, a scientific one, a personal and a convivial one. It’s not a choice between living in the country or the town; it is about understanding that every one of us, at the level of our cells and respiration, lives in the country and is thus obliged to be mindful of the distance between ourselves and our sustenance.

I have worlds to learn about being a good farmer. Last spring when a hard frost fell upon our orchards on May 21, I felt despair at ever getting there at all. But in any weather, I may hope to carry a good agrarian frame of mind into my orchards and fields, my kitchen, my children’s schools, my writing life, my friendships, my grocery shopping, and the county landfill. That’s the point: It goes everywhere. It may or may not be a movement — I’ll leave that to others to say. But it does move, and it works for us.

Barbara Kingsolver’s books have been published worldwide. Her most recent is Small Wonder, a collection of essays (Perennial, 2003).

Excerpted from The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land, edited by Norman Wirzba, published by the University Press of Kentucky (2003).

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