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Farming is cultural as well as agricultural

Last week, in company with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, I spent a delightful evening at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, discussing the importance of good food and good farming. [Podcast 42 minutes Wendell Berry / Wes Jackson / Gene Logsdon.mp3 or here.] At one point, someone in the audience asked what we thought of the practice of urban farming. As often happens at panel discussions, we got sidetracked a little, and I did not have an opportunity to say as much as I would have like on that subject. So I will try to answer the question more fully here.

I think urban farming is one of the most hopeful developments to come down the street in a long time. First of all, it encourages the practical economic advantages and benefits of raising and consuming food locally. But its importance goes beyond that for me. I am sometimes asked why I spend my time writing about farming and gardening when, it is suggested, there are more important topics to which to apply my talents. That, in one sentence, indicates one of the most troublesome cultural problems that modern society faces today: the notion that food-getting is not an important enough subject to merit the close attention of all of us.

First of all, if you let big food business rule the roost in agriculture, you are going to get just what you pay taxes for: more big food business. For example, most people don’t even know that they are eating potatoes that have been genetically modified to kill potato bugs. If sometimes you get a notion that potatoes don’t taste as good as they used to, you just might be right. The potato bugs would surely agree with you.

But there’s something else that I think is important in this regard. The fact that our country has become divided into so-called red and blue states is an outcome directly traceable to the urban-rural division of our society. This is something of a simplification, but food producers and their social allies tend to vote red and food consumers and their social allies tend to vote blue. The division is thought to be between conservative and liberal philosophies, but it much more reflects the difference between rural and urban values. (There are plenty of urban conservatives and rural liberals.) This division is hopefully coming to an end but has a long way to go yet. We are doing a fairly good job of bringing the city to the countryside but a very poor job of bringing the country to the city-side. Both sides need each others’ viewpoints for good government and social interaction. A good way that we can heal the friction is to bring farming to the city. There is nothing that will cure an overly zealous wildlife lover quicker than to make a farmer or gardener out of her. On the other hand, there is nothing that will change the overly-isolationist view of life cherished by rural people quicker than bringing them into close contact with city life. The rural dweller may think that all those rules that cities make are silly — until he is surrounded by suburbs.

It has become common to say that food is everybody’s business. The only way I know to become convinced of that fact is to grow some food yourself or at least live right next to someone who does. Otherwise it is so easy, especially if you have plenty of money, to demand totally “organic” food: no pesticides, no hormones, no antibiotics, no chemical fertilizers, no manure, no nothing except pure undiluted water and air and leaf compost touched only by the wings of angelic organic growers. Try to grow some of that angelicly pure food yourself and you will quickly realize that whatever you get paid for it, it ain’t enough.

Try to raise livestock and chickens as lovingly as you would raise a child as so many non-husbandmen think we should. Then have a ram plant its horns or head into your rear end, dislocating a disc or two in your back. Rams and bulls and roosters are very effective educators of new farmers who think our time-honored rules of husbandry are too cruel. Go ahead. Don’t dock your lambs. You might get lucky. You might even be on the trail to a better practice. But after you have scraped the maggots out of the lamb’s hide and then watch it die anyway, come talk to me.

I like to tell the story of an editor friend of mine who worked on my books at Rodale Press back in the days when we were first trying to champion environmental ways of farming. I told her once that I had just that morning shot a groundhog that was ruining my garden. She was horrified. She could not believe that someone who appeared very civilized (in those days I could appear very civilized when I needed to) would do such a beastly thing. A couple years later, she succumbed to her own desire to farm environmentally. She and her husband bought a place in the country and began garden farming in earnest. About a year later, I met her again at a conference. She came up to me and said she wanted to apologize for the callous way she had treated me when I said I had killed a groundhog. She explained, after swearing me to secrecy:

“Last week I finally cornered the groundhog that was tearing up my plantings. It was in the tool shed. I killed it with a shovel, the only weapon handy.”
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See also:
Creating local food options in an urban setting (The New Farm)→
How one woman channeled her discovery about the perils of an industrial food system into creating local options for healthy, sustainably produced food in her own Chicago neighborhood.
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