In defense of the family farm

October 6, 2008

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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From Wendell Berry (1986)

With industrialization has come a general depreciation of work. As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore. We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive sites as on the assembly lines. One works, not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit—a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation. This is explained, of course, by the dullness of the work, by the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made. What can be the status of the working small farmer in a nation whose motto is a sigh of relief: “Thank God it’s Friday”?

…By the dismemberment of work, by the degradation of our minds as workers, we are denied our highest calling, for, as Gill says, “every man is called to give love to the work of the hands. Every man is called to be an artist.” The small family farm is one of the last places—they are getting rarer every day—where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker—and some farmers still do talk about “making the crops”—is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need…

The family farm is failing because it belongs to an order of values and a kind of life that are failing. We can only find it wonderful, when we put our minds to it, that many people now seem willing to mount an emergency effort to “save the family farm” who have not yet thought to save the family or the community, the neighborhood schools or the small local businesses, the domestic arts of the household and homestead, or cultural and moral tradition—all of which are also failing, and on all of which the survival of the family farm depends.

The family farm is failing because the pattern it belongs to is failing, and the principal reason for this failure is the universal adoption, by our people and our leaders alike, of industrial values, which are based on three assumptions:

  1. That value equals price—that the value of the farm, for example, is whatever it would bring on sale, because both a place and its price are “assets.” There is no essential difference between farming and selling a farm.

  2. That all relations are mechanical. That a farm, for example, can be used like a factory, because there is no essential difference between a farm and a factory.
  3. That the sufficient and definitive human motive is competitiveness—that a community, for example, can be treated like a resource or a market, because there is no difference between a community and a resource or a market…

Marty Strange has written of his belief “that commercial agriculture can survive within pluralistic American society, as we know it, if the farm is rebuilt on some of the values with which it is popularly associated: conservation, independence, self-reliance, family, and community. To sustain itself, commercial agriculture will have to reorganize its social and economic structure as well as its technological base and production methods in a way that reinforces these values.” I agree. Those are the values that offer us survival, not just as farmers, but as human beings. And I would point out that the transformation that Marty is proposing cannot be accomplished by the governments, the corporations, or the universities; if it is to be done, the farmers themselves, their families, and their neighbors will have to do it…

I have in mind… the one example known to me of an American community of small family farmers who have not only survived but thrived during some very difficult years: I mean the Amish. I do not recommend, of course, that all farmers should become Amish, nor do I want to suggest that the Amish are perfect people or that their way of life is perfect. What I want to recommend are some Amish principles:

  1. They have preserved their families and communities.

  2. They have maintained the practices of neighborhood.
  3. They have maintained the domestic arts of kitchen and garden, household and homestead.
  4. They have limited their use of technology so as not to displace or alienate available human labor or available free sources of power (the sun, wind, water, and so on.)
  5. They have limited their farms to a scale that is compatible both with the practice of neighborhood and with the optimum use of low-power technology.
  6. By the practices and limits already mentioned, they have limited their costs.
  7. They have educated their children to live at home and serve their communities.
  8. They esteem farming as both a practical art and a spiritual discipline.

These principles define a world to be lived in by human beings, not a world to be exploited by managers, stockholders, and experts.
See also Gene’s A Farm Is A Large Garden (or A Garden Is A Small Farm)

and Jeff’s The Smaller The Farm, The Better The Food
Copyright © 2009 by Wendell Berry from Home Economics: Fourteen Essays. Reprinted by permission from Counterpoint. |

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a prolific writer, an environmentalist, and a farmer. He has received numerous honors, such as the National Humanities Medal and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and is a fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. His recent books include The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian WritingsWhat Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, and Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior, Food