Conservation & Environmental Matters
------ Forwarded Message
REMEMBER WELL a summer morning in about 1950 when my father sent a hiredman with a McCormick High Gear No. 9 mowing machine and a team of mulesto the field I was mowing with our nearly new Farmall A. That memory isa landmark in my mind and my history. I had been born into the way offarming represented by the mule team, and I loved it. I knewirresistibly that the mules were good ones. They were stepping alongbeautifully at a rate of speed in fact only a little slower than mine. But now I saw them suddenly from the vantage point of the tractor, and Iremember how fiercely I resented their slowness. I saw them as “in myway.”
This is not an exceptional or a remarkably dramatic bit of history. Irecite it to confirm that the industrialization of agriculture is a partof my familiar experience. I don’t have the privilege of looking at itas an outsider.
We were mowing that morning, the teamster with his mules and I with thetractor, in the field behind the barn on my father’s home place, wherehe and before him his father had been born, and where his father haddied in February of 1946. The old way of farming was intact in mygrandfather’s mind until the day he died at eighty-two. He had worked mules all his life, understood them thoroughly, andloved the good ones passionately. He knew tractors only from adistance, he had seen only a few of them, and he rejected them out ofhand because he thought, correctly, that they compacted the soil. Evenso, four years after his death his grandson’s sudden resentmentof the “slow” mule team foretold what history would bear out: thetractor would stay and the mules would go. Year after year, agriculturewould be adapted more and more to the technology and the processes ofindustry and to the rule of industrial economics. This transformationoccurred with astonishing speed because, by the measures it set foritself, it was wonderfully successful. It “saved labor,” it conferredthe prestige of modernity, and it was highly productive. During the fourteen years after 1950 I was much away from home, though Inever entirely departed from farming or at least from thoughts offarming, and my affection for my homeland remained strong. In 1964 myfamily and I returned to Kentucky and settled on a hillside farm in mynative community, where we have continued to live. Perhaps because I wasa returned traveler intending to stay, I now saw the place more clearlythan before. I saw it critically, too, for it was evident at once thatthe human life of the place, the life of the farms and the farmingcommunity, was in decline. The old self-sufficient way of farming waspassing away. The economic prosperity that had visited the farmersbriefly during World War II and for a few years afterward had ended. Thelittle towns that once had been social and economic centers, throngedwith country people on Saturdays and Saturday nights, were losing out tothe bigger towns and the cities. The rural neighborhoods, once heldtogether by common memories, common work, and the sharing of help, hadbegun to dissolve. There were no longer local markets for chickens oreggs or cream. The spring lamb industry, once a staple of the region,was gone. The tractors and other mechanical devices certainly weresaving the labor of the farmers and farmhands who had moved away, butthose who had stayed were working harder and longer than ever.
HE EFFECTS OF THIS PROCESS of industrialization have become so apparent,so numerous, so favorable to the agribusiness corporations, and sounfavorable to everything else, that by now the questions troubling meand a few others in the ‘60s and ‘70s are being asked everywhere. It hasbecome increasingly clear that the way we farm affects the localcommunity, and that the economy of the local community affects the waywe farm; that the way we farm affects the health and integrity of thelocal ecosystem, and that the farm is intricately dependent, eveneconomically, upon the health of the local ecosystem. We can no longerpretend that agriculture is a sort of economic machine withinterchangeable parts, the same everywhere, determined by “marketforces” and independent of everything else. We are not farming in aspecialist capsule or a professionalist department; we are farming inthe world, in a webwork of dependences and influences probably moreintricate than we will ever understand. It has become clear, in short,that we have been running our fundamental economic enterprise by thewrong rules. We were wrong to assume that agriculture could beadequately defined by reductionist science and determinist economics.
It is no longer possible to deny that context exists and is an issue. If you can keep the context narrow enough (and the accounting periodshort enough), then the industrial criteria of labor saving and highproductivity seem to work well. But the old rules of ecologicalcoherence and of community life have remained in effect. The costs ofignoring them have accumulated, until now the boundaries of ourreductive and mechanical explanations have collapsed. Their collapsereveals, plainly enough for all to see, the ecological and socialdamages they were meant to conceal. It will seem paradoxical to somethat the national and global corporate economies have narrowed thecontext for thinking about agriculture, but it is merely the truth. Those large economies, in their understanding and in their accounting,have excluded any concern for the land and the people. Now, in themidst of so much unnecessary human and ecological destruction, we arefacing the necessity of a new start in agriculture.
HE TRACTOR’S ARRIVAL HAD SIGNALED, among other things, agriculture’sshift from an almost exclusive dependence on free solar energy to atotal dependence on costly fossil fuel. But in 1950, like most people atthat time, I was years away from the first inkling of the limits of thesupply of cheap fuel.
We had entered an era of limitlessness, or the illusion thereof, andthis in itself is a sort of wonder. My grandfather lived a life oflimits, both suffered and strictly observed, in a world of limits. Ilearned much of that world from him and others, and then I changed; Ientered the world of labor-saving machines and of limitless cheap fossilfuel. It would take me years of reading, thought, and experience tolearn again that in this world limits are not only inescapable butindispensable.
Mechanical farming makes it easy to think mechanically about the landand its creatures. It makes it easy to think mechanically even aboutoneself, and the tirelessness of tractors brought a new depth ofweariness into human experience, at a cost to health and family lifethat has not been fully accounted.
Once one’s farm and one’s thoughts have been sufficiently mechanized,industrial agriculture’s focus on production, as opposed to maintenanceor stewardship, becomes merely logical. And here the trouble completesitself. The almost exclusive emphasis on production permits the way ofworking to be determined not by the nature and character of the farm inits ecosystem and in its human community, but rather by the national orthe global economy and the available or affordable technology. The farmand all concerns not immediately associated with production have ineffect disappeared from sight. The farmer too in effect has vanished. Heis no longer working as an independent and loyal agent of his place, hisfamily, and his community, but instead as the agent of an economy thatis fundamentally adverse to him and to all that he ought to stand for.
HE WORD “HUSBANDRY” is the name of a connection. In its original sense,it is the name of the work of a domestic man, a man who has accepted abondage to the household. To husband is to use with care, to keep, tosave, to make last, to conserve. Old usage tells us that there is ahusbandry also of the land, of the soil, of the domestic plants andanimals—obviously because of the importance of these things to thehousehold. And there have been times, one of which is now, when somepeople have tried to practice a proper human husbandry of thenondomestic creatures, in recognition of the dependence of ourhouseholds and domestic life upon the wild world. Husbandry is the nameof all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly toour places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strandsin the living network that sustains us.
Most and perhaps all of industrial agriculture’s manifest failuresappear to be the result of an attempt to make the land produce withouthusbandry. The attempt to remake agriculture as a science and anindustry has excluded from it the age-old husbandry which was centraland essential to it.
This effort had its initial and probably its most radical success inseparating farming from the economy of subsistence. Through World WarII, farm life in my region (and, I think, nearly everywhere) restedsolidly upon the garden, dairy, poultry flock, and meat animals that fedthe farm’s family. Especially in hard times farm families, and theirfarms, survived by means of their subsistence economy. The industrialprogram, on the contrary, suggested that it was “uneconomic” for a farmfamily to produce its own food; the effort and the land would be betterapplied to commercial production. The result is utterly strange in humanexperience: farm families that buy everything they eat at the store. An intention to replace husbandry with science was made explicit in therenaming of disciplines in the colleges of agriculture. “Soil husbandry”became “soil science,” and “animal husbandry” became “animal science.”This change is worth lingering over because of what it tells us aboutour susceptibility to poppycock. Purporting to increase thesophistication of the humble art of farming, this change in factbrutally oversimplifies it.
“Soil science,” as practiced by soil scientists, and even more as it hasbeen handed down to farmers, has tended to treat the soil as a lifelessmatrix in which “soil chemistry” takes place and “nutrients” are “madeavailable.” And this, in turn, has made farming increasinglyshallow—literally so—in its understanding of the soil. The modern farmis understood as a surface on which various mechanical operations areperformed, and to which various chemicals are applied. The undersurfacereality of organisms and roots is mostly ignored. “Soil husbandry” is a different kind of study, involving a differentkind of mind. Soil husbandry leads, in the words of Sir Albert Howard,to understanding “health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one greatsubject.” We apply the word “health” only to living creatures, and tosoil husbandry a healthy soil is a wilderness, mostly unstudied andunknown, but teemingly alive. The soil is at once a living community ofcreatures and their habitat. The farm’s husband, its family, its cropsand animals, all are members of the soil community; all belong to thecharacter and identity of the place. To rate the farm family merely as“labor” and its domestic plants and animals merely as “production” isthus an oversimplification, both radical and destructive. “Science” istoo simple a word to name the complex of relationships and connectionsthat compose a healthy farm—a farm that is a full membership of the soilcommunity. The husbandry of mere humans, of course, cannot be complexenough either. But husbandry always has understood that what ishusbanded is ultimately a mystery. A farmer, as one of his farmercorrespondents once wrote to Liberty Hyde Bailey, is “a dispenser of the‘Mysteries of God.’” The mothering instinct of animals, for example, isa mystery that husbandry must use and trust mostly withoutunderstanding. The husband, unlike the “manager” or the would-beobjective scientist, belongs inherently to the complexity and themystery that is to be husbanded, and so the husbanding mind is bothcareful and humble. Husbandry originates precautionary sayings like“Don’t put all your eggs into one basket” and “Don’t count your chickensbefore they hatch.” It does not boast of technological feats that will“feed the world.”
Husbandry, which is not replaceable by science, nevertheless usesscience, and corrects it too. It is the more comprehensive discipline. To reduce husbandry to science, in practice, is to transformagricultural “wastes” into pollutants, and to subtract perennials andgrazing animals from the rotation of crops. Without husbandry, theagriculture of science and industry has served too well the purpose ofthe industrial economy in reducing the number of landowners and theself-employed. It has transformed the United States from a country ofmany owners to a country of many employees.
Without husbandry, “soil science” too easily ignores the community ofcreatures that live in and from, that make and are made by, the soil. Similarly, “animal science” without husbandry forgets, almost as arequirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as fellowcreatures of the animals. It forgets that animals are so calledbecause we once believed them to be endowed with souls. Animalscience has led us away from that belief or any such belief in thesanctity of animals. It has led us instead to the animal factorywhich, like the concentration camp, is a vision of Hell. Animalhusbandry, on the contrary, comes from and again leads to thepsalmist’s vision of good grass, good water, and the husbandry of God. Agriculture must mediate between nature and the human community, withties and obligations in both directions. To farm well requires anelaborate courtesy toward all creatures, animate and inanimate. It issympathy that most appropriately enlarges the context of human work. Contexts become wrong by being too small-too small, that is, to containthe scientist or the farmer or the farm family or the local ecosystem orthe local community-and this is crucial. “Out of context,” as WesJackson has said, “the best minds do the worst damage.”
UR RECENT FOCUS UPON PRODUCTIVITY, genetic and technological uniformity,and global trade—all supported by supposedly limitless supplies of fuel,water, and soil—has obscured the necessity for local adaptation. But ourcircumstances are changing rapidly now, and this requirement will beforced upon us again by terrorism and other kinds of political violence,by chemical pollution, by increasing energy costs, by depleted soils,aquifers, and streams, and by the spread of exotic weeds, pests, anddiseases. We are going to have to return to the old questions aboutlocal nature, local carrying capacities, and local needs. And we aregoing to have to resume the breeding of plants and animals to fit theregion and the farm.
The same obsessions and extravagances that have caused us to ignore theissue of local adaptation have caused us to ignore the issue of form. These two issues are so closely related that it is difficult to talkabout one without talking about the other. During the half century andmore of our neglect of local adaptation, we have subjected our farms toa radical oversimplification of form. The diversified and reasonablyself-sufficient farms of my region and of many other regions have beenconglomerated into larger farms with larger fields, increasinglyspecialized, and subjected increasingly to the strict, unnaturallinearity of the production line.
But the first requirement of a form is that it must be comprehensive; itmust not leave out something that essentially belongs within it. Theform of the farm must answer to the farmer’s feeling for the place, itscreatures, and its work. It is a never-ending effort of fitting togethermany diverse things. It must incorporate the lifecycle and the fertilitycycles of animals. It must bring crops and livestock into balance andmutual support. It must be a pattern on the ground and in the mind. Itmust be at once ecological, agricultural, economic, familial, andneighborly. Soon the majority of the world’s people will be living incities. We are now obliged to think of so many people demanding themeans of life from the land, to which they will no longer have apractical connection, and of which they will have little knowledge. Weare obliged also to think of the consequences of any attempt to meetthis demand by large-scale, expensive, petroleum-dependent technologicalschemes that will ignore local conditions and local needs. The problemof renewing husbandry, and the need to promote a general awareness ofeverybody’s agricultural responsibilities, thus becomes urgent. How can we restore a competent husbandry to the minds of the world’sproducers and consumers? This effort is already in progress on manyfarms and in many urban consumer groups scattered across our countryand the world. But we must recognize too that this effort needs anauthorizing focus and force that would grant it a new legitimacy,intellectual rigor, scientific respectability, and responsibleteaching. There are many reasons to hope that this might be suppliedby our colleges of agriculture.
The effort of husbandry is partly scientific but it is entirelycultural; and a cultural initiative can exist only by becoming personal. It will become increasingly clear, I believe, that agriculturalscientists will need to work as indwelling members of agriculturalcommunities or of consumer communities. It is not irrational to proposethat a significant number of these scientists should be farmers, and sosubject their scientific work, and that of their colleagues, to theinfluence of a farmer’s practical circumstances. Along with the rest ofus, they will need to accept all the imperatives of husbandry as thecontext of their work. We cannot keep things from falling apart in oursociety if they do not cohere in our minds and in our lives. This article has been abridged for the web.
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