More and more consumers are now becoming aware that our supposed abundance of cheap and healthful food is to a considerable extent illusory. They are beginning to see that the social, ecological, and even the economic costs of such 'cheap food' are, in fact, great. They are beginning to see that a system of food production that is dependent on massive applications of drugs and chemicals cannot, by definition, produce 'pure food.' And they are beginning to see that a kind of agriculture that involves unprecedented erosion and depletion of soil, unprecedented waste of water, and unprecedented destruction of the farm population cannot by any accommodation of sense or fantasy be called 'sustainable.'
That's what we learn at the end of the 1973 movie, starring Charlton Heston, where he plays a 21st century detective in (the still overpopulated) New York City. The food supply is Soylent Green, comprised of soybean and lentilOr so the government would have you believe in this guilty pleasure of sci-fi conspiracy cinema.
Almost 20 years later, what seemed like the wildest paranoia on a lazy 70s night at the drive-in somehow doesn't seem quite as far-fetched (though, c'mon, nobody's calling it a documentary).
With headlines ranging from Mad Cow disease to the selling of local water supplies to the impact of bovine growth hormones on adolescents to the toxicity of our food supply, our agrarian roots have grown up to quite an angry tangle in our post modern industrialized society.
(The origins of Mad Cow disease, for example [Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cows], are no secret. Left to their own devices, cows aren't carnivorous. Left to the devices of factory farming and agribusiness, cattle were fed their ground up and rendered contaminated friends, and they ate two friends, and so on, and so forth.)
Debates surrounding issues like these inspire and inform international discussion, like the ones that will probably arise from this weekend's "Future of Agrarianism" conference at Georgetown College (which also celebrates the 25th anniversary of Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, known for exploring the impact of "the demise of traditional farming practices and the destruction of local farming communities")
As these anniversaries arrive, these are discussions that merit careful attention because - more than any time in recent memory - we are a society at odds with itself.
The questions these books posed 25, and even 40 years ago, are more relevant now than ever.
And that is nowhere more evident than in the laws of supply and demand.
Yes - for example - there may be a surge in "certified organic" produce, but how much of that is a commitment to sustainability and how much is just fashion? (How many consumers know what it is, beyond popular? How it's regulated? By whom? And who's lobbying whom for what kind of truth in labeling?)
There are hardcore tree-hugging Luddites who proudly push toward an entirely "organic" economy and agronomy.
There are those who straddle a semi-industrial middle ground, with at least one foot on the science and technology side of the agribusiness fence - to the extent that it can improve their productivity and profitability - happily trading their mules for tractors, with nary a moment of nostalgia for "the good ole days."
Then there are the factory farmers in bed with biotech, who long ago sold their souls to the devil and Monsanto (whom, many would insist, might actually be the same entity).
How educated are any of us about these issues? How hard do we want to work at it?
Maybe we don't want fish genes spliced into our potatoes. And No, genetic engineering is NOT what farmers have been doing for years, despite biotech's propaganda that suggests otherwise.
In genetic engineering, genetic material can be inserted from one species into another (popular in agribusiness and with factory farms).
Hybridization - which family farmers have engaged in for years - is breeding. Genetic material can be swapped among different varieties of the same species. One variety of corn might be mated with another for a new variety. Or one crop might be bred to a closely-related crop to attempt to pick up that crop's desired trait (resistance to pests or disease).
In lay terms, many scientists explain genetic engineering as insertion (which is open to unpredictable and possibly dangerous outcomes), whereas breeding involves the process of selection, and mimics the natural order.
It's an important distinction, and it isn't rocket science.
Some agribusiness, on the other hand, is.
According to a recent article by Laura Orlando in Dollars and Sense, commemorating the anniversary of Silent Spring, "The world uses five billion pounds of pesticides every year, with almost half used in the United States. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as many as 500,000 U.S. products pose physical or health hazards and can be defined as ' hazardous chemicals.' U.S. industry uses 70,000 different chemical substances, but there is little or no attempt to assess their health or environmental impacts. Each year, over 1,000 new synthetic chemicals are introduced in the United States."
Those are sobering statistics, but it's hard to argue that we're moving towards self-reliance in a society of conspicuous consumerism where many of us would buy an SUV that came equipped with its own Sherpa if one was listed on the MSRP sticker as an option.
Orlando reflects, "Forty years after Rachel Carson tripped the alarm bell, we have been largely conditioned by industry to accept that which is harmful to us and to reject the warning signs of environmental devastation. We have been made ready to believe that a conservation ethic is incompatible with prosperity and that with creature comforts come sacrifices. Many of us want the sugar coating because, to a great extent, we are consumer junkies who believe that, if we demand that industry change its behavior, we will have to change our own."
And that's the rub.
Where do we draw the line between acceptable technology and science that's of legitimate benefit to the family farmer, and figuring out new and improved ways to poison ourselves?
How much time are we willing to take to educate ourselves about the food supply?
Is it more than we spend at the gas pump when we dedicate a certain number of human lives in terms of military personnel to be sacrificed to oil interests overseas?
When we talk about sustainable communities, can we continue to elect executives who persist in trying to lure low-wage misery industries like hog and poultry farming to the state?
There's probably some truth in George Carlin's routine when he says we may well be arrogantly overestimating our impact on the earth - and that when the earth has had enough, it'll shake us all off and start over.
In the meantime though, a little dialogue on these issues won't hurt us.
"The Future of Agrarianism" conference will be held at Georgetown College, April 25-April 27. You can also view updates and daily reports and photos from the conference daily at www.commoditygrowers.com.
Woe goes to the lowly part-time catttleman who thinks he'll throw fourteen cows and a bull into a pasture and soon start cashing fat checks. They die having their babies and the babies die, too. They fall into holes and don't ever get up. They get out in the road and get hit by cars. They have to be caught and held and innoculated, dipped, dusted, palpated, deflated, dehorned, castrated, artificially inseminated, weighed, wormed, fitted with tags, or chased down by the vet when they throw out their uteruses. They don't have enough sense to get in out of the rain. They're a large disappointment to a man who wishes a carefree existence in this world.
"Sustainable" was not a word that was thrown around much on my families' farms.
In a letter from my dad last week (who refuses to get email), he reminded me of the old joke about the farmer who wins a million dollars in the lottery and, when asked what his plans are, responds dryly, "keep farmin' till it's gone, I reckon."
The letter went on to say, "In Eastern Kentucky, you about have to have a job on the railroad or carry the mail to do much farming."
Although both sides of my family are farmers, my dad also worked at the National Standard factory for 15 years (now closed), and finally went into the coal industry to make a living.
My Uncle Don has inherited the family farm on my mother's side, and he and my Aunt Helen work at it full-time.
Before that, Uncle Don did his time in the military (and served as part of the honor guard in D.C.) Then he did a stint with the railroad. And for years, he also "carried the mail" - which entailed driving left-handed and sitting on the right side of whichever truck or jeep he had and stuffing mailboxes. Before I started school, I was sometimes allowed to ride along with him in the very early morning and put the letters in the boxes (possibly violating who knows what kind of federal statutebut I was very careful).
At our farm, we often rented out our tobacco base, but Don grew tobacco on every available legal inch.
From the time I was 8, my summer job was setting tobacco for him, and occasionally some of the neighboring farmers. (Tommy Ohler, who also ran the dairy, will still verify that I left his two teenaged sons in the dust until he finally told them to "go on off to the house and lie down boys.")
Setting was the only tobacco job I was suited for. I could pull plants, but not very fast. I definitely wasn't strong enough to cut, and I was (and still am) too short to sucker. My hands were (and are) too small to enjoy much success as a stripper. A farmer will know what that means. Still, I do know what it's like to wake up in the morning praying for rain so the tobacco will come in case.
Every night at dusk would be the time that we would "do up the work."
This was a fairly lengthy routine of feeding every animal on the place, milking the cows, transferring the right animals to the right stalls, and the work was almost always finished by flashlight. In the winter, the cows got sileage and hay, and in the summer they got grass and grain. (No hormones, or none that I recall.)
Sunday mornings, I would spend bundled (head to toe) in Uncle Don's army coat heading cattle, as we switched them from pasture to pasture. And I will never forget a certain blue roan who got away from me as we were packing her up in the International cattle truck to go to the stock sale in London. I ran her for what felt like miles until I finally penned her in a corner and yelled for the guys to QUICK bring the truck and the chute. At which point, she actually leaned back slightly on her haunches before gathering her strength and jumping straight over my head. I found out much, much later that her destination was abruptly changed, at that moment, from the stock auction to the slaughterhouse, in probable retribution for the terror that my uncle must've felt that she could've killed me. She was just a poor dumb animal (as are we all), but I can't say I was sorry.
Back then, it never occurred to me that I would grow up to live anything other than an agrarian life.
Like the men in my family, I knew I'd need a supplemental income, so I'd planned on a career as a large animal vet. It seemed like a pretty decent alternative to the railroad or the military.
I envy friends like Larry Brown who've figured out a way to be writers who can have the best of both worlds: city and country.
But I know he maintains no illusions about what the rural life costs him.
As he writes about the death of the baby goats in Billy Ray's Farm, killed by a coyote: "And there was not one thing I could do to prevent any of it, given the circumstances of my station and my family and cattle matters that were out of my hands. But still, it hurt. It hurt about as bad as anything had in a while. They were just so goddamn cute. If you could have seen them, you would know what I mean."
The Browns don't have goats any more.
Larry still keeps Nanette's horn in his desk drawer though, "a spook, a talisman, a key."
He ends the chapter with, "It reminds me of what is possible in this life in the country, and sometimes what is not."
What better way to sum up an agrarian?
|l||Agrarianism, old and new
When we remember the high expectations held universally by the founders of the American Union for a more perfect order of society, and then consider the state of life in this country today, it is bound to appear to reasonable people that somehow the experiment has proved abortive, and that in some way, a great commonwealth has gone wrong. There are those among us who defend and rejoice in this miscarriage, saying we are more prosperous. They tell us - and we are ready to believe - that collectively we are possessed of enormous wealth and that this in itself is compensation for whatever has been lost. But when we, as individuals, set out to find and enjoy this wealth, it becomes elusive and its goods escape usFor those who are Southern farmers this is a particularly bitter fact to consider.
-Andrew Lytle, "the Hind Tit" in I'll Take My Stand
Agrarian" used to describe our society. In the 1930s, Agrarianism was a movement that arose out of Vanderbilt University (overlapping, in some cases, but not to be confused with the literary enclave known as the Fugitives). Its proponents included Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Andrew Lytle, culminating in the 12 essays of I'll Take My Stand.
Over the years, these Agrarians fell in and out of fashion.
Criticism of the book was often mired in its racist language (and ideals).
In Lytle's 1995 wire service obituary, his commitment to living an agrarian life in Harrison County, commuting to teach at the University of Kentucky, was observed. A retired UK history professor and Vanderbilt alum was quoted in the obit as saying, "He nearly starved and froze to death at some old farmhouse He was going to live out the life, the kind of lifestyle that they had sort of idealized in I'll Take My Stand. That was their manifesto against industrialized society."
In the post World War II era, agrarianism enjoyed something of a resurgence, as all the power and technology harnessed for the war effort began to be applied at home - and the environmental and health consequences began to warrant notice.
As Ron Kroese summarized it an article for Conscious Choice, "With regard to agriculture during the past half century, it is scarcely an exaggeration to state that WWII didn't so much end as turn the guns and bombs on the lands."
Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva
Genetic Engineering, Food and our Environment by Luke Anderson
Billy Ray's Farm by Larry Brown
The Dream of Earth by Father Thomas Berry
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (also: Another Turn of the Crank)
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (a 1960s classic on pesticides)
Old McDonald's Factory Farm by David Coats
The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Edited by Eric T. Freyfogle
Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, by Dr. Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey
Our Stolen Future (about widely prevalent synthetic chemicals that disrupt hormones) by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers
I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners (John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Gould Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier, Allen Tate, Herman Clarence Nixon, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, John Wade, Henry Kline, Stark Young.
Considering The Unsettling of America 25 Years Later
April 25-27, 2002 A Conference at Georgetown College, Georgetown, KY
Thursday, April 25
6:00pm Welcome and Announcements
6:15pm Fred Kirschenmann (Iowa State University)-"Where Are We Now?"
8:00pm Gene Logsdon & Maurice Telleen-"Old and New Agrarianism"
Friday, April 26
8:30am Brian Donahue (Brandeis University)-"Agrarianism in the Suburbs"
10:00am Eric T. Freyfogle (University of Illinois)-"Land Ownership & Land-Use Planning"
2:00pm Karen Armstrong Cummings, Mary Berry Smith, Steve Smith-"The View From the Local"
4:00pm Susan Witt (E.F. Schumacher Society)-"The Community Land Trust
8:00pm Wendell Berry-"Why Agrarianism Matters"
Saturday, April 27
8:30am Wes Jackson (The Land Institute)-"Agrarianism: Mere Nostalgia or Practical Necessity?"
10:30am Mark Ritchie (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)-"Economics as if Agrarianism Mattered"
2:00pm David Kline-"An Amish View"
4:00pm Hank Graddy, John Berry-"The Legal and Legislative Front"
7:30pm Vandana Shiva-"A View From India"
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