Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wendell Berry: Renewing Husbandry

Renewing Husbandry
by Wendell Berry

I REMEMBER WELL a summer morning in about 1950 when my father sent a hired man with a McCormick High Gear No. 9 mowing machine and a team of mules to the field I was mowing with our nearly new Farmall A. That memory is a landmark in my mind and my history. I had been born into the way of farming represented by the mule team, and I loved it. I knew irresistibly that the mules were good ones. They were stepping along beautifully 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 I remember how fiercely I resented their slowness. I saw them as "in my way."

This is not an exceptional or a remarkably dramatic bit of history. I recite it to confirm that the industrialization of agriculture is a part of my familiar experience. I don't have the privilege of looking at it as an outsider.

We were mowing that morning, the teamster with his mules and I with the tractor, in the field behind the barn on my father's home place, where he and before him his father had been born, and where his father had died in February of 1946. The old way of farming was intact in my grandfather's mind until the day he died at eighty-two. He had worked mules all his life, understood them thoroughly, and loved the good ones passionately. He knew tractors only from a distance, he had seen only a few of them, and he rejected them out of hand because he thought, correctly, that they compacted the soil.

Even so, four years after his death his grandson's sudden resentment of the "slow" mule team foretold what history would bear out: the tractor would stay and the mules would go. Year after year, agriculture would be adapted more and more to the technology and the processes of industry and to the rule of industrial economics. This transformation occurred with astonishing speed because, by the measures it set for itself, it was wonderfully successful. It "saved labor," it conferred the prestige of modernity, and it was highly productive.

During the fourteen years after 1950 I was much away from home, though I never entirely departed from farming or at least from thoughts of farming, and my affection for my homeland remained strong. In 1964 my family and I returned to Kentucky and settled on a hillside farm in my native community, where we have continued to live. Perhaps because I was a returned traveler intending to stay, I now saw the place more clearly than before. I saw it critically, too, for it was evident at once that the human life of the place, the life of the farms and the farming community, was in decline. The old self-sufficient way of farming was passing away. The economic prosperity that had visited the farmers briefly during World War II and for a few years afterward had ended. The little towns that once had been social and economic centers, thronged with country people on Saturdays and Saturday nights, were losing out to the bigger towns and the cities. The rural neighborhoods, once held together by common memories, common work, and the sharing of help, had begun to dissolve. There were no longer local markets for chickens or eggs or cream. The spring lamb industry, once a staple of the region, was gone. The tractors and other mechanical devices certainly were saving the labor of the farmers and farmhands who had moved away, but those who had stayed were working harder and longer than ever.

THE EFFECTS OF THIS PROCESS of industrialization have become so apparent, so numerous, so favorable to the agribusiness corporations, and so unfavorable to everything else, that by now the questions troubling me and a few others in the '60s and '70s are being asked everywhere. It has become increasingly clear that the way we farm affects the local community, and that the economy of the local community affects the way we farm; that the way we farm affects the health and integrity of the local ecosystem, and that the farm is intricately dependent, even economically, upon the health of the local ecosystem. We can no longer pretend that agriculture is a sort of economic machine with interchangeable parts, the same everywhere, determined by "market forces" and independent of everything else. We are not farming in a specialist capsule or a professionalist department; we are farming in the world, in a webwork of dependences and influences probably more intricate than we will ever understand. It has become clear, in short, that we have been running our fundamental economic enterprise by the wrong rules. We were wrong to assume that agriculture could be adequately defined by reductionist science and determinist economics.

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Thinking About Wendell Berry

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