The American Farmer

The man is a worker. He is strong. His calloused hands grip the axe, and he drives the blade into the tree. He looks up to see that the tree is wavering. One final blow brings the great tree to the ground where even there, fallen, it is beautiful.

The man is a good worker. The good worker loves the wood before it becomes a fencepost, loves the tree before it yields the wood, and loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good worker understands that a poorly constructed fencepost is “both an insult to its user and a danger to its source.” The good worker builds a fence that will last for decades. Tall grass flourishes along the sturdy barrier, breaking the wind and preventing erosion of the soil from the adjacent field.

wheatfarmer_406x250The man is a farmer. A good farmer. He loves the grain before it becomes bread, loves the soil before it yields the grain, and loves the water and trees and wetlands and wildlife that sustain the soil. For the good farmer, agriculture does not begin with seed and end with harvest. Good agriculture begins with “stewardship of the fields” and ends with “good meals.” The good American farmer asks, “Is this good for us? Is this good for our place?”

Over the past century, the good American farmer has undergone a colossal change. Historically, the good American farmer was synonymous with the family farmer. The good American farmer was local. He supported his family, supported his community, and supported his land. He owned his land and worked his own land with knowledge, attention, and care. The family was familiar with the land and produced food that reflected the local resources and the care given.

The good American farmer thought about the future.  He worked the land hard and he allowed the land to recover.  He thought about the next year and the next; about the potential of future harvests. He thought of the health of the land.

The American farmer, however, is changing. Over the past century, the source of food production in America has evolved from small, local producers to large, mechanized farms. Powered by economies of scale, the typical American farm has grown to produce great quantities of food that are distributed throughout the world. Small, locally owned and operated farms have trouble competing with the large, absentee-owned farms that produce one or two cash crops. This change, unfortunately, has accounted for negative externalities including pollution, obesity, soil erosion, declining rural communities, and disconnect between the American consumer and their food.

This change does not mean that the good American farmer no longer exists today. While today’s American farmers are more likely to use tractors and technology than horses and plows to cultivate their fields, some American farmers still ask the important questions: “Is this good for us? Is this good for our place?” Unfortunately, however, the importance of these questions is lost on farmers who do not own the land that they work and do not connect with their crops and their communities.

But American consumers continue to put pressure on the farm system, asking for cheaper and easier products. Farms respond by growing cheap and efficient products without thinking about the degrading effects on the land and surrounding communities. Luckily, the typical American consumer may no longer be the loudest American consumer. All over the country, people are beginning to care about how their food is produced and to demand attention to the environmental effects of agriculture, placing the opposite pressure on the food economy. Local food movements continue to pop up in large cities and rural communities, and people are beginning to realize where their food comes from, who their farmer is, and what he grows.

So, the most important question may not be whether our American farmers continue to ask the important questions. It may be whether the consumers ask the same questions, loudly. When will the typical American consumer ask: “Is this good for us? Is this good for our place?”

The ‘Loving Economy’

Wendell Berry, in his essay “Preserving Wildness,” introduced the idea of the “loving economy.” A loving economy strives to place a proper value on the materials of the world. A loving economy embraces the history and the process of these materials. According to Berry, a loving economy places value in practice: by good workmanship, both elegant and sound. A loving food economy places value in the farmer’s stewardship and sustainability.

Today’s food market is not a loving economy. Few Americans place value in good and sustainable farming practice. The average American household spends less money on food than any other country in the world. In 1900, Americans spent more than 40 percent of their budget on food; today, it is closer to 10 percent. Today’s American consumer continues to place extremely high value on cheap food. As a result, the value of local, sustainable, environmentally conscious food production is minimal. In fact, Berry claims that Americans do not “account for affection at all.”

Without a loving economy, farmers no longer have the incentive to ask the important questions. Farmers know that a majority of consumers don’t care if their agricultural practices are good for their local place if the food is cheap. In principle, farmers instead have the incentive to produce high-volume, high-efficiency crops without regard to environmental degradation.

The 2014 Farm Bill has created one way to create incentives to add value to environmental conservation, forcing farmers to ask those important questions. It attempts to highlight the importance of agricultural conservation by linking Conservation Compliance with Crop Insurance. For the first time in its history, the Farm Bill does not include direct payments and subsidy programs to farmers. Instead, the law focuses on risk management practices, providing need-based payments from crop insurance programs. For farmers to receive premium subsidies for their crop insurance policies, they must engage in comprehensive Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetlands Conservation programs. Because of this monumental change, farmers must not be risky in their environmental practices and must place greater value on the land.

For Highly Erodible Land Conservation programs, farmers must introduce an approved conservation plan for all agricultural commodities grown on erodible fields in order to receive benefits. The Wetlands Conservation program makes farmers ineligible for certain benefits if they produce an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland. Generally, the link between Conservation Compliance and Crop Insurance makes farmers less likely to grow crops on risky lands, including wetlands and unstable fields, and more likely to introduce thoughtful agricultural practices.

The 2014 Farm Bill is a groundbreaking new policy and may conserve millions of acres of vulnerable lands and natural resources. But is this enough? Does the 2014 Farm Bill create enough incentive for farmers to think about the good of their local place? Wendell Berry would likely believe that it is not enough by itself. In “Preserving Wildness,” he claims that land conservation efforts are meaningless unless they are answered positively “by an economy that rewards and enforces good use.”

So, according to Berry, it is up to us, the consumers, to add value to the process of growing our food. It is up to the consumers to add value to environmental conservation and sustainability. As consumers become more aware of where their food is produced and who is producing it, they must act by rewarding value to the conscious practices of their local farmers. Each purchase at the local farmer’s market adds value to sustainability and environmental conservation. And, as the movement for local food production grows louder and becomes more valuable, good farmers across the United States love their soil and water and forests and fields a little more.

(Author’s note: Some main ideas in this blog post are based on the writings of Wendell Berry, my favorite author. In “Preserving Wildness,” Berry takes the middle ground between nature extremists and nature conquerors. In that center, he illustrates that there is no escape from the human use of nature. It is the responsibility of humans, though, to embrace the necessary harmony between culture and nature. We must constantly ask ourselves, “Is this good for us? Is this good for our place?” By asking these questions, the idea of a “loving economy” emerges. See Wendell Berry, “Preserving Wildness,” Home Economics 144, 1985.)