Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Media Coverage

Why Does McPherson College Offer Only One Major and What Can Be Done About It?

Delivered at McPherson College, November 15, 1999

Don’t be offended by my chosen title. If I were giving this talk at Kansas Wesleyan or Bethany, Harvard or Stanford, Yale or MIT, it would be the same title with a different name inserted. My criticism today is of higher education in general which in turn is a product of our culture, my criticism is not just of McPherson College.

You are wondering what that one major is: I’ll tell you up front so we can get that out of the way, it is simply this: UPWARD MOBILITY. As students, you are being trained to live out your lives in a polluting, extractive, industrial economy. I want McPherson to offer a second major, a major in Homecoming, a major in which course work is devoted to helping a graduate go some place and dig in and, along with the rest of the community, use your knowledge to figure out how to move your community and society to measuring its progress by how independent of the extractive economy it has become. Why the emphasis on your home, on your community?

An acquaintance of mine, Alan Durning, has written a book entitled This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence. Drawing on a review of his book it is clear that he has outlined the necessity of putting down roots and joining neighbors to protect a place is one of the most radical acts possible.

This comes from a man who was a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C. for 10 years. Somewhere along the way he came to realize that while people are unwilling to make sacrifices for the planet as a whole they will sacrifice, even lay down their lives, for their homes. Durning says,“There may not be ways to save the world that are not, first and foremost, ways for people to save their own places.” His extension of the importance of being a homecomer is extraordinary in that “to seek durable answers to global challenges, the conscientious must — without losing sight of the universal — begin with place, and specifically with one place.”

In an EarthLight review of Durning’s book Susan Kleihauer says, “He pursues the people and ideas that point the way to building a permanent, dynamic society: the cobbler who makes a stand against disposable everything; a conservative city council member in Vancouver who entices people out of their cars in thriving, densely-developed urban spaces; a suburban mother who agitates to get a suburb to function more like a village.” The primary theme is about planting roots and building community.

Susan Kleihauer was especially moved by the story about a watershed council in eastern Idaho. Adversaries sit together in a circle, speak from their hearts and make decisions by consensus. This council was born from the ashes of a shattered community after a long battle over water development in the basin.

A man was the voice of irrigation in the valley. A woman the voice of conservation. Both decided to make peace. The council draws on one thing: a love for the valley they call home. Worldviews can change in an atmosphere of community building and listening. This kind of face-to-face process can begin the healing we desperately need. Durning found in his neighborhood that communities grow out of discovering and nurturing things neighbors share and they happen in public.

His family developed a growing attachment to the region, their roots in their urban neighborhood remained shallow — until he erected a basketball hoop in his driveway. Now adults and children began gathering in front of his house, watching the kids play, and talking to each other.

Durning concludes that practicing permanence is the most radical thing he’s ever done.

“The politics of place is a politics of hope. It is sustained by a faith — somewhat mystical perhaps — in place itself … all people who put down roots are shaped by their home ground. Over time it seeps into them, and they become natives. …

“Here is the hope: That this generation becomes the next wave of natives, first in this place on Earth and then in others. That newfound permanence allows the quiet murmur of localities to become audible again. And that not long thereafter, perhaps very soon, the places of this earth will be healed and whole again.”

We need stories of hope and inspiration, a guiding vision, but we need more. We need assistance from our colleges and universities. Therefore let us imagine that a homecoming major has been established here at McPherson College. Imagine yourself enrolled in one of the courses, Ecological County Accounting, for example. The course description says that students will learn to “set up the books” for a kind of accounting that has never been done.

Early in the course the professor will introduce various accounting systems which already exist. She might begin with the obvious run-of-the-mill accountant who has a CPA and has a shingle out. She might begin here in McPherson with such a person who must be familiar with “generally accepted accounting principles.” If the customer, a business person say, violates those principles, footnotes will appear on the financial statements to indicate the violation. To show how serious this is, the accountant or the auditor has a boilerplate sort of disclaimer for responsibility for any violation of the client. Responsibility rests not just with the person who has gone through the mechanical part of accounting, but also with the person who has provided the basic information. The accounting tradition is organized around legality backed by highly codified law. This is the accountant we usually think about.

Such a job may not sound very entreating to most of us. It doesn’t to me. But there are other kinds of accountants, ecologists for example, like the people who work at the Konza Prairie preserve near Manhattan or at The Land Institute where I work. They, too, follow certain rigorous procedures in conducting their scientific investigations. If not followed, the research results are unlikely to be published in a refereed journal. Both the ecologist and the usual brand of accountant, we ordinarily think of have one important thing in common — they are students of boundaries. The usual accountant with a shingle in McPherson is informed about his or her boundaries by public policy. Every year that accountant had better read the new laws and regulations and better understand where the new boundaries are. If you are an ecological accountant on the Konza Prairie and someone like the noted ecologist Robert MacArthur comes up with some new ideas on island biogeography, the new premise must be factored into your consideration of your discoveries on the prairie.

Most of the problems we face as accountants, ecological or otherwise, are problems of classification. The worrisome thing about us being merely human is that the world we try to comprehend is seamless. This makes classification, the science of taxonomy, a field ripe with controversy. (If you want to hear people who sound as though they dislike one another, attend a meeting of taxonomists.) It gets down to what to count and to what degree, for the taxonomist is trying to dope out what are the primary criteria for delimiting the taxa.

From what I have just said, you can imagine that we are in for a long battle when we create the new course called Ecological Community Accounting, with the human as member of the community. Like the plant and animal taxonomist, you have to talk about what does and does not count. Several things will count, but they cannot all count equally.

We should not be disturbed by this high level of uncertainty. The President of the United States goes unashamedly before Congress to give his state of the union address. In effect, he is going over the national ledger. His talk is usually about a wide spectrum of considerations to get to the overall health of the nation. Following his message comes the commentary of the opposing party. We should take some heart in contemplating our own huge mission. For not only can the President of the United States presume to talk about the state of the nation, Lester Brown at Worldwatch presumes to report on the state of the world each year. If you think that is not controversial, listen to those in that think tank of which the late Herman Kahn was once a member or read the writings of the late Julian Simon.

What are we trying to get at with ecological accounting? I’ll use a loaf of bread as an example. When you write down the price for a loaf of bread, you have not recorded all of the costs. Chemical contamination of the ground and water to grow the wheat is not there. Neither is soil erosion factored in. Even when an employee of the utility company reads the electric or gas meters, he or she is only partially representing total usage in your behalf.

Ecological Community Accounting is only one course but the contents serve as a tool for people in the community. Discussions about the carrying capacity of their place and proposed solutions to problems take place so that community can become more sustainable. Better decisions by understanding more about their place are likely. Community accounting helps all become aware of the “stuff” flowing out of the community and the “stuff” that people buy and bring into the community. The value of doing your own household accounting with your checkbook is that you discover where the leaks are in your spending. Where did the money go this month? Oh yes, the quarterly bill for car insurance came due! The same holds for a community.

There is another angle to this. People may agree that it would be great for the community to have a convenience store, but if they fail to pay attention to the fact that if they attract a Casey’s chain store, the money they spend at Casey’s will flow out of the community to Casey’s owners in Des Moines. The community wants that money to roll over and over within. A locally owned store is not a pump to push money away. So accounting at the community level can begin to show the robbery of the extractive economy in general and help us look at the sorts of enterprises the community should encourage and which to object.

“Isn’t it too laborious to keep such books” you may rightly ask? Maybe so, maybe not. We can’t know until we try. We may realize the need to assign the work to the equivalent of a community accountant. Nevertheless, imagine the benefits of beginning to think of how to make vertical integration work for the community rather than for the corporations. For example, with bison ranching, instead of sending cattle by truck to feedlots after they’ve gained some of their final weight on grass, you shoot bison in the pasture, bleed them on the spot, have a government inspector there at the time, use a front end loader to load them on the truck which will take them to a local butcher. Fewer big trucks over the highways does everything from saving roads to providing healthier meat freer of antibiotics, freer of hormones, and more control for the rancher. Maybe even the bison are better for the grass than the domestic analog called cattle.

The circumstance with farmers now is that they are being farmed. Ecological accounting would show that reality to a more precise degree since the community members would begin to define the boundaries for their livelihood. Consequently, they are more likely to be sensitive to how many costs are being externalized.

Community may be defined as civilization’s upscaling of the tribe. We evolved in tribes. In such a context, individual decisions mattered less, community decisions mattered more yielding a larger effect. A small shift in a community can make much more difference than a few back-to-the-landers making large shifts in their living.

More and more, a purely economic conception of man has spread around our planet. Profits and the laws of the market are what counts. Increasingly this system has become the justification for neglect of the weaker members of society. The poor become more numerous as victims of unjust policies and structures. The current Pope said this.

The industrialization of agriculture, including animal factories, and the politics that depopulate the countryside all erode security regarding our food. We need church leadership to assist the grassroots organizations to speak out for family-sized farms and to act on behalf of family farmers. We need to introduce education about sustainable agriculture into the curricula of all our schools from K-12. Churches could use their commercial quality kitchens and halls as processing centers and incubators for local food production. Church parking lots could accommodate farmers markets and direct marketing of locally grown food. If only church members would buy locally and support a regional food system a huge dent in our current way would have been delivered. The loss of prime farmland, the spread of strip development, sprawl in general require policies the “dug in” in their churches could oppose.

Cookbooks for our local communities with local recipes using local foods, the celebration of special days, seasons and events expressive of the wider connection between spirituality, the land and the food and fiber produced on the land in one subject if we make it so. Why not frequent restaurants in which food is produced by family farms of the region on which a sustainable form of agriculture is practiced. Why not encourage and support efforts like pasture poultry, pasture pork and beef and locally produced vegetables. Why not encourage labeling that tells us who produced the food, where it was produced and how it was produced. Why not support anti-trust activity in the sector of food production.

This can all be done, of course, without the homecoming major, but a more directed approach. Coming from a homecoming major seems likely. As the second major evolves, we will increasingly discover answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask.

I am proposing that the core of the homecoming major be ecology. Ecological principles are abstractions we develop from the phenomena we observe. With our subject being human community, we may need to know to what extent human communities can be based on the way a relatively undisturbed natural ecosystem works. As we search for a less extractive and polluting economic order, so that we may fit agriculture into the economy of a sustainable culture. Community now becomes the locus and metaphor for both agriculture and culture.

When we think of ecology informing agriculture or ecology informing economics, in effect we are expressing an interest in the laws or rules ecologists have elucidated on how ecosystems have worked over the eons. As mentioned earlier, on the one hand, ecologists are accountants who measure what passes across, or through, the boundary of an ecosystem. On the other hand, they also study the dynamics within the boundary, for how materials cycle and how energy flows determine whether, and when, there is a net loss or gain. To do this accounting requires that the accountant be first and foremost a student of boundaries in space and time in order to judge where to place the boundary. Sustainability is a spatial-temporal concept.

The work of the ecologist, accounting at the boundary and measurement of the dynamics within, amounts to a study of ecological community behavior. It can be useful to think of nature’s economy as consisting of different species with various degrees of complementarity, and to see how that compares to a human economy dominated by different persons with different aptitudes. At this point, however, we have to shift into low gear and proceed with caution, for the analogy has already begun to break down very fast. The first thing to keep in mind is that the essential species in one of nature’s land-based ecosystems are the photosynthesizers, plants, Since humans don’t photosynthesize but only concentrate, we are forced to think of nature’s other concentrators. At this point, we have moved up at least one trophic level, and we can now consider how these economies, the lives of these concentrators, parallel ours. If they are herbivores only, how far do they forage and how is that related to how big they are and at what metabolic levels they operate? Carnivores and omnivores may be two or more steps up the food chain.

Very quickly we see that several biological subdisciplines have become involved here. Unfortunately, few have so far been applied, or in those cases where the relevance of a subdiscipline has been noted, the subdiscipline has not been extensively applied to human economies. Many of the economic differences are so important they may cause us to abandon certain of the ecological principles involved. But in doing this modification, we do not abandon the effort to discover commonalities. That is as far as I can go at the moment, but there is another tack that we can and should take.

If we are to look at nature to inform us about sustainable structures and functions in human communities, we must have the audacity to turn back to the paleolithic period and earlier in order to help define what the human is (still) as a social creature. Before agriculture, no more than four hundred generations ago (eight to ten thousand years), essentially all of us were tribal. We may be confident that many, though certainly not all, of the social arrangements in those gathering-hunting bands of twenty-five to fifty and a hundred were survivors of rather intense natural selection. It is also easy to imagine that an environment that shapes us to do certain things for survival purposes made it possible for us to do other things as well. By analogy, a computer is “designed,” let’s say, to do A, B, C, D, and so forth, and because of its capacity to do these things, it can also do other things, often with ease. The same with humans. We did not evolve riding bicycles, but because of such things as stereoscopic vision and balance-various aspects of our physiology and anatomy that were selected in our preagricultural past-today most of us can learn to ride a bike. We might consider bike riding a first-order derivative.

The ability to do some things requires more stretch than the ability to do other things. The closer we stick to our origins in dealing with basic needs (think now in terms of social arrangements), the more likely we are to be successful, We did not evolve in nation states. If we had, bureaucracy would not exist. What we bring from the paleolithic in order to organize the nation state is scant compared to what we need to make it Tun smoothly It is a different story when it comes to community. As I see it, community is civilization’s upscaling of the gathering-hunting tribe. Why community works has at least as much to do with the way nature shaped us as with the way agriculture and culture have shaped us. Why community works is often a mystery, People often comment that community is fragile, that people want to get away from it. Well, some do, some don’t. I am impressed at how people hang on to their places and community life in spite of all the forces, both economic and social, that would destroy community. Public policy with the power of the nation or state behind it is nearly always implemented at the expense of community. Public policy is an abstraction arising out of large social organizations with precedents no more than one hundred centuries old. Community, on the other hand, is a particular, a direct product of our biology, consisting of countless elements, the roots of which reside in social organizations going back to the early humanoids and before. What cultural niceties we have picked up along the way have likely been hard won, too, probably the consequence of disease and death, of ordinary adversity and scarcity.

I have three stories to tell. On the surface, they are seemingly unrelated, but intertwined among them are personal problems, health problems, economic problems and ecological problems. A collection of policy issues bind them together.

The first story concerns a rural husband and wife, both 55 years old. They are parents of five grown children, grandparents of six. The man attended Kansas State back in the early 60s, was a varsity athlete and a fine student. After college and teaching stints for both, they went back to the family farm in Kansas. These north-central Kansas farmers are Christian, patriotic, frugal citizens. On that farm they raised as their best crop five smart kids, all college graduates except the youngest who should graduate soon, all contributing members to society in healthy and productive ways. These youngsters were raised on farm chores and the traditional culture of rural Kansas.

It is bad enough that none of those kids can return to a paid-for family farm. Bad enough that this cultural seed stock is more likely to raise our couple’s grandkids in a distant city or town. When this part of their story began, our subjects could not afford health insurance. They drive an old car, have never made more than $25,000 a year total. Off-farm work made it possible to stay on the farm. Because of the latest downturn in the ag economy, they have now moved out of their deteriorating double-wide to find work in a larger town. Even though they always have had a large garden and raised and butchered rabbits, chickens, hogs, and beef, they’re broke! Low hog prices, cattle prices, and grain prices make them one of thousands of families that have left their farms.

Some version of this story has been told thousands of times, and thousands of times dismissed as an “economic reality,” a consequence of economic determinism, the way the world is. University economists and others as well sit comfortably well fed as score keepers, forensic scholars one might say, who now and then call out the score — telling how many more losers have gone under or have quit. They predict more trouble for rural Americans. Those who fail are predictable casualties on agriculture’s economic battlefield — mere statistics.

Twenty miles from our state’s land grant university lives another couple in their early thirties, both teachers, parents of two boys, one four years, the other a few months old. The man is a Kansas State University graduate. They moved to this small town one summer to assume positions in local high schools. A week after they moved in, a neighbor, seeing that they had a young child and were expecting another, handed them a sheet of paper which warned that neither children nor pregnant mothers should drink the city water. A neighbor delivered the announcement — not a town official! Three members of one family — the small boy, a developing fetus, and the mother carrying the fetus — were not to drink the local water! The notice informed them that at-risk town citizens could obtain free drinking water in gallon jugs at the local grocery. No matter that when they appear to get their supply the stock is often gone. That may mean a 40-mile trip to Manhattan and return.

But there is more. The woman’s sister and her husband also have a small child. During a summer holiday visit, the two families had an outing in the local park. The two active kids ran, became hot and sweaty, and naturally approached the city park drinking fountain, which, of course, supplied polluted water. The drinking fountain had to be off limits to the children, but the parents had to say so; there were no posted notices. What’s wrong with the water? Nitrates from “non-point-source pollution.” The culprits could be either grain farmers or feedlot operators or, if both are present, probably both.

Story Three: One of the major land grant universities in our country has in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences the usual array of scientists, including both soils people and plant breeder-geneticists. A soils position, filled 15 years ago, required that the young PhD should teach in the first term and develop a research program. He must find major funding for his research. A young PhD in genetics and plant breeding enters the same department a few years later, but with no obligation to teach at all, ever. He has departmental money for research and so his research program develops, takes off, and dramatic results are realized in yield, pest resistance or whatever. Because this person is in demand, within a few years he can walk into the chairman’s or the dean’s office and negotiate a major salary increase. His salary jumps from $65,000 to nearly $85,000. The salary of the more senior soils person is $60,000.

That 55-year-old couple who left the family farm both were once my students. I knew the parents of the man as early as 1954. Their oldest son was a friend of mine. Two of their sons were my students. So I know the family and can say that these people have shown themselves to be intelligent, efficient, honest, patriotic, devoted members of their community, their church and their schools. As former teachers and farmers, when these pillars leave their home county more will be lost than population statistics will indicate.

I now return to story two. The woman teaches Spanish, her husband history and English in consolidated rural high schools. I know the mother very well, am getting to know her husband well. I love them both. She is my younger daughter, he my son-in-law. Their children’s cousin, the cousin who played in the park with my older grandson that summer, is my granddaughter. Her parents, who teach in a university in Iowa, can relate story after story about agri-chemical pollution throughout that state. None of these people or their respective places is a mere statistic, either.

Finally, we return to story three. We at The Land Institute have a research agenda which calls for both a soils scientist and a plant breeder. We can afford to hire a soils scientist because there is less competition, but the breeder, with expertise in the right kind of biotechnology, will likely be too expensive for our small organization. He is part of a pool which the Monsanto’s of the world draw on. We need several such scientists to work on the perennialization of the major crops — corn, wheat, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers. Eventually, such research will


  1. greatly reduce the production costs to farmers;
  2. help keep them on the land;
  3. keep the landscape from serious erosion;
  4. help the water supply in all of our rural areas to be safe to drink out of the tap; and
  5. reduce the financial and professional inequities among researchers.

Here ecology and economics converge in a positive way. As the convergence matures, soil ecology would gain status since in the absence of the homogenizing influences of annual monocultures attention to the needs of the ecological mosaic would become primary.

Instead of leadership coming from our colleges and universities committing to a path which would help correct the problems described in these three stories, I hear the following:


  1. What is wrong with shrinking the number of people on the landscape? Or, stated otherwise, why shouldn’t farmers, like everyone else in the culture, have to play by the rules of the market? Why not weed out the so-called inefficient farmers?
  2. What is wrong with agriculture using oil for traction or depending on natural gas as the feedstock for fixing atmospheric nitrogen? At the field level agriculture uses only around one percent of all the petroleum, and, besides, the old law of supply and demand will “kick in” eventually and stimulate other sources as substitutes.
  3. Food is safer now than ever because of the chemicals applied to our landscape and 2,4-D is a cause of non-Hodgkins lymphoma — an unfortunate tradeoff. Sure, farmers should be more careful.
  4. Soil erosion? We’ve had agriculture and soil erosion for 10,000 years. Human numbers keep growing, don’t they? Sure, civilizations have come and gone, but in those regions there are as many or more people now as at the time those civilizations crashed.

Policies in our colleges and universities reflect the comfort derived from such cynical questions. What else can explain why so little effort has been devoted to a research agenda to deal with the three categories of problems illustrated by the three stories? How else can we explain why there is no agenda that would reduce the input costs, put more money in the pocket of the farmer, and reduce the ecological impact of agriculture on the landscape? How else can we explain that the problems, tied to pesticides or nitrates in ground water and the movement of people off the land are not priorities for all of us?

Raise the issue about the loss of rural youth and therefore the “loss of cultural capacity” and one is likely to be met with such answers as: “The world is changing.” “Many people who have not grown up on a farm are able to go out and be successful farmers and will do so in the future.” “Being ‘raised to farming’ may be a virtue, but even here this loss of our ‘cultural seedstock,’ as your ecological worriers put it, is relatively unimportant so long as even one percent have the desire to learn agriculture on their own.” “Humans are adaptable creatures and economic laws are derivatives of human nature’s dealing with reality.”

Valid complaints about the demise of family farms and rural communities, as well as the assault of agriculture on the landscapes, soils and waters that sustain us, should not be stiff-armed with modern versions of utterances of Voltaire’s naive and blindly optimistic Pangloss. To do so would set the stage for dramatic tragedies to come.

Both landscapes and people have suffered from unacknowledged and externalized costs. “A hard-headed realist,” as Wendell Berry has said, “is somebody who uses a lot less information than is available.” Ambiguity in accounting may be minimized by keeping the boundary of consideration greatly restricted, but as the boundary shrinks the irrelevance increases. For industrialized agriculture especially, the boundaries of consideration are narrower than the boundaries of causation. It may be cost effective for the farmer not to rotate crops, or to use an herbicide instead of cultivation, but if one draws the boundary of consideration to include the ground water and health costs, then society’s agricultural costs go up. The problem with the efficiency arguments is that corporations tend to measure short-term profits that ignore long term effects and act even when faced by lack of data.

The rule of parsimony, of course, has merit. No one wants to multiply unnecessarily the numbers of entities to be considered. But to simplify and to err in the other direction restricts considerations of relevant information.

The lives of the 55-year-old farm couple, the couple in their early 30s, and the two land grant scientists are three snapshots of American agriculture and of industrial culture in general. The total picture is larger than the visual range of any one person at any one moment. Essentially everywhere we look are people living in war zones of sorts. The clear though short-term winners of this war are the agri-business corporations and their stockholders and the professional servants of agri-business in many of our colleges and universities. The losers include the condemned by-standers — small children, or reluctant participants such as the low-wage-earning feedlot cowboys.

Ancient armies had clear motives and triumphant returns when they poisoned the water supply or salted the fields of the enemy in the interest of the immediate goals of a campaign. The armies that poison our water today and force the evacuation of the long-term residents of rural America assume “we can bestride this world like a colossus.” Competitive corporate capitalism has every right to be here under countless charters with the license to subdue or ignore nature; social injustice is a natural consequence of production.

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