Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Media Coverage

Two Stories

Released as a fund raising letter, Winter 1999.

I have two stories. They may seem unrelated, but intertwined between them are personal problems, health problems, economic problems and ecological problems.

The first story concerns a rural husband and wife, both 55 years old. They are parents of five children, grandparents of six. After college and teaching stints for both, they returned home to the family farm. These north-central Kansas farmers are religious, patriotic, and frugal. On that farm they raised as their best crop those five smart kids, all college graduates except the youngest who graduates 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.

None of those kids will likely return to a paid-for family farm. They, important cultural seed stock, are 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 have never made more than $25,000 a year total. Off-farm work made it possible to slow the decline of their assets. Because of the latest downturn in the ag economy, they 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 forced to leave farms and home towns, including aging relatives now in nursing homes.

Versions of this story have been told thousands of times, and thousands of times dismissed as an “economic reality,” a consequence of economic determinism, the way the world is. Economists and others as well sit comfortably well fed as forensic scholars, one might say, who now and then call out the score — telling how many more losers have gone under or have quit. 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 30s, both teachers, parents of two boys, one four years, the other a few months old. Both are graduates of Kansas colleges. They moved to this small town one summer to assume positions in local high schools. A week after they moved in, a neighbor, seeing they had a young child and were expecting another, handed them a notice warning 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 — 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 town and return.

The woman’s sister and her husband also have a small child. During a summer visit, the two families went to the local park. 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.

That 55-year-old husband and wife were once my students. I knew the parents of the man as early as 1954 because their oldest son was my friend. Two of their sons were my students. So I know the family. All are intelligent, efficient, honest, patriotic, devoted members of their community, their church and their schools. As former teachers and farmers, when these pillars left their home county more was lost than population statistics will indicate.

In 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. She is my younger daughter, he my son-in-law. Their children’s cousin is my granddaughter. Her parents, who teach in a university in Iowa, can relate story after story about agri-chemical pollution throughout Iowa. These people are not mere statistics, either.

Instead of leadership from our colleges and universities as they commit to a path that would help correct the problems described in these stories, I hear the following:


  1. What is wrong with shrinking the number of people on the landscape? Why shouldn’t farmers, like everyone else, have to play by the rules of the market? Why not weed out the “inefficient” farmers?
  2. Food is safer now than ever because of the chemicals applied to our landscape and 2,4-D as a cause of non-Hodgkins lymphoma is one unfortunate tradeoff.
  3. 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.

These cynical positions and more must stand behind why so little effort has been devoted to a research agenda to deal with the problems illustrated by the 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 or concern itself with the viability of rural communities? 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, city, suburban and country folk alike? The same agenda affects 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 you 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 dealing with reality.” Valid complaints about rural life stiff-armed with modern versions of utterances of Voltaire’s naive and blindly optimistic Pangloss sets 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 at least in the long term. The problem with the efficiency arguments is that corporations tend to measure short-term profits that ignore long term effects and act in some cases irrevocably even when faced by lack of data.

The lives of the 55-year-old farm couple and the couple in their early 30s are 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 in rural America 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 under current charters is allowed to subdue or ignore nature and by small extension social injustice is a consequence of production.

“And so, Dr. Doom,” you may ask, “after that downer, what is The Land Institute doing about it?” Well, we are not working on public policy by going in over the top. We have been to Washington and we applaud the work of various organizations that are there — necessary work. Instead, we are building constituencies for change from the bottom up. Our Rural Studies Program is predicated on the assumption that the people who will spread the largest tonnage of chemicals across the US countryside over the next half century are now in rural schools in grades kindergarten through 12. The ecological education students receive almost everywhere is poor. My experience is that rural kids who return to farm the land after college or university may have better know-how but are unlikely to have had their basic assumptions changed. So if we start with a better ecological education, a more integrated approach to learning before college when the young mind is even more accessible to change, a more yeasty educational experience will await them in college.

Funding through The Land Institute from The Rural School and Community Trust of about $500,000 over three years is to be divided among the three school districts in our Consortium. These three school districts have effectively welcomed the opportunity to provide the pilot efforts for more effective ways to meet this educational challenge. The teacher efforts to validate the feeling of a sense of place and to cause students to ask questions that go beyond the available answers will help force knowledge out of its categories. The second story mentioned earlier is a prime example of where chemistry and history have converged in this century. This is not an isolated example, for there is an increase in the spread of non-drinkable water due to agricultural chemicals. Take the 55-year-old farm couple’s story. Clearly, industrial agriculture has featured inventions that increase production and labor efficiency at the field level — signs of progress even though some might consider such inventions as destroyers of the farm family.

Where do we begin? It is clear that when we turn to face the problems of rural America, be it pollution or the mass exodus, operating with the idea of absolutes fails us. Ending dependency on exports alone won’t save rural life nor will it happen very soon. Our export policy is rooted in colonial times, clear back to the first tobacco planted at Jamestown as an export crop. In a similar manner we cannot seriously oppose agricultural technologies. Few among us would seriously oppose Jethro Tull’s invention of the seed drill (1701), or James Small’s cast iron plow (1765), Andrew Meicle’s threshing machine (1780), Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper and binder (1834), or Anna Baldwin’s suction machine to milk cows (1878).

Moreover, scientific discoveries, like technological discoveries, have positive results few of us would oppose. Mendel’s laws of heredity elucidated in 1865 is as important as the invention early this century, the Haber-Bosch process that fixes atmospheric nitrogen. The convergence of these Siamese twins called science and technology and the expanded scale of these developments, driven by an exploitative brand of capitalist economics left to itself, collectively destroy options for future generations. The point is that social and regional history combine with the lack of a sufficiently broad education that would have assisted us in knowing when enough is enough. Our cultural failure in this realm, rather than the adoption of science and technology, stands behind the 55-year-old couple leaving the farm for a city in Kansas. It also stands behind the unsafe water in the town my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren left (they did not leave for that reason).

Neither the full implementation of Natural Systems Agriculture nor the 10-year assessment of the 150-acre Sunshine Farm experiment will solve the deeper cultural problems before us. Going to the rural school kids with our belief in the importance of education won’t do it all either, but together they represent the most coherent approach we at The Land Institute feel empowered to pursue, at least at this time in our history.

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