Agriculture’s Role in 21st Century American Social Reform

In our partner meeting this morning we were having an interesting discussion on a recent New York Times article.

Why Rural America Voted for Trump

The author states his insight came from…

….a 2015 pre-caucus stop in Pella by J. C. Watts, a Baptist minister raised in the small town of Eufaula, Okla., who was a Republican congressman from 1995 to 2003, to begin to understand my neighbors — and most likely other rural Americans as well.

“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.

“We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn — born again.”

He continued: “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.”

Watts’ statement, for me, was an odd construction.

Yes, many conservative religions believe in a fundamentally flawed human.

The generalization about Democrats was strange. Please let me know the religion that states we are born good and ‘create God’ (although I think a good bit of our societal interest in yoga practice is based upon a misconception about Eastern religions ‘creating God’…allowing American practitioners to interpret meditation as mind/body/spirit individualistic self-absorption).

The article goes on to discuss different conceptions of personal moral responsibility…or the lack of personal moral responsibility (blaming others for personal shortcomings).

Other than the article pointing out the author’s amazingly shallow knowledge of his neighbors, I found little insight.

What it did generate in our partner meeting was a discussion of Western religion’s preoccupation with good and bad, right and wrong.

There are certainly broad ‘truths’, and I admire certain conservative religious ministers/writers for their ability to sternly profess Biblical truths.

HOWEVER, we have a ‘hhhhuge’ social problem that results from our hyper-individualistic society. Professing Biblical truths (or for that manner any truths) meets resistance and belligerence with a selfish, thoughtless individualist.

We are not – in our present society – going to solve the enormous problem of thoughtlessness and personal amorality by ‘teaching the truth’.

Here is where agriculture becomes critical….we can use food, food preparation, nutrition as a ‘remedy’.

Two months ago I spent much of a day with the relatively new President of my undergraduate engineering school. For over 35 years I’ve been an alum agnostic…no involvement. Although I highly respected aspects of my undergraduate education I came to not respect the engineering ethic…so had never practiced engineering.

The meeting arose because I received an alumni magazine talking about the School’s interest in sustainability. A brief email exchange led me to campus.

I had wanted to talk about the ethic of the engineering curriculum, but found the President preoccupied with renovations to the Student Union and efforts to enhance the food program with both improved nutrition and a more green, sustainable operations plan.

It quickly became evident that he had determined that the most viable method to improve the ethic of the School was to improve the food program for students. I think it gave him a way to engage students, faculty, alumni, donors in an active discussion about ‘what the heck are we doing’ and ‘what the heck are we teaching’…without meeting the hyper-individualistic belligerence to ethical changes in the curriculum that arise from examining truths and repenting for past industrial engineering ‘sins’.

Agriculture and food are intellectual gateways to culture…and we sorely need a culture.

Tilth Association

David DeFrancesco just sent an interesting note about the term ’tilth’ and the northwest Tilth Association.

First of all, tilth gets us ‘along the path’ to renewing the cultural nature of agriculture.

From the Tilth Association website:
The people who started the Tilth Association first met on July 1st, 1974, at a symposium in Spokane entitled “Agriculture for a Small Planet.” One of the featured panelists was Kentucky farmer, poet and writer Wendell Berry, who spoke forcefully about the culture of agriculture. 

In his speech Berry described the loss of the traditional farm economy and the destruction of rural communities. He was blunt in detailing the impending collapse of rural America, and he linked the “drastic decline in the farm population” with “the growth of a vast, uprooted, dependent and unhappy urban population.”

“Our urban and rural problems have largely caused each other,” he said. “My point is that food is a cultural, not a technological product. A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its destruction invites calamity.”

“If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility of strong agricultural communities, we will lose it altogether. And then” he concluded, “we will not only invoke calamity, we will deserve it.”

The ‘now complete’ moral and economic collapse of rural America and the traditional middle class has been starkly evident in the recent American election.

How morally and religiously responsible people act to restore what has collapsed will set the course of Earth.

Solving for Pattern in Agriculture

  • A good solution accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand. The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted. Granted that a farm can be too small, it is nevertheless true that enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.
  • A good solution accepts the limitation of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.
  • A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern – it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  • A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation. The return of organic waste to the soil may, at first glance, appear to be a good solution per se. But that is not invariably or necessarily true. It is true only if the wastes are returned to the right place at the right time in the pattern of the farm, if the waste does not contain toxic material, if the quantity is not too great, and if not too much energy or money is expended in transporting it.
  • A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects. A farm that has found correct agricultural solutions to its problems will be fertile, productive, healthful, conservative, beautiful, pleasant to live on.
  • A good solution embodies a clear distinction between biological order and mechanical order, between farming and industry. Farmers who fail to make this distinction are ideal customers of the equipment companies, but they often fail to understand that the real strength of a farm is in the soil.
  • Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put all its eggs in fewer and fewer baskets, and to make ‘going for broke’ its only way of going. But to grow grain should not make it impossible to pasture livestock, and to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use a little.
  • A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. But that destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of the farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariable implied by any pattern….a healthy farm incorporates a pattern that a single human mind can comprehend, make, maintain, vary in response to circumstances, and pay steady attention to. That this limit is obviously variable from one farmer and farm to another does not mean that it does not exist.
  • A good solution should be cheap, and it should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In agriculture, so called ‘inputs’ are, from a different point of view, outputs – expenses. In all things, I think, but especially in an agriculture struggling to survive in an industrial economy, any solution that calls for an expenditure to a manufacturer should be held in suspicion – not rejected necessarily, but as a rule mistrusted.
  • Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited. The division of capital, management, and labor, characteristic of an industrial system, are therefore utterly alien to the health of farming – as they probably also are to the health of manufacturing. The good health of a farm depends on the farmer’s mind; the good health of the mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer’s mind and his body – his management and his labor – work together as intimately as his heart and lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farm and farmer are one thing, an organism.
  • Once the farmer’s mind, his body, and his farm are understood as a single organism, and once it is understood that the question of endurance of this organism is a question about the sufficiency and integrity of a pattern, then the word organic can be usefully admitted into this series of standards. It is a word that I have been defining all along, though I have not used it. An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of natural systems; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism. Sir Albert Howard said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest that ‘manures itself.’ A farm that imports too much fertility, even as feed or manure, is in this sense as inorganic as a farm that exports too much or that imports chemical fertilizer.
  • …In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body, what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm but sacrifice your life. Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people.
  • It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for the animals, what is good for the animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.
  • But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint –for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits, to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to ‘solve’ problems by ignoring them, accepting them as ‘tradeoffs,’ or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.

 

Source: Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981, pp. 134-145)

Note: This list – directed at the farm – has much broader cultural meaning given the state of our current American economy and government.Movie All Is Lost (2013)

Seeds

This week, scientists, farmers and sustainable food systems advocates will gather on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to celebrate an unusual group of honored guests: 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains that are being publicly released using a novel form of ownership agreement known as the Open Source Seed Pledge.

The University of Wisconsin Article

The NPR Report

Globalized Diet

An NPR article on what they call the new ‘globalized diet’…yikes!…we’re in trouble.

These days you can fly to far corners of the world and eat the pretty much the same food as you could back home. There’s pizza in China and sushi in Ethiopia.

A new scientific study shows that something similar is true of the crops that farmers grow. Increasingly, there’s a standard global diet, and the human race is depending more and more on a handful of major crops for much of its food.

Cottage Food Laws

Not only can cottage food laws free entrepreneurs from Kafkaesque government inspections, using their own kitchens to bake means they no longer have to rent out commercial kitchens, which can be expensive and not available in every city.

Take Patricia Kline of ipies.

“The biggest barrier to starting a food business is finding and keeping a commercial kitchen,” she remarked.  “And once you do have a kitchen, you have to compete with other food producers who also want to use the space.”  In the middle of her busiest season, Kline once lost her spot at four different commercial kitchens.

But thanks to the cottage food law, she can instead use her own kitchen at her apartment in San Francisco, slashing her costs.  She’s also gained “flexibility in baking:”  “The law has enabled me to take advantage of last minute orders.”

The Forbes Article

Sounds like with some sensible health safeguards home food enterprises can be safe, and very low cost economic development.

Nutrition Labels

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Choosing healthier foods at the grocery store may soon be a little easier.

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing several changes to the nutrition labels you see on packaged foods and beverages. If approved, the new labels would place a bigger emphasis on total calories, added sugars and certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D and potassium.

The FDA is also proposing changes to serving size requirements in an effort to more accurately reflect what people usually eat or drink. For example, if you buy a 20-ounce soda, you’re probably not going to stop drinking at the 8-ounce mark. The new rules would require that entire soda bottle to be one serving size — making calorie counting simpler.

The CNN Article