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)