It’s appropriate that author/farmer Wendell Berry will be in St. Paul June 29 for a special “Keeping the Land and People Together” public LSP celebration. After all, 2007 is the 30th anniversary of his diamond-hard attack on industrial ag: The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. It’s no accident that landmark anniversaries of so many sustainable agriculture/family farm groups (LSP turned 25 this year) fall around the three-decade birthday of Unsettling. It was the book that launched a thousand agrarian movements. And now, decades later we are reaping the fruits of all those movements that were spawned by Wendell Berry’s angry, eloquent labor. Come on down to the College of St. Catherine on the evening of the 29th and get a sense of sustainable agriculture history. But even more importantly, learn what kind of positive future is being created by people and groups that agreed with Berry when he wrote, “…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”
I was first introduced to Wendell Berry and the The Unsettling of America while serving in the Peace Corps in Lesotho during the mid-1980s. I was drawn immediately to Berry’s combination of philosophy, history, economic analysis and down-to-earth musings on his own experiences farming and living in a farming community. As a farmboy, I was seeing exactly what he was describing in my own home county—the replacement of good husbandry and rural community with a monolithic, specialized industrial model. But I had never really connected it to a larger picture. I was even seeing some of this play out in southern Africa with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development and, yes, the Peace Corps.
It helped that Berry presented his arguments using electric writing that was packed full of ideas and information, and yet clear and economical. He didn’t so much attack the industrial model of agriculture, as dismantle it piece by unsustainable piece until it was a pile of indefensible rubble. Berry spoke to me on an intellectual as well as gut level. When Berry quoted Montaigne, it was to illuminate, not to impress.
I wasn’t the only one he related to in this way: years later when I attended my first LSP field day, I heard more than one farmer quote a line from Berry’s writings in reference to what they were doing daily on the land. He wasn’t just writing about people like farmers, he was writing for them. That’s an important distinction to make if you are presenting ideas that we all have a role in successfully executing. Writing that speaks only to the political and intellectual elite assumes that only they can make the changes needed to improve society. The rest of us are children being told what’s best. That strategy for societal change has not worked out so well, and Berry knows it.
A passive reader of the original Unsettling may dismiss it as a product of the 70s (Berry did update some of its material in later editions). It references people like Earl Butz, the infamous Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (until his racist sense of humor caught up to him). GMOs were not an issue in 1977. Globalization had not yet creeped into every aspect of our society.
But Berry himself acknowledges in his opening paragraphs that his writing is not meant to be a criticism of any one administration, or an isolated period in history. Instead, it is meant to point out the folly of adhering to a timeless philosophy that problems can be solved in isolation of each other and that growth for growth’s sake is the highest ideal.
Although Unsettling is ostensively about agriculture, its ideas can be applied to many of society’s problems when it comes to use of natural resources. For example, at one point Berry writes, “Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man- and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too, for the same reasons.”
It’s not the technology or tool itself that’s the problem, it’s the worldview behind it. Replace the word “nuclear power” with “ethanol” or “biofuels” and Berry’s words are as relevant as ever.
Not that The Unsettling of America is his only word on the subject of land, people and community, by any means. Berry was a writer of some renown long before Unsettling was published and has remained quite productive during the past three decades, churning out essays, poems and novels that are as relevant and penetrating as Unsettling. Berry’s a regular contributor to Orion (his “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear” piece is a must-read) and he recently published a short story in Harper’s. His latest novel came out last year. Whether it’s prose or poetry, the years have not dulled his ability to paint a picture and make an argument that sears right into your skull.
After finishing Unsettling the first time, I remember having the same feeling in college when I read about the land ethic in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: here was someone who was speaking to me, expressing a philosophy I maintained but had not known how to express. Rachel Carson’s arguments against the arrogant attempt to “control nature” had the same effect on me when I read Silent Spring. I was seeing in the world around me what these people were describing and now I knew there were good reasons beyond my own personal biases for being troubled by these changes. I also knew that if I set to work to change things, I wouldn’t be alone.
But hey, I was a Peace Corps volunteer running a dairy co-op in a mountain kingdom, far removed from the “real world.” Maybe I could be forgiven for having one last fling with idealism thanks to a farmer from Kentucky.
But Unsettling continued to unsettle me long after I returned to the Midwest. In the early 1990s, I was working for Miller Publishing, a Minnetonka-based outfit that at the time put out a stable of conventional agriculture magazines; the self-defeating “get big or get out” kind that eat away at their subscription base by publishing articles which put the majority of readers out of business (Berry would have called this the “wanting a neighbor’s land, rather than a neighbor” mentality). At the time, Miller also published the weekly Feedstuffs, which remains today an extremely influential corporate farming rationalizer for the captains of industrial agribusiness (my favorite Feedstuffs headline: “Is the customer really always right?”).
One day, while in the Miller library looking up some USDA statistics for an article on why farmers should use the Chicago Board of Trade to market their corn (I still don’t know the difference between a “put” and a “call” at the CBOT), I happened upon an original edition of The Unsettling of America. It was like finding Ralph Nader working a cash register at Wal-Mart or seeing a pork chop being served at a PETA banquet: what the heck is this doing here?
I’d like to think the book was there because the promoters of industrial agriculture—the editors at publications like Feedstuffs—saw Berry’s ideas as a threat too dangerous to take lightly. Worse than being mocked for your “radical” ideas is to be ignored completely. Someone in power was paying attention to the man from Kentucky.
Or maybe Berry’s publisher just sent a free review copy to Miller and no one bothered to throw it away.
I’m holding on to my first guess, especially because I found several particularly powerful passages marked in pencil, and stuck between the pages was a positive review of the book that had been published in a national, mainstream magazine. Someone is reading Mr. Berry and we better be prepared for the pubic backlash by reading him too, some editor at Miller may have thought back in 1977. Know thine enemy.
The backlash did occur, but it may not have been the one agribusiness was expecting. There was a quieter, slow, below-the-radar response to Berry’s ideas—and it continues to this day. Like-minded farmers feeling isolated by their belief that good stewardship of the land was critical have gotten together, shared ideas and provided each other moral support. Grassroots groups like LSP and the Sustainable Farming Assocation of Minnesota have been formed. And once these groups were launched, an identifiable constituency rose up—a constituency consisting of farmers, environmentalists and consumers who felt that food production and environmental stewardship were not mutually exclusive. More people felt comfortable expressing the idea publicly that economic development did not require us to make farm country into a denuded industrial park where the only product was raw commodities.
We have a long ways to go. But in recent years, that informed constituency has started to have some real impacts in the areas of policy reform, food safety and environmental protection. USDA now has its Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has the Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program (ESAP). Sustainable agriculture groups have gotten concrete initiatives, like the Conservation Security Program, put into federal farm bills.
Berry was especially critical of land grant colleges for being in bed with large agribusiness and ignoring their mission of serving the public good. There have been some changes in that area, thanks to places like the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the U of M, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State (the very college that filled my head with the wonders of industrial ag in the early 1980s). These aren’t just ghettoized pockets of sustainable agriculture that are held up as environmental PR by our universities—although that’s certainly a danger. These centers and institutes are starting to have profound influences on research and teaching across departments and disciplines. This will be a slow, steady process.
Such changes don’t come about by accident. Many of the people who read The Unsettling of America were seeing firsthand how their land grants were becoming branch offices of Cargill and Monsanto. Berry reminded them that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and that as taxpayers they had a say in it. They complained, organized and lobbied. They became “stakeholders” that had to be reckoned with.
The Unsettling of America did not affect electoral politics or bring about widespread policy reforms. What it did was inspire a generation of individuals and groups to stand up and fight for a sustainable food and farming system. It’s even inspired a few people to quit mainstream ag journalism and throw in their lot with the sustainable farming movement.
Frankly, that’s created many more problems for industrial agriculture than if, say, Berry’s book had brought about a new law that outlawed factory farms or denied multinational grain traders the benefits of public subsidies. Corporate America and its political allies know how to deal with legislation: water it down, gut its funding, coopt it, make it irrelevant through the insidious power of benign neglect.
But corporate America hasn’t yet figured out how to completely undermine the power of people with the power of money. Sure, they win some battles, but those rascally entities called citizens always seem to find a way to come back for more. And to the consternation of agribusiness, some groups of those people are not only celebrating major anniversaries, but looking ahead at the next quarter-century of work with optimism.