Life in a Machine: The Crisis of Modern Agriculture

Wilma van der Leek, who earned her masters degree in spiritual theology at Regent College, looks at Wendell Berry's critique of the modern-industrial model of farming and his agrarian alternative centered in the recovery of the small, family farm.
September 2 nd 2005
The man born to farming,
Whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
To him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
Yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
In the dung heap, and rise again in the corn

Wendell Berry, The Man Born to Farming

Modern agriculture is in trouble and American farmer-writer Wendell Berry can't stop talking about it. In a constant, sometimes cranky stream of articles and books like The Unsettling of America and The Art of the Commonplace, Berry witnesses to the destruction caused by modernization. His portrayal of agricultural iniquities is sobering. "More" and "faster" tempts farmers to choose mechanization and chemicalization over slower, land-friendly practices. Soil is compacted or eroded. Water supplies are contaminated and depleted. The family farmer lives with ever smaller return, longer hours, higher debt, and greater dependence on outside energy and products. Many are replaced by corporate farms while those who remain give up some agrarian ideals under the economic pressure. There is a general exhaustion of farm culture: the local and personal is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. The irony of employing practices which actually diminish and even deplete the life on which we all depend does not escape Berry's angry pen: "What other creature befouls his own nest?"

Few understood with such prescience the connection between modernization and the disintegration of the very life it purports to improve as well as 19th-century sociologist Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his famous study of rationalization, predicted that a logical, efficient way of organizing society would overwhelm all other values, destroying traditional, more harmonious ways of thinking. A profound disenchantment of the world would occur, since, in order to be controlled, the world must be seen as a closed system. According to Weber, an "iron cage" of technological determinism is the inevitable result of modernization. He believed it was impossible to mechanize society without also mechanizing living things and even people. Berry picks up on Weber's critique, pointing out that when money becomes the main arbiter of values, it is actually possible to speak of "prosperity" and "growth" in a land of degraded farms and forests, polluted air, failing families and perishing communities. A market economy comes to views itself as the only economy, valuing what it can use efficiently and profitably.

A good case in point on the effects of such skewed thinking is soil, one of Berry's favourite topics. Good soil is slow-forming, alive, and wonderfully able both to retain and drain water. But such subtle complexity is alien to industrial logic where mechanization rules and machine is the dominant metaphor. Though water retention and drainage are primarily issues of soil use and improvement, too often quick technological solutions are chosen, sometimes resulting in problems requiring more technology to fix them. Although they are useful and efficient, machines are swift. This diminishes the attentive human care that soil requires, and upsets the careful balance between what is living and what is mechanical. Life is easily overwhelmed by the mechanical, and restraint, that first principle of any biological system, is easily diminished.

In mechanized and specialized economies, work is separated from results, denying what Berry describes as the necessary "kinship" of worker, work, product, and consumer. Quality is sacrificed for quantity. Agricultural success is measured, then, by an ability to produce marketable surplus rather than by health, wisdom or stewardship. Economies of scale result in mono-cultures where waste, pollution and shoddy workmanship are considered unfortunate but necessary costs. Berry is astonished at how readily accepted is the recent amalgamation of farmland to fewer and fewer owners, and the abandonment of the ancient, proven principle of agricultural diversity. He asks when it has ever been wise to put all the eggs in one basket.

From his own experience as a farmer, as well as in extensive research, Wendell Berry concludes that there is another basis to agriculture and, indeed, to life than what Weber describes as rationalization. A Christian, Berry believes that the modernist project of control is ultimately self-defeating. Biblically, we can only become what we truly are by renewing our relationships with God, the earth and others. The question of limits, therefore, is essential: how do humans fit within creation? Since we all come from the earth and return to it, surely humility is in order.

Berry proposes a renewed connection with what he calls "The Great Economy": "that order within which we live and which is greater and more intricate than we can know . . . that order which subsists, coheres, and endures by God's love and can only be redeemed by love." This great economy is, therefore, Berry's "re-enchanted," which is his religious expression for the basic ecological principal that nothing lives in isolation. While distinctions are certainly helpful to make, life is best seen as a circulatory network by which each part is connected to every other part. It is simply fatal to live by imposing mechanical ideas upon the living earth instead of learning from and cooperating with it. It is the great economy, not the market, which is the true originator of values: "we are always dealing with materials we did not make."

Central to Berry's hope to address the modern agricultural crisis is to advocate support for the disappearing family farm, a farm whose proportions "incorporate a pattern that a single human mind can comprehend and maintain . . . and which safeguard a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfy or replace." The restraint and love naturally called for on a small farm can never be duplicated by a big corporation. Without the long-term, stable connections between land and people possible on a family farm, Berry believes no program to preserve land will ever work.

The great economy supports the flourishing of innumerable little economies which uphold particularity and uniqueness. The family farmer is a generalist, not a specialist, and is thereby more able to consider the big picture of past wisdom, present need, and future hope. This promotes long-term health and production because, contrary to the iron logic of modernization, the connections between land and people are qualitative, encompassing a variety of values, not merely quantitative, with production as the bottom line. The true measure of agricultural success is not the sophistication of its equipment, but the health of its land, people, plants and animals.

Berry particularly applauds the healthy balance produced on small farms where a diversity of animals and plants live together. No more manure is produced than can be safely spread. Crop rotation contributes to healthy soil and natural pest control. Water is conserved: "Rather than chafe at natural physical limits, straining productive capacity, we should turn to nature's elegant way of enriching herself within physical limits by diversification." Unlike massive, industrial economies whose scale compounds error into tragedy, small economies reduce the scope of error. All the eggs are not in one basket. Berry is concerned that the problems of modernization will be difficult to address. Once investment in land and machines is overlarge, many farmers go bankrupt or forsake the values of traditional husbandry in favour of technology. Hard work is required to recover deteriorated farms and change patterns of living, let alone posit a religious basis. Attempts to restrict or reduce technology will likely be considered suspect or outright crazy.

In his book The Way of the Modern World, theologian Craig Gay warns Christians what to expect: "For anyone to suggest that economic affairs ought to be disciplined by religious understanding is, from the modern point of view, to pose a somewhat irrational threat to productivity." Yet the need for re-enchantment is pressing since even bigger challenges lie ahead. Says Berry, "the revolution which began with machines and chemicals now continues with automation, computers and biotechnology." Still, a combination of legislation, individual resolve and public support could help. Low-interest loans, price controls, co-ops, sanitation law review and encouragement of technological and genetic diversity are all within the realm of possibility. Even more importantly, agricultural obligation belongs to everyone, not just farmers and government, an awareness Berry calls "agrarianism." We all need to think "little," be willing to pay the local farmer a fair price, reconsider the value of physical labour, and reduce waste. We must tame our desires to the scale of the earth for there is simply no dependable safety founded on greed, ignorance and waste.

For Berry, such agrarianism is no sentimental longing for a time past. Colonial attitudes, domestic, foreign and now global, have resisted true agrarianism almost from the beginning: "We never yet have fully developed sustainable, stable, locally-adapted, land-based economies."

In researching, Berry has recorded many examples of small and even some larger scale farms that do practice this kind of agrarian agriculture, yielding the same returns with one third of the energy. Traditional practices such as managing erosion through smaller fields which retain their natural barriers, or dealing with climate variation, disease, and pests by way of crop diversification are on the rise. A "revolt" against global industry is happening. Consumers are no longer ignorant of the health issues related to antibiotics, chemicals, and pollution. And they are aware that fresh, trustworthy food cannot be produced by global corporations.

Berry mainly addresses an American audience, but two interviews I conducted confirm a similarly complex picture in Canada. My brother-in-law, John Greydanus, runs a mid-sized hog farm in southern Ontario. He spoke positively about how improved genetics and nutrition allow him to produce more and healthier pigs per litter, with less feed required. He remains connected to the particularities of his land, uses all the manure produced by his own animals, and believes it is the small family farmer who can best employ technology moderately and wisely.

Yet he acknowledges that pressures have increased, and that he has lost connection to the end result of his product. Baby pigs are now shipped from his farm at two weeks of age to be raised on another specialized farm, slaughtered in a distant slaughterhouse, and sold to national supermarkets. He notes with sadness how acquaintances have quit independent farming and now work on contract for large corporate farms. His son who wishes to own a farm finds financing prohibitive.

A second conversation with Dick and Trudy Nieuwland, long-time operators of Thorndale Farm Supplies, also in Ontario, was similarly mixed. They noted that technology can be well applied. Automatic feeding equipment, for example, is much more precise than the old system of "eyeballing." Good soil management is happening and food is generally safe and good, due in part to consumer outcry. Still, the Nieuwlands feel that specialization is not leaving the land in better shape for future generations. A sense of the inter-connectedness of the eco-system has been lost. The removal of fences and draining of swamps for the sake of efficiency has left devastating results. The Nieuwlands agree that legislation to protect the small family farm is necessary, but are skeptical that government will is strong enough. Still they remain passionately committed to small farms and communities because health is much more possible where local responsibility is in charge.

Both these examples serve to prove Wendell Berry's point: the world does have room for many people, but they must live as limited human beings, not as economic giants. The failure of modern agriculture is essentially a religious one. As he writes in The Unsettling of America:

Much as we long for infinities of power, we have no evidence that these lie within our reach, much less within our responsibility. It is more likely that we will have either to live within human limits or not live at all. And certainly the knowledge of these limits and of how to live within them is the most comely and graceful knowledge that we have.

Although he has been a prophet of agrarianism to deaf ears for many years, Wendell Berry simply won't stop warning us that we must change our ways or be changed. In Jesus' parable of the rich man building bigger, Berry finds a stern reminder that preparing for a future of short-term economic prosperity is ever a poor substitute for caring about generations yet to come, let alone for eternal life in God's great economy.

Topics: Culture
 

Wilma completed a Master?s Degree at Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.) where she studied spiritual theology, an ancient approach to theology concerned with the broad shape and dynamic of the Christian life, the uniting of head and heart. Wendell Berry appeared on many of her reading lists because of his prophetic, holistic Christian thinking. Agrarianism is of particular interest to her, since she grew up on a farm, and now wonders what it means to be agrarian without manure on her boots.

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