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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
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Love of the Land | 1 | 2

Why should farmers be conservationists? Or maybe I had better ask why are good farmers conservationists? The farmer lives and works in the meeting place of nature and the human economy, the place where the need for conservation is most obvious and most urgent. Farmers either fit their farming to their farms, conform to the laws of nature, and keep the natural powers and services intact-or they do not. If they do not, then they increase the ecological deficit being charged to the future. (And I had better admit that some farmers do increase the ecological deficit. But they are not the farmers I am talking about. I am not asking conservationists to support destructive ways of farming.)

Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land's inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.

All that is what farmers ought to do. But since our present society's first standard in all things is profit and it loves to dwell on "economic reality," I can't resist a glance at these good farmers in their economic circumstances, because these farmers will be poorly paid for the goods they produce, and for the services they render to conservation they will not be paid at all. Good farmers today may market products of high quality and perform well all the services I have listed, and still be unable to afford health insurance, and still find themselves mercilessly caricatured in the public media as rural simpletons, hicks, or rednecks. And then they hear the voices of the "economic realists": "Get big or get out. Sell out and go to town. Adapt or die." We have had 50 years of such realism in agriculture, and the result has been more and more large-scale monocultures and factory farms, with their ever larger social and ecological-and ultimately economic-costs.

Why do good farmers farm well for poor pay and work as good stewards of nature for no pay, many of them, moreover, having no hope that their farms will be farmed by their children (for the reasons given) or that they will be farmed by anybody?

Well, I was raised by farmers, have farmed myself, and have in turn raised two farmers-which suggests to me that I may know something about farmers, and also that I don't know very much. But over the years I, along with a lot of other people, have wondered, Why do they do it? Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love. Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and do work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide. I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone to a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed, to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.

And so the first thing farmers as conservationists must try to conserve is their love of farming and their love of independence. Of course they can conserve these things only by handing them down, by passing them on to their children, or to somebody's children. Perhaps the most urgent task for all of us who want to eat well and to keep eating is to encourage farm-raised children to take up farming. And we must recognize that this only can be done when the economics are fair. Farm children are not encouraged by watching their parents take their crops to market only to have them stolen at prices less than the cost of production.

But farmers are obviously responsible for conserving much more than agrarian skills and attitudes. I have already told why farmers should be, as much as any conservationist, conservers of the wildness of the world-and that is their inescapable dependence on nature. Good farmers, I believe, recognize a difference that is fundamental between what is natural and what is manmade. They know that if you treat a farm as a factory and living creatures as machines, or if you tolerate the idea of "engineering" organisms, then you are on your way to something destructive and, sooner or later, expensive. To treat creatures as machines is an error with large practical implications.

Good farmers know too that nature can be an economic ally. As Sir Albert Howard and Wes Jackson have told us, nature's way of preserving the health and fertility of the soil is the only correct model for agriculture. And nature works cheap. Natural fertility is cheaper-often in the short run, always in the long run-than purchased fertility. Natural health, inbred and nurtured, is cheaper than pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Solar energy-if you know how to capture and use it: in grass, say, and the bodies of work animals-is cheaper than petroleum. The highly industrialized factory farm is entirely dependent on "purchased inputs." The agrarian farm, well-integrated into the natural systems that support it, allied with nature, runs to an economically significant extent on resources and supplies that are free.

Are we to suppose, then, that good farmers are interested in the natural world only for reasons that are utilitarian or economic? I don't think so. I think we must go on a little further.

It is now commonly assumed that when humans took to agriculture they gave up hunting and gathering. But hunting and gathering remained until recently an integral and lively part of my own region's traditional farming life. People hunted for wild game; they fished the ponds and streams; they gathered wild greens in the spring, hickory nuts and walnuts in the fall; they picked wild berries and other fruits; they prospected for wild honey. There is no denying the fact that these activities contributed to the economy of farm households, but a further fact is that they were pleasures; they were wilderness pleasures, not greatly different from the pleasures pursued by conservationists and wilderness lovers. Most of the farmers I have known, and certainly the most interesting ones, have had the capacity to ramble about outdoors for the mere happiness of it, alert to the doings of the creatures, amused by the sight of a fox catching grasshoppers or by the puzzle of wild tracks in the snow.

As the countryside has been depopulated and the remaining farmers have come under greater stress, these wilderness pleasures have fallen away. But they have not yet been altogether abandoned; they represent something probably essential to the character of the best farming, and they should be remembered and revived.Those, then, are some reasons why good farmers are conservationists, and why all farmers ought to be.

What I have been trying to do is define a congruity or community of interest between farmers and conservationists who are not farmers. To name the interests that these two groups have in common, and to observe, as I did at the beginning, that they also have common enemies, is to raise a question that is becoming increasingly urgent: Why don't the two groups publicly and forcefully agree on the things they agree on, and make in good faith an effort to cooperate?

I don't mean to belittle their disagreements, which I acknowledge to be important. Nevertheless, cooperation is now necessary, and it is possible. If Kentucky tobacco farmers can meet with antismoking groups, draw up a set of "core principles" to which they all agree, and then support one another, then something of the sort could happen between conservationists and certain land-using enterprises: family farms and ranches; small-scale, locally owned forestry and forest-products industries; and perhaps others. Something of the sort, in fact, is beginning to happen, but so far the efforts are too small and too scattered. The larger organizations on both sides need to take an interest and get involved.

If these two sides, which need to cooperate, have so far been at odds, what is the problem? The problem, I think, is economic. The small land-users, on the one hand, are struggling so hard to survive in the money economy controlled by the corporations that they are distracted from their own economy's actual basis in nature. They also have not paid enough attention to the difference between their always-threatened local economies and the always-thriving corporate economy that is exploiting them.

On the other hand, the mostly urban conservationists, who mostly are ignorant of the economic adversities of, say, family-scale farming or ranching, have paid far too little attention to the connection between their economic life and the despoliation of nature. They have trouble seeing that the bad farming and forestry practices that they oppose are done on their behalf, and with their consent implied in the economic proxies they have given as consumers.

These clearly are serious problems. Both of them indicate that the industrial economy is not a true description of economic reality, and moreover that this economy has been wonderfully successful in getting its falsehoods believed. Too many land users and too many conservationists seem to have accepted the doctrine that the availability of goods is determined by the availability of cash, or credit, and by the market. In other words, they have accepted the idea always implicit in the arguments of the land-exploiting corporations: that there can be, and that there is, a safe disconnection between economy and ecology, between human domesticity and the wild world. Industrializing farmers have too-readily assumed that the nature of their land could safely be subordinated to the capability of their technology, and that conservation could safely be left to conservationists. Conservationists have too-readily assumed that the integrity of the natural world could be preserved mainly by preserving tracts of wilderness, and that the nature and nurture of the economic landscapes could safely be left to agribusiness, the timber industry, debt-ridden farmers and ranchers, and migrant laborers.

To me, it appears that these two sides are as divided as they are because each is clinging to its own version of a common economic error. How can this be corrected? I don't think it can, so long as each side remains closed up in its own conversation. I think the two sides need to enter into one conversation. They have got to talk to one another. Conservationists have got to know and deal competently with the methods and economics of land use. Land users have got to recognize the urgency, even the economic urgency, of the requirements of conservation.

Failing this, these two sides will simply concede an easy victory to their common enemy, the third side, the corporate totalitarianism that is now rapidly consolidating as the "global economy," and that will utterly dominate both the natural world and its human communities.


Wendell Berry, author of The Unsettling of America (Sierra Club Books, 1996), is a writer who farms in Henry County, Kentucky, where both his children and five grandchildren also farm.

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