Gracy Olmstead’s recent interview with Wendell Berry is worth reading for insight into American agriculture, an issue that isn’t even discussed anymore due to the abundance of nearly everything we could want, anytime we want it. Our experience of abundance is the exception, not the norm, and these two speak about aspects of the American economy that deserve more thoughtfulness:
Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?
Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.
If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.
Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.
Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.
Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.
I appreciated Berry’s blunt response to Olmstead’s later in the interview asking about how to create a more equitable agricultural economy: “I distrust entirely the terms ‘free market’ and ‘level playing field.’ Those phrases are intoned as if they were the names of gods, but what do they mean?” He goes on to provide a rich answer, but first rejected potentially ideological thinking.