Agrarianism for Everyone

windmill against racing clouds
Am I celebrating it or tilting at it? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Creative Commons-licensed photo by Mark Seton.

Note: This was my last attempt at explaining the philosophy behind my website The New Agrarian. All the content of that site is now housed here, and what follows still serves as a good introduction to my writing.

If you’ve come here looking for a definition of agrarianism, I’m afraid I don’t have one; at least, not a simple one. Almost fifteen years ago, when I started The New Agrarian, I took a stab at defining my own version of the ancient idea in “The Eightfold Agrarian Way,” but that feels cramped to me now, and to my own mind, a bit dated. In a broad sense, all the (often haphazardly) collected material on this website accretes into a sort of definition of agrarianism.

That’s twenty years of writing and more words than I feel like counting, so let me note some major themes and point out pieces of my writing that have explored them. I’ll frame each of these themes as a relationship, for reasons that will become clear below. Forty years ago Wendell Berry argued that the problem of agriculture is fundamentally a problem of culture, and what I’m mainly interested in is what sort of culture is required to foster the sort of agriculture we need. Mine is therefore a broad sort of agrarianism in which we all, regardless of vocation or location, are called to participate.

Our relationship with the past

I’ll start here, because the name I chose for the website (and by extension for myself) raises the question: Why “new” agrarian? By new I meant to free myself from some of the weight of agrarianism’s long traditions and, especially, its traditional perceptions — though of course one can never entirely free oneself of the past, and shouldn’t pretend to, and to claim the mantle of agrarianism is, I think, to accept that fact. I did not, and still don’t, want simply to adopt the ideas of a hundred or a thousand years ago. They weren’t all good, and even if they had been, they don’t always directly apply today. But what I wanted most to avoid was the idea that to be agrarian is to be of the past. Rooted in the past, yes; aware of our place in time’s great sweep and of our debt (and perhaps even our responsibility) to those who have gone before — but not living, or trying to live, or pretending to live, in some past time and place — a past that must needs be largely of our own invention.

That problem was at the core of my book Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America: that Americans of the 20th (and now the 21st) century have come to identify rural with past, and that such an identification makes it impossible for rural people to chart a future in which they and their places remain in some meaningful way rural. Thus many rural places and communities have been colonized by urbanites, refashioned around urban fantasies of rurality, or simply abandoned.

It’s also a problem I’ve lived out, in a way, in some of my work. I practice a semi-traditional woodworking with hand tools, and the key to doing that well is to learn as much as possible from past practice and absorb its lessons while not being bound by it. I also demonstrate some of those techniques doing “living history” at a local historic site, and that sets up an interesting, and sometimes frustrating, tension. I wrote about that experience in “Old Timey,” and you can see how I approached the problem in my own craft — What does the practical 21st-century craftsman do? — in “The Thirty-Dollar Shaving Horse.”

Our relationship with agriculture

This is the big one, obviously: agrarian means at its root having to do with agriculture. But what sort of agriculture, and having to do with it how?

I think a core tenet of any philosophy called “agrarian” has to do with the primacy of agriculture among human endeavors. If we don’t feed ourselves, everything else collapses. Of course agrarian thinking, at least in the last hundred years or so, generally goes far beyond that, to consider how we ought to raise our food, and what that implies or requires for the remainder of our activities. There is of course much disagreement over how we ought to farm, even among proponents of “sustainable” agriculture. I’m not a farmer, either professionally or temperamentally, nor am I enough of an expert on farming to expound on it in any detail. So I don’t say much here about how to grow food, and my own explorations I’ve called examples rather than instructions.

As a general principle, though, I’ll suggest that if agriculture is primary to human civilization, then it has great responsibility: and so a good farmer bears continually in mind that responsibility. It’s a responsibility to those “consumers” who eat the food produced — and so, of course, a responsibility to grow healthy food. But that responsibility thus implies other responsibilities. Responsibility to me means by extension responsibility to my family and my children, which means that agriculture must be responsible not only for the present but for the future. To accept responsibility to future generations means to accept responsibility to the land, and that in turn means accepting responsibility for a particular kind of work.

I’ll assert, as a second principle, that those responsibilities are mutual. They must be acted upon and met in community, and every one of us in turn has a responsibility to support “good farmers” and responsible agriculture. Most often we’re urged to do that by conscientious consumption, researching products and consuming responsibly. We’re urged moreover to do that consumption within our system of industrial production and distribution, through smart shopping and boycotts and petitions. Granting that we are, at least for the time being, stuck with that system, I accept that responsibility.

But smart shopping isn’t enough. We can’t simply sit back and say, you farmers — you take this responsibility to the earth and future generations, you do good work, and we’ll pay for it — with money earned by doing none of those things. We can’t, as we seem to be doing, expect good farmers to exist in continual rebellion against the industrial society that supports them: surely that isn’t sustainable. We must somehow foster the work of good farming culturally as well as financially. And that means taking upon ourselves some of their work, or work that echoes and reinforces the work of good farming — at least, for now, in small ways. The responsibilities I noted above must be thought of in terms of relationships, and we all share them.

Hence my support for backyard poultry, hobby farming, part-time farming, micro-farming, home gardening, and pots of herbs on the windowsill — a broadly participatory agriculture and a “diversity of gardeners.” It’s true that practicing the work of agriculture as a hobby may warp your thinking about what it requires, I think it’s far more likely that doing that work on any scale raises an awareness of just how damned hard it really is — and thus breeds a proper respect for professional farmers. Without that awareness, in any case, it’s hard to see how conscientious consumption is itself a sustainable practice; it isn’t rooted in anything but the desire to keep up with one’s neighbors, a sort of conspicuous non-consumption. It lacks an ethic, which participatory agriculture has the potential to build.

Conscientious consumption, moreover, does nothing to build community, and, if it strengthens in some way our industrial food system, may end up only further undermining it. Without community, how can we expect people even to recognize a responsibility to one another, let alone work to meet it? That doesn’t mean that every farmer should have a CSA or that every consumer should join one, but relationships, I think, are crucial.

Our relationship with food

If we’re going to support sustainable agriculture, then we must support agriculture sustainably — which is not quite the same thing. What to do with all that seasonal produce we’re urged to buy? It’s fine in the summer, but what about winter? And what about food waste? Few of us know what to do with leftovers beyond microwaving them. Few of us know what to do with parts of animals that wind up most often in industrial food, and so we remain dependent on its methods. And our methods of cooking — by algorithmic recipes that distance us from the craft of cooking, using machines that distance us from the bodily feedback necessary to learn that craft — reinforce those failures.

I am convinced that the way we think about cooking makes it effectively impossible for us to cook daily, regularly, and well, and without that kind of home cooking to support it, I can’t see sustainable agriculture being possible. In theory, I’m working on a book about how Americans lost their ability to cook in the 19th and 20th centuries — in short, industrial thinking in the kitchen and at the table predated and paved the way for the adoption of industrially processed foods. In the meantime, much of what I have to say here about food circles around that idea. Our cuisine, and I mean the food we actually eat and not only what we wish we were eating, needs to be rooted in time, place, community, and craft as well as our agriculture, and we need to take care to pass it on to our children.

Our relationship with our work

I’ve mentioned craft already, in talking about cooking and woodworking, so let me say something more explicitly about it. By craft I don’t mean a level of professional skill but rather an approach to work that is respectful, responsible, rooted, and reflective. It requires taking work seriously and involving one’s whole person in it — both body and mind. It permits us therefore to be whole persons. It demands a responsibility to the person who will use what’s being created, to the materials used, and to oneself as a craftsperson — and so you see how a broad emphasis on craft can give cultural support to good farming. What I’m particularly interested in is the sort of “everyday craft” that fosters at least a degree of self-sufficiency — the sort of craft required for good home cooking. That kind of craft also fosters economy and fosters gratitude. It orients us to the world and to those around us in a way that unreflective work does not.

Our relationship with the land

I say “the land” and not “the earth” because it’s difficult to have a relationship with something as big as the entire earth. We may all contribute to and be affected by global climate change, but we do and are first at a local level. I do not believe that one can care meaningfully about “the environment” nor pass that care onto one’s children without that care being rooted in affection.1 For non-farmers, “relationship with the land” means relationship with place, and that relationship begins with simply noticing things. Most of us too often simply don’t notice what’s around us. I lived in the same house for nearly a decade (while writing about this stuff, for crying out loud!) before I realized what an incredible diversity of life existed on my single acre of land. Writing “cheap poetry” — a term I coined with tongue firmly in cheek — was meant to be medicine for that ill. Without the habit of paying attention, where can a meaningful land ethic possibly come from?

“Relationship” with the land or the earth requires something else, too: It requires our acceptance of the fact that we are embodied creatures, for whom (as I suggested above in talking about craft) body and mind are not (entirely) separable. The idea that we are our minds, that our bodies are “our bodies,” objects belonging to us to be disposed of as we wish, all but guarantees the same attitude toward the earth. And so, I think, we each must practice embodiment and reorient our thinking around that practice.

Our relationships with one another

Finally, community. What I detest most about our industrial food system is not what it does to food or what it does to the earth but what it does to us and to our relationships with one another. The age-old tragedy of consolidation driving farmers off the land continues, of course. Too many food-producing industries (African chocolate, Thai fishing, Florida tomatoes) rely on, if not outright slavery, than its effective equivalent. The conditions to which we subject livestock are appalling and disgusting. The marketing of industrial food and even, historically, the teaching of cookery undermines our abilities to feed our families and splits households into individual units of consumption. The practice of global capitalism reduces humans and animals, which are properly creatures, to the status of machines, and for that sin I cannot justify its productivity.

The means we too often use to combat its ills — conscientious consumption, boycotts, and so on — place us by default in an attitude of suspicion; we are set in opposition to those who feed us. This is perhaps necessary and inevitable in the short run. But it does nothing to lay the groundwork for long-term change: in fact, by deepening and further institutionalizing the opposition between producer and consumer, it likely impedes it.

We can’t simply shake off the chains of global industrial capitalism. We can, however, practice the sort of interactions we’d rather our economy support. Avoid statistics and abstractions. Feed yourself and those you love. Teach your children. Deal with your fellow human beings directly and treat them as such. Observe your fellow creatures and consider them as such. It’s the simplest and the hardest thing in the world, but as a starting place, it’s all we have.

A postscript

Were I to write some sort of manifesto now, it might look something like this:

  1. Find beauty and purpose where you are.
  2. Play a part in your subsistence.
  3. Root yourself.
  4. Think small.
  5. Celebrate your embodiedness and your creatednesss.
  6. Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.

Is that agrarian? I don’t know. I don’t suppose it matters much.

Am I very good at those things? I don’t know. It varies. That matters tremendously, of course, but not to the value of the maxims, which stand regardless of my ability to live up to them.

  1. I would refer you here to Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson lecture.