The Eightfold Agrarian Way

The “Eightfold Agrarian Way” is an outline of an agrarian philosophy for the twenty-first century. It is both a catalog and a prescription: a catalog, because it began as an attempt to find the common ground in three thousand years of agrarian thought; a prescription, because I believe that the philosophy I found is as valid for the future as its first authors thought it for the past. But it is only a beginning, a starting point for further discussion and debate.

New Agrarianism, most importantly, is not about preserving a way of life or recreating the past; it is about building the future. These eight principles draw heavily on past expressions of agrarian thought, from ancient Greece to twentieth-century America, but they are not bound by them. Agrarians have few models but the past, and the past is valuable for the lessons it teaches, but each of us must live in the present and plan for the future.

New Agrarianism is about creating a new kind of rural community, one that is genuinely rural but that is fully a part of twenty-first century American society. The old ways don’t work any longer, as mid-size farmers and residents of dying towns have been slowly recognizing for decades. Large-scale commercial farms apply an industrial model to agriculture that is destructive to rural culture and community.

Sustainable agriculture is a beginning, but New Agrarianism is about more than agriculture. It is about a search for sustainable community, sustainable culture, sustainable life. A New Agrarian may not be a “family farmer,” nor a full-time farmer, nor even a farmer at all. Agriculture is not the only possible expression of agrarian values; many forms of craft or community building could be thought of as agrarian.

No philosophy can succeed if it applies only to a small minority within a society, and New Agrarianism is about deep, broad, long-term change. We live in a society that is majority urban, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. New Agrarianism, creatively interpreted, could apply equally well to life in the city — to any life, in fact, that values connections with nature, with place, and with community.

  1. A New Agrarian sees human life as a part of nature and believes that human and natural processes should be integrated.
  2. An agrarian believes in, if not the primacy, then at least the uniqueness of agriculture among human endeavors.
  3. A New Agrarian tends to be conservative in philosophical and practical terms, if not necessarily politically.
  4. A New Agrarian believes in the worth of old-fashioned virtues, but also believes that one doesn’t have to be a prude about them.
  5. A New Agrarian prefers informal means of social and economic organization to formal ones.
  6. A New Agrarian strives to integrate the economic and spiritual aspects of his or her life.
  7. A New Agrarian embraces “neighborliness” as a practical and informal balance between individualism and communitarianism.
  8. A New Agrarian believes in the importance of place — that localities should be distinctive and that how one lives should be tied to where one lives.

1. A New Agrarian sees human life as a part of nature and believes that human and natural processes should be integrated.

To see human life as a part of nature means to believe that whatever humans do, wherever they go, they remain inextricably tied to natural processes and to the rest of the world, influenced by and influencing in turn the biology, geology, and climate of the planet. This does not mean that we should “go back” to nature, whatever that might entail; it means rather that we are already there. To see ourselves as separate from nature, let alone above it, is a conceit.

The traditional Judeo-Christian view, in which humans are the product of a separate creation and the remainder of creation is given for our dominion, to be disposed of as we see fit, fails to see human life as fully part of nature. But the view of most environmentalists fails just as badly, by supposing a “pristine” nature that existed before human occupation and that we can re-create in nature preserves or by believing that humans can minimize their “impact” on nature. Just as the conservative supposes that humans are superior to nature, the progressive supposes that we can live outside of it. To say that humans are a part of nature is not to deny the ways in which we differ from other animals or our responsibility as stewards; it is to recognize that when we steward the earth we are stewarding our own future as well.

The second half of the principle follows from the first. If we are a part of nature, it makes sense whenever possible to work with nature rather than against it. This does not mean that we should not make use of plants, animals, or natural formations and processes for our own ends–that is our own natural process, as it is the natural process of every other species on earth. It means rather that we should take advantage of natural processes for our own ends rather than defeating or circumventing them–ride piggyback on them, as it were, rather than trying to outrace them. To defeat natural processes is a form of violence that should be used as a last resort, in desperation only, not as a mode of daily living. Because humans are fundamentally part of nature, by such violence we will ultimately destroy ourselves.

A simple agricultural example is pest management: pesticide defeats nature by killing and destroying; organic methods, which focus on growing healthy plants less attractive to insects, take advantage of natural processes for human ends.

Another is hunting, which, despite the protests of environmentalists, is a natural process, one that humans, like countless other species, evolved to employ. (Dissenters may consult my cat.) It is thus superior in the agrarian view to industrial livestock operations, which defeat nature not by merely killing animals for food but by denying them the chance ever to live in the first place.

A note: This does not mean that humans must live in harmony with nature. Harmony is a word I would prefer to see stricken from the English language, save in reference to music. In reference to human affairs, it is absurdly optimistic, utopian, not reachable even as an ideal. To suggest that humans can live in harmony with one another or with nature is to flout human nature–and nature itself, for that matter. Life on earth is largely about struggle and conflict; it is in how we resolve conflicts that we demonstrate our character. Harmony may or may not await us in heaven, depending on your metaphysics. Meanwhile, it is dangerous, I believe, to take as one’s goal heaven on earth: it is an ideal doomed to frustration, and frustrated idealists too easily become cynics or hypocrites.

Agrarians know that they live in an earthly garden, not the Garden of Eden; they must accept nature as they find it and cannot take on ideals towards which they do not intend to work.

2. A New Agrarian believes in, if not the primacy, then at least the uniqueness of agriculture among human endeavors.

Agriculture, which is simply the production of food and fiber for human use by natural means, depends more closely on natural processes than any other human endeavor. It is dependent upon natural processes for its success, processes that remain outside human ontrol despite our attempts to reproduce or manage them — the weather, the life cycles of plants and animals, the workings of life on a cellular level.

To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry and countless others, while most human endeavors are linear processes, agriculture is cyclical. Manufacturing extracts resources from the earth and converts them to a new and permanent or semi-permanent form for human use. Recycling aside, those natural resources, once turned into a manufactured human process, never return to their natural state. Even in non-industrial societies, objects such as pottery, tools, and weapons may outlive their creators by millennia. The products of agriculture, by contrast — food, at least, if not fiber–are consumed and converted, via digestion and decay, back to their natural constituents–which are made, by other natural processes, into food for another season.

I should say that sustainable agriculture, at least, is cyclical. “Modern” agriculture is more likely to follow the one-way industrial model of production. A New Agrarian, believing that agriculture is and must be different from other human endeavors, believes in the need for sustainable agriculture.

The New Agrarian also believes that that it is both possible and desirable for some forms of manufacturing to take advantage of natural processes (see principle 1) and thus become more agrarian. But agriculture above all must work with nature rather than against it.

3. A New Agrarian tends to be conservative in philosophical and practical terms, if not necessarily politically.

Politically, many agrarian ideas would be radical, even revolutionary. Philosophically, however, a New Agrarian may be quite conservative, preferring the practical over the fantastic and the simple over the unnecessarily complex.

Forget, for a moment, the usual political meanings of “conservative” and “liberal.” Philosophically speaking, I think that a liberal is essentially optimistic about human nature while a conservative is essentially pessimistic. A liberal, in other words, believes that people are basically good; a conservative believes they are basically rotten, or at least highly corruptible. (What a liberal or conservative might choose to do about those beliefs is anyone’s guess; a conservative, for example, might believe that people are rotten and must be kept under control–or that people are rotten and therefore not fit to be put in charge of anyone else.)

A New Agrarian need not go so far in condemning human nature–optimists are more than welcome–but no pie-in-the-sky let’s-all-live-in-harmony crap (see principle 1) will be tolerated. An agrarian philosophy must begin with a realistic acceptance of human nature and of nature itself, and learn how to work within the world we inhabit.

Practical conservatism is easier to define. Although change is certainly not to be feared–a New Agrarian is not hidebound–it is also not to be valued merely for its own sake. When a problem has multiple solutions, the agrarian employs a workaday version of Occam’s Razor and chooses the simplest. The tool to use for a particular job is the best one for that job, and a new tool should be demonstrably better than the one it replaces, not merely newer. If a new tool or method or idea is demonstrably superior to the old one, however, it should be readily adopted. What is right for the New Agrarian is what works, so long as it is consistent with his or her values.

4. A New Agrarian believes in the worth of old-fashioned virtues, but also believes that one doesn’t have to be a prude about them.

There was a great deal of value in earlier systems of virtues. Industry, meaning the willingness and desire to work hard, is useful if one intends to get bread from the soil. Frugality means not a Scrooge-like forbearance of any petty luxury but a willingness at least to count to ten before embracing new extravagance and, I think, a refusal on principle to dispose lightly of creation. (For that reason, I cling to the traditional view of good Pennsylvania Dutch farmwives that bad cooking is a sin.) Temperance, in its original sense, means not to swear off liquor but simply to embrace moderation as a guide in all things, to put good sense ahead of momentary indulgence–to temper one’s desires, not to deny them entirely. All three are sensible guides for life in any time or place, not least so in a rural setting.

One does not, however, have to be a prude. There is far too much good in creation not to enjoy it, and far too much misery not to embrace the good while we have it. Every rural culture needs its festivals, its carnivals, its ferías, its periods of reckless abandon that revive and restore. And however much we may enjoy our work (or wish to), the struggles and irritations of daily life need food, beer and wine, music and dancing, and sex to make them bearable. Food and sex are good things; never let anyone tell you otherwise. It is only when they are removed from all social and cultural context, allowed to roam free as ends in themselves — think fast food or prostitution — that they risk becoming evils.

All things in moderation, says the New Agrarian — even excess.

5. A New Agrarian prefers informal means of social and economic organization to formal ones.

Agrarians abhor concentrations of power. This is nearly universal, whether it makes them politically conservative or liberal; some find concentration of political power more abhorrent, some concentration of economic power. But power corrupts, and New Agrarians detest all its forms equally. Concentration of political power withers free thought and voluntarism; concentration of economic power stifles initiative and innovation; concentration of military power enforces tyranny and breeds barbarism.

Yet New Agrarians recognize the need for order in a community or a society. They are not anarchists, wistfully though they may glance in that direction. People do and must live in groups, and they must make decisions about their collective future in some organized way. The New Agrarian prefers, however, an informal order based (ideally) on convention, courtesy, and cooperation, or (practically) a semi-formal “grass-roots” order that invites the contributions of all, accepts diversity rather than demanding consensus, and leaves room at the margins for dissent. Enforcement, too, should be as informal as possible, relying on community disapproval rather than force to maintain order. Being practical (see principle 3), New Agrarians recognize the need to “get things done,” but are unwilling to sacrifice diversity and innovation in the name of questionable progress.

6. A New Agrarian strives to integrate the economic and spiritual aspects of his or her life.

Modern society–or capitalist, industrial, postindustrial, postmodern, however you choose to categorize it–asks us to separate our work from the rest of our lives. Work and family, far from being integrated, compete for our attention. Home and workplace are separated not only psychologically but physically, requiring long and wasteful commutes. Worse, work is rarely expected to be personally meaningful in any way. Most of us are happy if our work does not too openly conflict with our values; that it could actually put our values into practice is nearly unthinkable.

The psychological and cultural damage done by this separation of the economic and spiritual aspects of our lives I will, for the moment, take to be self-evident. The New Agrarian believes that it is both possible and necessary to unite the two, to make our work both economically productive and spiritually satisfying. This is not an endorsement of the Protestant work ethic. The New Agrarian does not value work for its own sake, but values work to the extent that it produces something of value and to the extent that either the product or the process is spiritually rewarding. Work should be more than an exchange of labor for capital; it should have a positive personal, social, and cultural context.

This unity of the economic and the spiritual extends beyond work. We would be happier, the New Agrarian believes, if the food we ate came from land and people we knew or from our own labor, if our purchases reflected our beliefs, if the products of our labor remained in a community of which we were a part and might make that community stronger–in short, if every aspect our lives had a positive social or cultural context.

7. A New Agrarian embraces “neighborliness” as a practical and informal balance between individualism and communitarianism.

“You never have to bother to get people to help you move,” according to an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying. “If you were a good neighbor, they were always happy to help. If you were a bad neighbor, they help to be rid of you.”

New Agrarians recognize the need to help and be helped by their fellow human beings, but they may not necessarily be happy about it. They are inclined to individualism, to crankiness, to going their own way. As a result they reject overly communitarian notions of society or government–and anyone else who thinks to tell them what to do. This has often been a tendency among farmers, particularly in the United States; but among New Agrarians it is even stronger, because they are dissenters, minority voices insisting that their society is misguided but that they know the way.

Yet committed agrarians must see the need for some glue to hold a community together (see principle 5). In place of welfare or charity the agrarian substitutes neighborliness, an informal willingness to help someone in need with the unspoken assumption that help will be received in the future. In an agrarian context, time and not money is the common currency, and gifts of work not of cash are the basis of neighborliness.

8. A New Agrarian believes in the importance of place–that localities should be distinctive and that how one lives should be tied to where one lives.

The centrality of place to an agrarian way of life is so important that I could have listed it first, as the foundation of New Agrarian thought. I have chosen instead to express it as the culmination. Agriculture, if it is to be thoughtful and sustainable, must be sensitive to place, must let its methods be determined by the land to which they are applied. Informal and voluntary means of social organization are possible only when the individuals thus organized know one another and determine for themselves, locally, the shape of their organization. Large scales make concentration of power both necessary and possible. One can only unify life’s economic and spiritual sides on a small scale, locally and individually; to do it on a large scale would mean enforcing the spiritual beliefs of one person or group at the expense of everyone else.

But place is more than just a necessity of an agrarian way of life. It is a positive good in itself. To be not only sensitive to the place in which one lives but also a part of that place makes possible a deep, multifaceted integration with nature and with community. New Agrarians are interested in other places and eager to learn from and about them, but they do not spend their lives wandering the globe doing so. Each New Agrarian prefers to make his or her own place, neighborhood, community, locality all that it can be. The New Agrarian is neither cosmopolitan nor xenophobic, but embraces instead an “enlightened parochialism” that seeks to blend local tradition with thoughtful progress.

Calls for diversity too often forget diversity of place. The New Agrarian sees it as the foundation and the culmination of positive, meaningful life on earth.
There is no quid pro quo in neighborliness, no careful accounting of debits and credits in a ledger of favors; neighborliness is informal, voluntary, enforced only by community disapproval and, perhaps, by karma. Such a system is easily abused and requires great care to maintain. At its best, however, it creates a practical and flexible balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. And being voluntary as well as necessary, it fosters a bond among members of a community that is both economic and spiritual.