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[Chalice] The Prophetic Voice [Chalice]
of American Agrarianism

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Presented September 14, 2008, by Kevin Ballard

I am going to begin this talk with an arguable premise: There is something wrong in America.

Most of us don't need convincing of this, that as a society, we have somehow, somewhere strayed off-course, but most of us also can't seem to put a name to it (no, it is bigger than the Bush administration, bigger than the Clinton administration); we can't quite seem to put a finger on it. This mood spans generations, and all but perhaps the most glib and naïve will admit to the impression that somewhere in the background of our culture, we have veered in a wrong direction.

That is the premise.

When I was attending college for the first time down at one of Texas' Land Grant schools, I was introduced to a book by Wendell Berry entitled Farming: A Handbook. Curiously enough, it was a book of poetry and a couple of odd essays, unabashedly rural in topic and direct in its descriptives. I went on to read more of Mr. Berry's works, especially his collections of essays, and one book in particular which was constructed upon my earlier stated premise - that something is wrong. The themes of this book put me and several of my fellow students at odds with the conventional agribusiness and animal science environment of the college we were attending at that time. The book was called The Unsettling of America and it introduced me to what is often referred to as the Agrarian movement.

Until relatively recent times, it would have made no sense to refer to "Agrarianism. Throughout human history, there has always existed an inextractible relationship, both personal and economical, with the land (or water) and the culture of people who lived in a particular vicinity; the relationships were very place-specific, that is, the people and the economy necessarily were undifferentiated from the land and the traits which the locale infused upon the culture.

The industrial age changed this relationship, so argue the Agrarians. Perhaps even before this, the Age of Enlightenment set the stage with "mechanistic" concepts of existence, which began to unravel some of the long-held notions of civic and ritualistic responsibility for maintaining the fertility of the land and, hence, the culture.

In addition, even long before this, there was a long-developing strain of western religious and philosophical

thought of emphasis on the "other-worldly". Even back to classic Greek philosophy, the concept of "care of the soul" devalued the material and temporal world. Intentionally or unintentionally, we can see aspects of this in western thought, that suggest human minds are the exclusive carriers of value and, by extension, may do with the material world as we deem useful or pleasing. This tradition, deeply embedded in both religious and philosophical terms, encourages our attention and care away from this world and this life. We see throughout the progression of European migration, a seeming indifference to a lasting respect for a "sense of place". The tendency has been to forsake what we have as limiting or defective in search of places which offer new opportunities and the next frontier.

At any rate, our cultural consciousness began to differentiate from its connectedness to the land and at the same time began to realize the unfortunate consequences of distancing itself too far from that critical economy.

The 20th century Agrarian movement coalesced around the publication in 1930 of a collection of essays entitled I'll Take My Stand. The men who wrote the essays had met regularly through the 1920s as a literary and philosophical group called "The Fugitives" and later came to be referred to as the "Southern Agrarians" or the "Vanderbilt Agrarians. Among them were John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Richard M. Weaver and Donald Davidson, all of whom helped initiate what is known as the Southern Renaissance literary movement. The authors, variously, had their own agendas, and the book itself has since become implicated in some quarters as nostalgic or even racist because of the segregationist opinions of some of its authors. The introduction to the book, however, is poignant to the argument against what was happening with southern industrialism; it is a "Statement of Principles", upon which the twelve authors were unified. I am going to touch on some of the essential aspects of these principles, as I think they are first of all, central to Agrarian philosophy in general, and second, they are still timely.

The contribution that science can make to a labor is to render it easier by the help of a tool or a process, and to assure the laborer of his perfect economic security while he is engaged upon it . but the modern laborer has not exactly received this benefit under the industrial regime. His labor is hard, its tempo fierce, and his employment insecure.

The regular act of applied science is to introduce into labor a labor-saving device or machine. Whether this is a benefit depends on how far advisable it is to save the labor The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned.

. . . some economic evils follow in the wake of machines. These are such as overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth. But the remedies proposed by the apologists are always homeopathic. They expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines - and more of them.

We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also become brutal and hurried.

We receive the illusion of having power over nature. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity.

Art depends, in general , like religion, on a right attitude with nature . . .

We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground.

Opposed to the industrial society is the Agrarian The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.

The agrarian movement of the 1920s and 1930s overlapped necessarily with the labor, socialist and communist movements of the time. The political and industrial forces in opposition vilified these and presented them as unpatriotic to the very working class, one would think, which should have embraced them, ultimately causing their decline. Although John Crowe Ransom later renounced his faith in Agrarianism as nostalgic, Richard Weaver continued to be viewed as the herald-bearer and to develop his critique of industrial capitalism.

Many of those who are agreeable enough to be identified with the moniker Agrarian are less pleased to be considered part of an Agrarian "movement". For, as they will say, movements are too focused and issue-oriented to encompass what they believe necessitates a paradigm-shift of living and awareness. They will iterate that there are threads of agrarian thought and responsiveness to economic corruption throughout history, and especially American history, and as we tend to look at other historical "movements", we view them as relevant to particular periods in time. It implies a terminal period of viability, and most Agrarians would argue their efforts are an approach to life and culture that have no end point.

But if I'll Take My Stand was the call to arms of the Agrarians of the early part of the 20th century in response to industrial-capitalism, particularly in the southern U.S., Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America was a similar call for the new agrarians of the latter half of the century in response to the growing global-economy. These new agrarians see a trend toward oversimplification of the economy in western society. Their argument that we have come to regard nature as a supplier of "raw material" is certainly valid. As our technology has increased our "taking ability" has also increased. This has happened, necessarily, with less respect, less reverence, less skill, and less knowledge about what we are doing. Our proxies obtain our daily bread and sustenance, simplifying the process as only the delicate touch of a $300,000 John Deere harvester can, and in so doing, lose the relationship with the local economy. Our households, they will likewise argue, have become complicit in the behavior of the corporations that are doing the taking. We, as individuals and as a society at large, have been losing our sense of our local economy, and we are losing our will to retrieve our economy. Recall that principle from I'll Take My Stand:

We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground.

There are plenty of arguments against the agrarian mindset.

One of the sentimental requests of capitalism suggests that we should be willing to compromise our local, personal and intimate economy, the environmental health of our region, and perhaps now even our nation to the interests of the free-market. Capitalism and the free-market will, in turn, offer us an unrealistic sense of security, both economic and physical, not to mention happiness, and moral well-being; this, however, will always be in due course of time. The pay-off is always a little in the future, if we just maintain our trust in the free-market system.

In response, Wendell Berry, sounding a bit like Jeremiah says this: "They preserve the gullibility of the people by issuing a cold check on a fund of political virtue that does not exist". And he goes on to cite that since the early 1950s, the U.S. government's agricultural policy has basically been to consent to high input costs, low prices, and subsidies. It has not seriously advocated for the prosperity of farmers and the care of the land. It has instead advocated for cheap food and the survival of larger and more efficient farms which can temporarily absorb the higher input costs of corporate agribusiness and low prices at the market. Then it regurgitates the propaganda that American agriculture is more efficient and the farmers will be better off - in the future. The problem is that over the past century, the future has never come; the return on investment, even by standard accounting methods, is for farmers ever-diminishing, even while the in-absentia corporations show profits. The key-word is "in-absentia". Despite the fact that there will always be the apologist who states that it is an inevitable course of the sophisticated ways of business, allow me to lay this out plainly: the executive of the corporation which owns the agribusiness company which leases the equipment, supplies the seed, ammonium nitrate, and herbicides (the registered trademark names, if you are interested, are "Resolve" and "Require"), who makes the decisions to distribute, or not, dividends to stockholders based upon futures markets for corn in china has never stepped foot in the county. Seriously, though plainly put, these in-absentia decisions are affecting not only the financial future of the farmers and citizens, but what type of toxic run-off ends up in the water supply.

It is false accounting, according to the agrarians. We continue to be in denial in many ways. We have a massive infrastructure built around the imbedded idea of inexpensive fossil-fuel (use of the adjective imbedded, by the way, is in this talk intentional; if you remember, it was recently used to describe officially-sanctioned reporting on the Iraq war). What we are developing, in more ways than what we hear on the nightly news, is an economy of debt. Our economic health is not only a matter of reducing the national monetary debt out of the coffers of other countries, but rather involves other aspects, the more intimate aspects with our greatest national treasure: our land. It involves cognizance and involvement with our source of sustenance and a sense of place. - So argue agrarians.

Out in Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson, a geneticist and founder of The Land Institute has been studying prairie ecosystems and how we might adapt our agricultural methods to fit the existing native system. He suggests a disease has spread through the world over the last fifty to seventy-five years; and those lacking immunity believe that science and technology have the power to solve any problems that science and technology create. Wes Jackson is very serious, though, about the potential for modern agriculture to change course and to adopt agricultural methods that will work within the limits of the native environment. His foundation has just completed a ten-year study on perennialized grain cropping and has shown comparable, if not favorable, productivity compared with conventional, monoculture grain cropping - soybeans and corn, dependent on annual seeding, fertilizer, herbicide and petroleum inputs. This system has both domesticated native prairie grains as well as perennielized conventional annual crops such as wheat, rye sorghum and sunflowers into a non- or low-till style of farming. Again productivity, in terms of barrels/acre are at least comparable; this is without considerations even of direct or indirect chemical input costs.

What with all of the talk of earmarks and pork-barrel spending, we really do owe it to ourselves, especially given our proximity to some of the more fertile soil in the world, to come to an acknowledgment of our practices. Why is it that our crops must be so heavily subsidized. Why is it that we are so stuck on corn and soybeans if they require such massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicide and petroleum for traction. And after all of this, if the weather doesn't cooperate with the relatively narrow window for seeding and harvest, how many thoughts are turned to anticipation of the saving grace of a failed crop. What has this trend toward more efficiency and monoculture brought farmers but higher equipment mortgages, cheap commodities for the world market and a disconnect with the very soil they are supposed to be stewarding.

George Pyle, a former ag-reporter points to a study the USDA commissioned in the 1990s. The study found that a small farm category with a median size of 27 acres had gross outputs of over $1,000/acre and profits of $139/acre. Farms of a median size of 6,700 acres grossed $63/acre and showed profits of $12/acre. The small, hands on farms were clearly more profitable, but when the math is done, a family would be hard-pressed to live on $5,600/yr, while the medium-size farm could provide $80,508/yr. for a family. Acre per acre, small farms actually can and do produce more profitably, when all input costs are considered. It might make sense, then to provide support, as a national policy, to promote and protect small farms. Pyle goes on to suggest we get out of the cycle of promoting small farms to produce, at the behest of large corporations, too much of the wrong crops that are used to feed animals that cannot properly tolerate it, shipped as questionable aid to struggling countries and in so doing, disrupting their agricultural communities, and to be used as food additives to make us all fatter.

Another important concept you will hear repeatedly in the agrarian response, and perhaps is crucial to the very way they identify themselves as agrarians, is that of Honest Accounting. All basic texts on corporate accounting principles provide companies the tools they require to fulfill their foremost legal function, that is - maximize profits to shareholders. These books are full of cash and accrual methods and ratio analyses all aimed toward that end. But issues that critically effect local economies are either omitted or reduced to hidden footnotes. Honest accounting, however, brings to the table more subtle considerations of the economy that obvious and tangible finances or legal tender or earnings per share do not take into consideration. For all of our sophistication and information technology, we can never escape the fact that we are tied to the land, whether we are digging it ourselves or we have our proxies do it for us. Agrarians argue, then, that in honest accounting, we would surely consider the precipitous depreciation of our most valuable asset - our land. In honest accounting, we would not ignore the status of our aquifers, out-of-sight as they are. We would not ignore the costs of water treatment plants needed to filter out the nitrate run-off. We would not omit the loss in tax-base from the entire collapse of rural communities that supported small farm families, nor would we omit the healthcare costs associated with highly processed food laden with corn-sweetener. Accounting books identify intangible assets like stock options and patents-pending. In honest accounting, we would not ignore intangible assets of being neighborly, of fidelity to place, of reverence for nature.

If we think our communities and nation are vulnerable now, consider that some economists believe our logical extension as a consumer-society and service-economy in the near future is to abandon agriculture altogether. Feeding the advanced nations would be left to the developing countries to labor at. We - the U.S., as far as the global market would be concerned, would be subsidizing other areas of the world economy that we would be most efficient at. Our food, in this vision, would largely come from other countries where it could be produced more efficiently - that is to say, low labor costs.

What Shall We Do?

A common response to the situation is to become politically active. This isn't altogether wrong-headed, but in the Agrarian view it is simplistic. It is again using proxies to police our corporate proxies. That is we expect to legislate our economy and our environmental crisis. If there is no change of heart and change in our household economy, we have abdicated our relationship with the environment and with the total economy, in favor of what could be called a sentimental response.

And whereas, it might seem idyllic for society to drop its collective mouse, to leave the collective cubicle and return to the land, agrarians are not calling for everyone to become farmers. That would be a nostalgic response.

Nor is it an argument of urban versus rural. An urbanite isn't damned simply because he works on Michigan Avenue any more than a farmer is honorable simply because she rides a tractor ten ours a day or feeds grain to hogs. The agrarians are not knocking city-dwellers or farmers, but rather they are saying that all of us should examine this situation critically as a community, as it concerns our local economy. This is what our agrarian prophets are calling for.

We have seen the ads for simplifying our lives, getting back to nature, etc. Let me be clear, the agrarian argument is not one of simplicity. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson are not advocating the simple-life. In fact, they will each admit that the more people involve themselves in the true, local economy rather than behave as mere consumers, or the more they act like stewards of the land rather than corporate resources, the more complex our lives become, the more we are cognizant of and develop the relationships which benefit the immediate neighborhood, the local merchants and, yes, the land and the water.

Many will hear these agrarian arguments and conclude it is, after all, about nostalgia or, alternatively, that they are making doomsday predictions. The role of the prophet is not to tell the future, but rather to reflect the present. As with prophets throughout the centuries, the agrarian voice and calling have little to do with predictions; rather, they hold a mirror up to society, to allow us to see clearly what we look like as a culture, to see clearly what we are doing with our place on the earth, and to help us determine if it is time for change.

©2008 Kevin Ballard

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Ballard, Kevin. 2008. The Prophetic Voice of American Agrarianism, /talks/20080914.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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