Saturday, February 20, 2010

Radical Agrarianism 2

By way of responding to AD's comments on my agrarianism essay, I thought I'd post some relevant passages from Wendell Berry's The Way of Ignorance that my friend Brian Miller of Winged Elm Farm in Philadelphia, TN recently sent me.

The major fault of I'll Take My Stand, Berry says, is that the "agrarianism of most of the essays, like the regionalism of most of them, is abstract, too purely mental. The book is not impractical - none of its principles, I believe, is in conflict with practicality - but it is too often remote from the issues of practice. The legitimate aim (because it is the professed aim) of agrarianism is not some version of culture but good farming, though a culture complete enough may be implied in that aim....As a regional book, I'll Take My Stand mostly ignores the difficulty and discipline of locality."

"The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm. Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there."

"Having settled even in so marginal a place as this, undertaking to live in it even by such marginal farming as I have done, one is abruptly and forcibly removed from easy access to the abstractions of regionalism, politics, economics, and the academic life. To farm is to be placed absolutely. To do the actual work of an actual farm one must shed the cliches that constitute "The South" or "My Old Kentucky Home" and come to the ground."

"One may begin as an agrarian, as some of us to our good fortune have done, but for a farmer agrarianism is not enough. Southern agrarianism is not enough, and neither is Kentucky agrarianism or Henry County agrarianism. None of those can be local enough or particular enough. To live as a farmer, one has to come into the local watershed and the local ecosystem and deal well or poorly with them. One must enounter directly and feelingly the topography and the soils of one's particular farm, and treat them well or poorly. If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one's mind and ways to fit one's farm."


  1. Thanks, C.J. (and Brian). It's becoming clear that I need to add Berry to my reading list.

  2. There has been a tension I've been thinking about between Berry's critique of the Vanderbilt Agrarians and your point about idealizing a past that never existed.

    Part of the value of the Vanderbilt Agrarians' writings is that they do not require a return to extremely localized agriculture practice to have something to say even to 21st century readers. Unless Berry or you are making the radical proposal that we must all return to the practical lifestyle you are living, C.J., it seems like the critique that the imagined agrarian past is a fantasy to which we cannot return (or proceed) carries some weight and favors an allowable reading of the Vanderbilt Agrarians disconnected from practice. If Warren & Co.'s disconnect from practice in their time delegitimizes their writing as "agrarian," perhaps it's better understood as an enunciation of agrarian ideals for those living in a world in which full-bore agrarian practice is not possible.

    Agrarianism, under Berry, appears to require intense, personalized, individualized localism. Is this the only way it can survive? Can its ideals be applied meaningfully, honestly, and usefully in a world titling decidedly away from the underlying culture and practice of agrarianism by a person not prepared to undertake that practice in a literal way? Can it detach itself from its founders and evolve?

    These aren't rhetorical questions, but they strike me as important ones for agaraianism as I understand it. I'm starting to ramble and I'm going to watch hockey, but the point of this comment is to identify a tension I see between the requirement of practice Berry strongly enunciates and the notion I think you present of an inability to shift into an idealized past.

  3. These are all good points and questions. The way I frame agrarianism as a set of questions concerning food, its production, distribution, and consumption, is meant to highlight how these are highly particular issues relevant to all who eat. I think it's wrong, that is, to conclude that the contemporary upshot of agrarianism is a universal call to go back to the farm and live by means of subsistence agriculture. Hardly. At the same time, if the local and regional food economies that sit at the heart of these agrarian visions are to be realized, there will certainly need to be more farmers. Just three generations ago, 9 out of 10 people in this country were involved in some way with agriculture. Now there are two million farmers in a nation of 300 million. To that end, then, I think these agrarianisms endorse concrete economic policies that seek to create the necessary conditions and incentives to change the structure of these markets.

    So perhaps agrarianism in the sense that Berry is using it - almost as an ethical-aesthetics of farming - needs to be distinguished from the more social and economic type proposals of, say, the Southern Agrarians.

    Well, I gotta go do chores....