View from the Levee: Farming Finds Teacher

For a college boy studying farming at a land-grant university, the real education came from the teacher he had to find on his own — Wendell Berry.

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Like generations of land-grant graduates, my 1981 bachelor’s of science degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois was built mostly on science, not culture.

Oh, I knew much of the culture of farming before I went to the Big U to become a Big Success. I had, after all, grown up with the work, people, customs, food and lore that soaked my family’s southern Illinois dairy farm.

And I knew the land, its coulees, pecan trees, fescue-clad levees and fences very well.

The university, however, featured learning, not land. So I plowed through years of agronomy, plant genetics, ag engineering, animal science, farm management, ag economics, chemistry and other “science” classes.

I did, one time, have a “Meat Science” class that, honestly, was hog butchering—outside the part about “grading,” that is.

The point to all the brain-retraining, my Ag Econ 324 professor once said to the 20 or so farmboys in his class, was to “show you guys that the 19th century was over and that the 21st century was about to begin. Go home and tell your fathers.”

OK, but where were lessons on soil conservation and soil health, classes in rotational grazing or mixed livestock production, and maybe a seminar or lecture series on agriculture’s role in the community—the “culture,” after all, in agriculture?

Smack in the middle of my academic sojourn, in 1977, Wendell Berry’s seminal book, The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture, was published. It was brief, just 223 pages, and a real barn burner; a scorching “criticism” of “modern or orthodox agriculture.”

Berry’s book, first published in 1977, connected the practice of agriculture to culture, spirituality and conservation.
The book, just one of dozens of books of poems, essays, fiction and non-fiction by Berry, a Kentucky farmer, was an indictment of almost every word taught in every ag class in every land-grant university then—and now. Here’s a few sips from Berry’s very deep, very clear trough.

  • On our public officials’ belief in agribusiness: “‘Agripower,’ it will be noted, is not measured by the fertility or health of the soil, or the health, wisdom, thrift, or stewardship of the farming community.”
  • On U.S. agriculture’s “get big or get out” design: “I remember, during the fifties, the outrage with which our political leaders spoke of the forced removal of the populations of villages in communist countries. I also remember that at the same time, in Washington, the word on farming was ‘Get big or get out’… The only difference is that of method: the force used by the communists was military; with us, it has been economic—a ‘free market’ in which the freest were the richest.”
  • On land-grant universities: “The land-grant college legislation obviously calls for a system of local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have instead is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another, like airports and motels, made increasingly uniform by the transience or rootlessness of their career-oriented faculties and the consequent inability to respond to local conditions.”

Thirty-fives years later, Unsettling of America, as the quotes show, still holds much steam and even more truth. It remains a perfectly logical and —like everything Wendell Berry writes—a perfectly worded indictment of what ailed an ailing agriculture then and what divides a deeply divided, agri-business juggernaut today: Where do people fit in this type of agriculture; where is the “culture” in agriculture?

“We have been wrong,” Berry noted in a hopeful ending of his otherwise very tough, timeless book, “to believe that competition invariably results in triumph of the best. Divided, body and soul, man and woman, producer and consumer, nature and technology, city and country are thrown into competition with one another. And none of these competitions is ever resolved in the triumph of one competitor, but only in the exhaustion of both.”

I never learned that at the Big U; no one there told me about Wendell Berry, the exhaustive futility of endless competition, the deep loneliness of agri-science, the cold emptiness of agri-business.

Maybe that’s why it took me seven years to acquire a four-year degree: I had to learn on my own from thoughtful, informed teachers like Wendell Berry.

Lucky me.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

 

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