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Uphill Battle

THE NEW AGRARIANISM: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Edited by Eric T. Freyfogle, Island Press: 292 pp., $40

November 04, 2001|JANE SMILEY | Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including, most recently, "Horse Heaven."

In the last 50 years, the federal government, universities, agribusiness and farmers have colluded to drive most small farmers out of business and destroy or impoverish much of rural America at the taxpayer's expense. Not only do some of the largest farmers in the nation get hundreds of thousands of dollars for not producing anything but, last year alone, the federal government doled out $22 billion in emergency payments to conventional farmers, whose methods are failing and will continue to fail.

The state of American agriculture is worse now than it was in 1980, when critics such as Wes Jackson, Marty Strange and Wendell Berry began drawing public attention to the fact that corporate-sponsored agriculture was destructive and misguided. Since 1996, the so-called Freedom to Farm Act passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Clinton has actually accelerated the demise of the family farm and the consolidation of corporate farming. And why don't we ignore for now the introduction into the American diet of pesticides and herbicide residues, antibiotics, fungicides, hormones and genetically modified foods?

The farmers have sought one higher-tech solution after another--more chemicals, vast confinement complexes for slaughter animals, bigger tractors and combines. Though the corporations may have taken them by surprise in the '50s, it is the farmers who have made informed choices to wreck their own land since the '80s.

It is therefore tempting to wonder whether Island Press and Eric T. Freyfogle, University of Illinois professor and editor of "The New Agrarianism," realize that the jig is up. It doesn't matter anymore what the moral, practical, philosophical and spiritual arguments in favor of sustainable agriculture are. They have no backers and they carry no weight, and "The New Agrarianism" is reminiscent of attempts by Englishmen in the 18th century to reintroduce Latin as the language of high literary culture.

But it is a charming and seductive book that leads you to believe it possible to change the course of modern farming, that agrarianism is still possible today. It is an ideal in which the farmer is a do-it-yourselfer: someone who grafts apple trees, saves open-pollinated seed from one year to the next and extends the life of farm equipment by repairing it. Someone who owns his land, does not borrow on it and does not go to the bank to get money to plant his crop. Someone who profits not the corporation or the international bank. The "new agrarians"--new only in the sense that they advocate in our era the practice of age-old principles of land stewardship and personal moderation--point the way to this ideal.

As Freyfogle points out in his introduction, our understanding of agrarianism has been tainted by its association with the American South and slavery. Before the Civil War, writers and commentators carried on a complex conversation about how to live, how to farm, how to worship, how to work, how to run a household and whether to stay in one place. The war simplified the argument: The industrial North, powered by machines, coal and immigrants, defeated the agrarian South, and Southern ideas and Southern institutions were immediately suspect. The former Confederacy was a land of exhausted farming prospects, poor fields, poorer shanties, backward towns, run-down remnants of plantations. Vigorous proponents of agrarianism, such as the Quakers and the Mormons, who modeled non-slave-oriented ways of building agricultural communities, lost their voices.

More than 100 years later, when American farming came under renewed scrutiny, there wasn't much of a tradition to draw upon, and there was no common language about farming. The first public voice of agrarianism in our time was Berry, Kentucky farmer, novelist and philosopher. Berry explicitly owes many of his ideas to Allen Tate and his circle of Southern thinkers of the 1930s. From the beginning, he has been anti-capitalist, anti-global, anti-modern, anti-technological and cranky.

Berry contributes two selections to "The New Agrarianism," and they are vintage. One, the short story "The Boundary," is dismissible for its sentimental didacticism, but the other, the essay "The Whole Horse," is a straightforward explanation of the first principles of agrarianism. "The agrarian mind," he writes, "begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God." But these good things bear a cost. It is not that we wish to enjoy and nurture the land around us, it is, according to Berry, that "nature [is] the final judge, lawgiver, and pattern-maker of and for the human use of the earth."

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