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The Essential Agrarian Reader

The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land

EDITED BY Norman Wirzba
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Essential Agrarian Reader
    Book Description:

    With a Foreword by Barbara Kingsolver. A compelling worldview with advocates from around the globe, agrarianism challenges the shortcomings of our industrial and technological economy. Not simply focused on farming, the agrarian outlook encourages us to develop practices and policies that promote the health of land, community, and culture. Agrarianism reminds us that no matter how urban we become, our survival will always be inextricably linked to the precious resources of soil, water, and air. Combining fresh insights from the disciplines of education, law, history, urban and regional planning, economics, philosophy, religion, ecology, politics, and agriculture, these original essays develop a sophisticated critique of our culture's current relationship to the land, while offering practical alternatives. Leading agrarians, including Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, Brian Donahue, Eric Freyfogle, and David Orr, explain how our goals should be redirected toward genuinely sustainable communities. These writers call us to an honest accounting and correction of our often destructive ways. They suggest how our society can take practical steps toward integrating soils, watersheds, forests, wildlife, urban areas, and human populations into one great system -- a responsible flourishing of our world and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3018-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    Barbara Kingsolver

    Sometime around my fortieth birthday I began an earnest study of agriculture. I worked quietly on this project, speaking of my new interest to almost no one because of what they might think. Specifically, they might think I was out of my mind.

    Why? Because at this moment in history it’s considered smart to getoutof agriculture. And because I was already embarked on a career as a writer, doing work that many people might consider intellectual and therefore superior to anything involving the risk of dirty fingernails. Also, as a woman in my early forties, I conformed to...

  4. Introduction: Why Agrarianism Matters—Even to Urbanites
    (pp. 1-20)
    Norman Wirzba

    It would seem, given the massive and unprecedented migration of farmers to urban centers, that a book on agrarianism is out of step with the times. After all, once independent farms are being consolidated into a few corporate conglomerates run by efficiency-minded, bottom-line agribusiness professionals. Driving through the American heartland shows that farming communities have become ghost towns, and consulting the Census Bureau demonstrates that farmers themselves have become a statistically irrelevant group. Picturesque farmyards, with their red barns and free-ranging chickens and geese, though having considerable storybook and advertising/marketing value, are in fact little more than quaint relics of...

  5. Part 1: Agrarian Principles and Priorities

    • 1 The Agrarian Standard
      (pp. 23-33)
      Wendell Berry

      The Unsettling of Americawas published twenty-five years ago; it is still in print and is still being read. As its author, I am tempted to be glad of this, and yet, if I believe what I said in that book, and I still do, then I should be anything but glad. The book would have had a far happier fate if it could have been disproved or made obsolete years ago.

      It remains true because the conditions it describes and opposes, the abuses of farmland and farming people, have persisted and become worse over the last twenty-five years. In...

    • 2 The Resettling of America
      (pp. 34-51)
      Brian Donahue

      “Kentucky is not for sale!” declared an agrarian and environmentalist during a discussion of land protection, defying those who would invade his homeland to exploit it for profit. A fine rallying cry—but unfortunately, Kentucky is for sale. Most of the American countryside is privately held, and in America, private land is always for sale. American agrarianism was built around dispersed private ownership of farmland for compelling historical reasons, but it is time to ask whether this can provide a secure foundation for agrarian values in an industrial, market economy. I think the answer is plainly not. Private ownership will...

    • 3 The Mind-Set of Agrarianism … New and Old
      (pp. 52-61)
      Maurice Telleen

      I don’t know quite how to skin this cat called agrarianism. A name like “agrarianism” seems to suggest some widely understood, well-defined sort of movement that maybe just needs a new pair of trousers once in a while to stay in style.

      Well, it isn’t widely understood in today’s world, and as for it being a “movement,” I can hope that it isn’t. The “ism” bothers me. The track record of people and groups with sure and certain solutions is not pretty. Movements are the natural habitat of true believers. I offer globalization and free trade as the leading current...

    • 4 Sustainable Economic Development: Definitions, Principles, Policies
      (pp. 62-79)
      Herman E. Daly

      Exactly what is it that is supposed to besustainedin “sustainable” economic development? Two broad answers have been given:

      The first answer states thatutilityor happiness should be sustained; that is, the utility of future generations is to be non-declining. People in the future should be at least as well off as those living in the present in terms of the levels of happiness they can experience. “Utility” here refers to average per capita utility of members of a generation.

      The second answer states that physicalthroughput, the entropic physical flow from nature’s sources through the economy and...

    • 5 Placing the Soul: An Agrarian Philosophical Principle
      (pp. 80-98)
      Norman Wirzba

      In the opening lines toThe Unsettling of AmericaWendell Berry observes that “one of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be.”¹ Though Berry is quick to note that from a historical point of view this is “too simply put”—after all, there are examples of people who have been and continue to be devoted to the places and communities of which they are a part—nonetheless, there is a longstanding philosophical and religious tradition...

  6. Part 2: Assessing Our Situation

    • 6 The Current State of Agriculture: Does It Have a Future?
      (pp. 101-120)
      Frederick Kirschenmann

      When in the mid-1970s Wendell Berry was writing his singular workThe Unsettling of America, the industrialization of agriculture was already well underway. The transformation of agriculture into an industry was enthusiastically endorsed by many agricultural pundits and “experts.” In fact, as Berry tells us in the preface to the first edition ofUnsettling, he was “incited” to begin taking the first notes for his book in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson’s special commission on federal food and fiber policies made its report. In the view of the commission, a major problem with U.S. agriculture was that we still had...

    • 7 Globalization and the War against Farmers and the Land
      (pp. 121-139)
      Vandana Shiva

      I had trained as a quantum physicist, expecting to spend a lifetime solving puzzles in quantum theory. Instead, I have spent the past two decades solving puzzles in agriculture. Why did the seeds of the Green Revolution, which brought Norman Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize, also become seeds of war in the Indian Punjab during the 1980s, within two decades of their introduction? Why were Indian peasants being systematically pushed into debt and penury by industrial agriculture, which was supposed to create prosperity for rural communities? Why did low-productivity monocultures pass as high-productivity systems even though they depended on high...

    • 8 The Agrarian Mind: Mere Nostalgia or a Practical Necessity?
      (pp. 140-153)
      Wes Jackson

      I want to argue not only for the necessity of salvaging what is left of the agrarian mind and way of life, but also for the necessity of its further development and proliferation. When we speak of the need for such a mind, we are not talking about mere nostalgia, but rather a practical necessity. Agrarianism requires no moral or spiritual language for justification; it grows out of a scientific understanding of how organisms interact within natural habitats, an understanding that is too greatly ignored in industrial approaches to agriculture.

      In the last fifty to seventy-five years a disease has...

    • 9 All Flesh Is Grass: A Hopeful Look at the Future of Agrarianism
      (pp. 154-170)
      Gene Logsdon

      When I try to define or at least describe agrarianism in a way that is useful to me, I think of bib overalls. Bibs are an invention of agrarianism, and like agrarianism, refuse to go away despite all fashion wisdom to the contrary. Bibs, the uniform of the farmer behind his team of horses a hundred years ago, remain the most frequently worn uniform of the farmer today in the cab of his three hundred horsepower tractor. More surprising, bibs have, since the 1960s, crossed that supposedly impenetrable cultural barrier between farm and city to become and remain a popular...

    • 10 The Uses of Prophecy
      (pp. 171-188)
      David W. Orr

      For nearly four decades Wendell Berry has written about farming, soil, nature, and community without ever becoming repetitious or boring. He is an agrarian, or more accurately, the preeminent agrarian. From Hesiod to the present no one has represented the agrarian cause with greater eloquence, logic, or consistency. The power behind the writing, however, is the close calibration between his words and the life he’s lived—“a principled literary life” as Wallace Stegner once put it. If there are discerning readers two centuries hence, I have no doubt that Wendell Berry’s novels, essays, and poetry will still be read. But...

  7. Part 3: Putting Agrarianism to Work

    • 11 Country and City: The Common Vision of Agrarians and New Urbanists
      (pp. 191-211)
      Benjamin E. Northrup and Benjamin J. Bruxvoort Lipscomb

      Since the end of World War II, Americans have been engaged in a great experiment: the reconfiguration of their built environments around the automobile. Until then, humans had built cities and towns at the scale of the pedestrian. A short walk was the constant measuring rod in Mesoamerican capitals, Roman encampments, old European cities, and New England villages. Following World War II, however, Americans began to reshape, and often replace, their established communities to make room for automobiles. In order to accommodate these devices, they had to enlarge everything, to build a world for giants. This vast project included the...

    • 12 New Agrarians: Local Innovators
      (pp. 212-221)
      Susan Witt

      A recent rereading of Wendell Berry’sThe Unsettling of Americaoccasioned a reflection on the role and promise of agrarianism in these changing times. The events of September 2001 have helped end the lingering enchantment with the monoculture of the global economy. The consequences of our dependence on the products of a relatively few international corporations are now more visible, including the concentration of ownership of the means of production. The consumption patterns of a small number of countries account for most of the depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Environmental degradation occurs out of sight of the end consumer,...

    • 13 The Legal and Legislative Front: The Fight against Industrial Agriculture
      (pp. 222-236)
      Hank Graddy

      Over twenty-five years ago Earl Butz gave farmers the advice to “get big or get out,” advice that was part of the outrage inciting Wendell Berry to writeThe Unsettling of America.¹Today, agrarians who argue against industrial, centralized, corporate-controlled food production in favor of sustainable agriculture question if that advice was (and is) a description of the inevitable course of history. Does the power exist not only to resist the Earl Butz course, but to defeat it? Can the fight against the army of industrial agricultural be won? If so, how?

      Private, personal action is very worthwhile, even good for...

    • 14 Private Property Rights in Land: An Agrarian View
      (pp. 237-258)
      Eric T. Freyfogle

      An agrarian worldview is one that respects the land and its mysteries, that honors healthy, enduring bonds between people and place, and that situates land users within a social order that links past to future. Is there a particular understanding of private landownership that arises out of this perspective, or that might best sustain it? If there is, is it possible for us to implement this understanding, to shift from a mix of private rights and responsibilities strongly slanted toward development and industry to one that protects agrarians and their settled ways of life?

      These questions ought to command more...

    • 15 Going to Work
      (pp. 259-266)
      Wendell Berry

      I. To live, we must go to work.

      II. To work, we must work in a place.

      III. Work affects everything in the place where it is done: the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory.

      IV. Much modern work is done in academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures. The work is thus enclosed in order to achieve a space of separation between the workers and the effects of their work. The enclosure permits the workers to...

  8. Further Reading
    (pp. 267-270)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 271-272)
  10. Index
    (pp. 273-276)