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Cultivating an Ecological Conscience

Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher

Edited by Constance L. Falk
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 420
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  • Book Info
    Cultivating an Ecological Conscience
    Book Description:

    Theologian, academic, and third-generation organic farmer Frederick L. Kirschenmann is a celebrated agricultural thinker. In the last thirty years he has tirelessly promoted the principles of sustainability and has become a legend in his own right.

    Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher documents Kirschenmann's evolution and his lifelong contributions to the new agrarianism in a collection of his greatest writings on farming, philosophy, and sustainability. Working closely with agricultural economist and editor Constance L. Falk, Kirschenmann recounts his intellectual and spiritual journey. In a unique blend of personal history, philosophical discourse, spiritual ruminations, and practical advice, Kirschenmann interweaves his insights with discussion of contemporary agrarian topics. This collection serves as an invaluable resource to agrarian scholars and introduces readers to an agricultural pioneer whose work has profoundly influenced modern thinking about food.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7373-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    F. L. K. and C. L. F.
  4. Editor’s Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    In the mid-1970s, Fred Kirschenmann told a class of graduating seniors that education is like a baseball mitt. You might think mitts are to protect your hand and education is to help you get a good job, he said, but the true purpose of baseball mitts is to extend your reach so you can catch balls you would otherwise miss. Likewise, education helps you extend your imagination to catch opportunities otherwise beyond your grasp (see Kirschenmann’s essay in this volume, “What’s an Education For?”). Three decades later, Kirschenmann continues unveiling basic principles to help us grasp the challenges we face....

  5. Preface
    (pp. 8-12)
  6. Part 1: Working at Home:: Lessons from Kirschenmann Family Farms

    • Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves
      (pp. 15-21)

      I am indebted to Gene Logsdon, who reviewed this volume of essays, for suggesting that I write one additional paper on the subject of “Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves.” He was suggesting, I think, that he would like to know more about what transcendent thoughts go through my mind while I am doing mundane things like castrating calves on my farm. Needless to say, that was an invitation too intriguing for a farmer/philosopher to ignore. Simultaneously it occurred to me that a brief introductory essay of this kind might prepare the reader for the diverse writings that follow, which were...

    • On Behalf of American Farmers
      (pp. 22-26)

      A little less than two years ago, I left a career in higher education and returned to my birthplace in North Dakota to manage our family’s farm. My decision was motivated by the conviction that the field of agriculture poses some of the most formidable challenges in today’s world. While worldwide food shortages and global population explosion present staggering challenges to agriculture, there are other issues that intrigue me on a food-producing farm. Among them are the challenges of rebuilding the soil to produce food that is more nutritious, adopting styles of farming that will consume less energy, farming without...

    • Pilgrimage to a Barnyard
      (pp. 27-29)

      The invitation said, “Write about your spiritual struggle. Tell us how you see Christ and the world differently now.” I was overcome with gratitude and terror—gratitude for the fact someone thought my struggle worth sharing, but terror that this was uncharted water.

      It’s hard to be sure now, and it was hard to be sure then. Part of the struggle has always been not being sure. The beginning was lonely. No one else was doing what I was doing. No neighbor had left a budding career in higher education to undertake the task of managing a farm in an...

    • Low-Input Farming in Practice: Putting a System Together and Making It Work
      (pp. 30-39)

      A practicing farm is always different from a theoretical farm or a research farm. A theoretical farm represents the manner in which a farm might work or ideally should work. On a research farm, a piece of the farm is isolated, reduced to its simplest form, and analyzed under controlled circumstances. A practicing farm may be shaped by ideals and guided by research, but it also includes the variables that are removed in research for the sake of reliable analysis, and that are removed in theoretical designs for the sake of purity. In fact, real life always includes these variables....

    • A Transcendent Vision
      (pp. 40-47)

      I’m a third-generation Russian German farmer; my ancestors have deep ties to the land. In the eighteenth century, following the Seven Years’ War, the Russian czar recruited a group of German farmers to immigrate to the Volga River region of Russia, promising virgin, fertile farmland. This was true, but he failed to tell them the land was inhabited by outlaws that the local authorities couldn’t control. Our family history includes stories of forebears going out with teams of oxen and keeping weapons at their sides to protect themselves.

      In the late nineteenth century, faced with forced conscription into the Russian...

    • Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Agriculture
      (pp. 48-62)

      Sustainable agriculture is often presented as an alternative to conventional agriculture. Framing the issue in that fashion leads to the conclusion that sustainable agriculture is simply another way to farm, or another way to produce food. However, sustainable agriculture may be part of a much more comprehensive change in society. Some have referred to this more inclusive shift as an “ecological revolution.”¹ From this perspective, sustainable agriculture may be part of a conceptual revolution that could be as mind-bending as the Copernican revolution that began in the sixteenth century.

      InDominion: Can Nature and Culture Co-Exist?Niles Eldredge evaluates changes...

    • The Role of Independent Beef Producers in Rural Development
      (pp. 63-65)

      Suddenly everyone is interested in developing us. The January/February 1997 Kerr Center newsletter announced that it was adding “rural development” to its program.¹ The lead article in the newsletter points us in a rural-development direction, but it cannot possibly lead to any real rural development. It suggests that the beef industry’s problems could be solved through vertical integration, much like the swine and poultry industries. Producers would be paid a salary to raise calves to a specific weight and would receive a bonus for good performance. The article asserts that “raising cattle is a hobby and not a business” when...

    • Foreword to Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches
      (pp. 66-70)

      As a farmer, I have had a relationship with wild things that has been fraught with ambiguity. I grew up believing that wildness was the enemy of agriculture. I didn’t like blackbirds eating our sunflowers, coyotes attacking our calves, or weeds robbing our crops of nutrients and moisture. So I had an almost instinctive inclination to tear all the wildness out of our farm. I was ready to use any tool or scientific management tactic available to eradicate wild things from the farm.

      A part of me even felt morally justified in harboring that attitude because it is deeply entrenched...

    • On Being an “Objective” Farmer
      (pp. 71-77)

      I was born in a farmhouse south of Medina, North Dakota, a small rural town that is now struggling to survive. My parents began farming on that land in 1930, so they spent their first years as a young farm couple in the midst of the Dust Bowl. Those were hard times that taught harsh lessons. At times my father wasn’t sure he would be able to feed his young family. He learned to be extremely frugal—perhaps too frugal, he later thought. And he vowed that what had happened to his land in the ravages of the Dust Bowl...

    • Being at Home
      (pp. 78-91)

      What does it mean to be at home? For most of us, being at home simply means being in an apartment or house or condo where we usually sleep and where, once in a while, we eat meals with our family members or watch television. Home is mostly an enclosure that protects us from the rest of the world, sometimes with help from security personnel and technology. The “homeless” are those who are deprived of such amenities and find themselves sleeping under bridges, on sidewalks, in parks or in homeless shelters. But is the ownership of a structure or having...

    • The Pleasure of Good Eating
      (pp. 92-95)

      For most of us the pleasure of good eating probably consists of chowing down on a steak, a delicious pork chop, fresh vegetables with taste-bud-exploding flavors, or a savory tree-ripened peach that melts in your mouth. But in truth, the pleasure of good eating consists of much more than tasty treats.

      When I was growing up on our farm in North Dakota, almost everything we ate was produced on the farm. We had a large garden where we produced all of the vegetables and condiment ingredients, and most of the fruit, that we ate in season or canned for the...

    • Is Sustainability in Our Energy Future?
      (pp. 96-98)

      On December 18, 2005, I finished the first draft of the year-end economic analysis of our North Dakota farm in anticipation of filing our 2005 tax return. One number stood out with unpleasant clarity: our total farm fuel bill for 2005 was just over $30,000. In 2004, it had been just under $20,000.

      Yes, we added 110 acres to the operation, but we also bought a new tractor that was demonstrably much more fuel-efficient than the one it replaced. The significant increase in unit fuel costs was just too great. Fortunately, our year-end financial statement was not hit with similar...

    • A Journey toward Sustainability
      (pp. 99-118)

      When I started to transition our North Dakota farm to organic production in 1977, the concept of sustainability was not yet in the public domain, nor had I heard of it. At the time I also was unaware that a special market existed for organic production. I was motivated entirely by the fact, brought to my attention by my former student David Vetter, that well-managed organic farms could dramatically improve soil quality.

      The motivation to improve the soil quality on our farm was imbedded in me by my father, who always insisted that “taking care of the land” was the...

  7. Part 2: Cracks in the Bridges:: Inspecting the Industrial Food System

    • On Learning to Farm Ecologically on the Prairie
      (pp. 121-140)

      No one would argue that major changes are taking place in agriculture. The question is, of the many directions agriculture could take, which will best serve farmers and society? The choices facing us are really just two: industrial agriculture or ecological agriculture. Industrial agriculture is primarily driven by a productionist ideology, in which increasing production is an intrinsically desirable social goal. In the ecological paradigm, adequate production is folded into a larger social goal. Ecological agriculture weighs the benefits of increased production against the ecological and social consequences of such increases.

      Ecological agriculture is not new. Herbert C. Hanson came...

    • Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? And Is That the Right Question?
      (pp. 141-152)

      Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman and political economist, published a treatise in 1798 that riveted the world’s attention on the “problem” of human population growth.¹ Malthus argued that population growth was bound to outstrip food production, because human population would increase geometrically while the food supply could only grow arithmetically. Malthus’s powerful thesis has been used to justify many social doctrines ever since, everything from “survival of the fittest” to the “green revolution” (GR).

      The question “Can organic agriculture feed the world?” is posed against that backdrop. What the question is asking is this: can organic farming methods produce enough...

    • Biotechnology on the Ground: What Kind of Future Can Farmers Expect, and What Kind Should They Create?
      (pp. 153-160)

      A pragmatic assessment of any technology is complicated by the cultural love affair with technology that we have nurtured in our society since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. By now, farmers must comprehend that not all new technologies will be beneficial. Indeed, Willard Cochrane demonstrated how new technologies can be detrimental to farmers with his concept of the “technology treadmill.” Even when a technology appears to be beneficial to farmers, like tractors replacing horses for greater labor efficiency, it will put a good number of farmers out of business.¹

      Whether eliminating farmers from farming has been, or continues to...

    • Questioning Biotechnology’s Claims and Imagining Alternatives
      (pp. 161-177)

      The controversy surrounding transgenic technologies appears to be based on different assessments of the technology’s merits. Proponents argue that transgenic technologies will help us feed the world, cure diseases, and solve many other problems facing the human species. Opponents argue that the projected benefits are exaggerated and that the technology poses many risks that have not been adequately assessed.

      But these quarrels lead to circular arguments. We won’t know,for sure,whether transgenic technologies can feed the world until we try it, and if it doesn’t, it’s too late. Developing other options for self-sufficient food systems will have been ignored....

    • Why American Agriculture Is Not Sustainable
      (pp. 178-187)

      A pervasive criticism of sustainable agriculture is that without a commonly accepted definition of sustainable agriculture, there is no basis for an intelligent discussion of the issue. Some argue that because there is no universally agreed-upon standard set of sustainable farming practices, the entire concept is suspect. The problem here is not lack of definition, but flawed reasoning. The term “sustainable” is a transcendent term that does not lend itself to definition according to a uniformly accepted set of rules or activities. Sustainability is similar to terms like truth, justice, or beauty. Something is just, true, or beautiful depending on...

    • What Constitutes Sound Science?
      (pp. 188-203)

      Marion Nestle has argued that the public no longer receives the best scientific information regarding diet and health. Nestle is a renowned nutritionist with years of experience working on nutrition and dietary guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She outlines in her provocative book,Food Politics,how the food industry regularly stifles the scientific community when its findings conflict with the financial interests of the industry.³

      Nestle, in fact, comes to a disturbing conclusion. Science, she suggests, is now often used to defend a position already adopted rather than to discover...

    • And Then What? Attending to the Context of Our Innovations
      (pp. 204-213)

      David Hurd, former CEO of the Principal Financial Group, told an audience that, as the head of his company, he had learned to insist on an important procedure. Whenever anyone in his company suggested any kind of innovation, he would ask, seven times, “And then what?” This simple exercise, he contended, saved his company from many unintended negative consequences that might otherwise have caused the company significant losses.²

      From a pragmatic perspective, Hurd’s caution is an appeal to common sense. We should try to foresee as many of the unanticipated consequences of our actions as possible before we engage in...

    • Food as Relationship
      (pp. 214-225)

      In his classic study of soil fertility,An Agricultural Testament,first published in 1940, Sir Albert Howard presented his case for connecting problems with food and health to a failure in soil management. The key to proper soil management, he argued, was “the law of return,” which is returning all wastes to the land (preferably properly composted). It was the return of wastes to the land that insured proper levels of humus in the soil. The effect of humus on the crop, and ultimately on human health, he asserted, is “nothing short of profound.”² Humus is the “well-decomposed part of...

    • Is the USDA Accounting for the Costs to Farmers from Contamination Caused by Genetically Engineered Plants?
      (pp. 226-234)

      I would like to thank the chair, Representative Kucinich, the ranking member, Representative Issa, and the members of the subcommittee for this opportunity to speak on this matter which so greatly affects the livelihoods of the U.S. organic producer.

      My name is Frederick L. Kirschenmann. I am a professor of religion and philosophy currently serving as a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, after having been the center’s director since July of 2000. However, I appear before you today as an organic producer and manager of our family’s 3,500-acre mixed-crop and livestock farm located in south-central...

    • Placing the Pew Commission Report in Context
      (pp. 235-237)

      When I accepted the invitation to serve on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, I knew it would be a controversial undertaking. While the meat and animal industries have made huge investments in infrastructure to create the mainstream industrial farm-animal production system—and while they quite rationally want to protect that investment—a growing population of consumers, environmentalists, rural residents, and, yes, farmers, are opposing the evolution of this system because of unintended consequences that are degrading things they care about.

      I decided to join the commission because I take a longer-term view and am increasingly concerned about...

    • Redefining Sustainability: From “Greening” to Enhancing Capacity for Self-Renewal
      (pp. 238-240)

      “Going green” seems to be the new sustainability slogan designed to save the planet. The question is: if we all go green, will that get us to sustainability?

      A typical dictionary definition of “sustain” is “to maintain,” “to keep going,” “to keep in existence.” As a broad overview, that is a useful definition, because it calls into question exactly what it is that we want to maintain.

      In today’s discourse, we generally view sustainability from a quantitative perspective. How can we maintain or improve crop yields? How can we maintain the growth of the economy? How can we improve the...

  8. Part 3: Envisioning an Alternative Food and Farming System

    • What’s an Education For?
      (pp. 243-247)

      A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about an incident that had taken place between his father and himself when he was a young lad. As Bernie tells the story, he and his friend were playing catch in their backyard. Bernie said that he had what could generously be described as a “bedsheet with fingers on it” for a baseball glove, a glove that had been handed down by two older brothers. His friend had just gotten a brand-new mitt. Bernie was complaining about the glove and how hard it was to catch the ball...

    • Resolving Conflicts in American Land-Use Values: How Organic Farming Can Help
      (pp. 248-254)

      Why do Americans, and especially American farmers, use (or abuse) the land the way we do? I assume land is used in accordance with a set of values, expectations, and perceptions developed over time. That may seem so obvious that it appears trivial, but it is an important point.

      All too often we approach land-conservation issues through the concept of “good guys” versus “bad guys.” The “good guys” plant trees, install grass waterways, strip crop, and use no-till farming. They do everything possible to keep their soil from being exposed to erosion. The “bad guys,” conversely, bulldoze trees, rip up...

    • What About the Next Twenty Years? Or “It’s Turtles All the Way Down”
      (pp. 255-261)

      Stephen Hawking, inA Brief History of Time,tells a delightful story about a well-known scientist who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. In the lecture, the scientist described the universe, with the Earth orbiting around the sun, and the sun, in turn, orbiting within a vast collection of stars called a galaxy. When he concluded his lecture, a little old lady in the back of the room got up and said, “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.”

      The scientist, with a somewhat...

    • Rediscovering American Agriculture
      (pp. 262-270)

      The quincentennial of Columbus’s voyage to the New World produced many provocative reevaluations of American history. This seems a good time to take a fresh look at what has happened to agriculture in this part of the world since 1492. Doing so, I think, will reveal that interpretations of our agricultural history have been flawed. Most of us grew up with the notion that nothing was happening agriculturally until the Europeans arrived, stories of Indians teaching Puritans how to plant corn notwithstanding. The popular view involves Indians eating bison or going hungry. Agriculture is often assumed to have begun when...

    • Spirituality and Cooperatives
      (pp. 271-278)

      Using the word “spirituality” is a problem in our largely secular culture. This problem is rooted in our cultural inclination to compartmentalize things: separating mind from matter, facts from values, and science from religion and art.

      Such compartmentalization leads most of us to be suspicious about introducing spirituality into business. We assume that spirituality is a “religious thing” and therefore has no real place in business. At best, spirituality is irrelevant because it cannot be reduced to hard facts and bottom lines. When spirituality has mingled with business, it was often as a scam or charity appeal—or worse, as...

    • In Search of Objectivity, or How to Create a Credible Certification Program
      (pp. 279-283)

      Certification programs in search of credibility have attached themselves to the concept of “third-party” status like a magnet to clean metal. Food customers want assurances that organic certification is reliable. Many leaders in the certification network have responded by assuring the public that if a certification program has “third-party” status, it can be trusted and is credible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      “Third-party” language has probably crept into the industry because it is commonly believed that “distance” assures “objectivity.” That belief had scientific validity from the time of Descartes to the emergence of quantum theory. Descartes’ scientific doctrine...

    • On Becoming Lovers of the Soil
      (pp. 284-289)

      As farms and farmers continue to disappear from the landscape in many parts of the world, citizens have increasingly begun to ask themselves whether they should become more concerned about farm issues. This is a good question. Whyshouldwe be concerned about what happens to farms or farmers? After all, food is more abundant and available in global supermarkets today than ever before. For the most part, our food is safe. Industrialized nations spend less of their earned income on food than ever before. And all this despite the fact that farm numbers have been declining steadily for almost...

    • Challenges Facing Philosophy as We Enter the Twenty-first Century: Reshaping the Way the Human Species Feeds Itself
      (pp. 290-305)

      I’d like to begin with a disclaimer. While my academic training is theology, my energies in the past twenty-five years have been devoted to farming. And while I have tried to emulate Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the ideal American farmer who is also a philosopher, I confess I have not risen to his standard of farming by day and reading the classics in Greek at night. So my observations about food and farming are more informed by the earthworm and plow than by Plato or Husserl. I can only hope that what I have to offer in some small way...

    • A Pig’s Tale: Marketing Stories for New Value Chains
      (pp. 306-316)

      In conventional business circles, niche markets are suspect because they are vulnerable; they are too small, powerless, and helpless to matter. Niche markets are considered high-risk ventures that will not survive. We admire major mass markets that control billion-dollar inventories. Economies of scale reflect economic power, and economic power suggests market resilience and reliability. Why, then, would anyone propose—much less attend—a conference on niche marketing?

      Perhaps we tend to devalue niche markets because of the way we define “niche.” Although we think niche means small, insignificant, vulnerable, or unimportant, Webster describes “niche” as “a place or position particularly...

    • A Bright Future for “Farmers of the Middle”
      (pp. 317-321)

      The notion that the middle class is somehow the bedrock of American civic society has deep roots in our culture. In 1774, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the very survival of the Province of Pennsylvania depended on “the middling people”—the “farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen of this city and country.” Franklin argued that “mistaken principles of religion” combined with “a love of worldly power,” exercised by a few elite in positions of authority, threatened to undo the good life envisioned by the majority in the middle.² America’s modern-day middling people, especially the farmers of the middle, are once again under siege....

    • Revitalizing Rural Communities: How Churches Can Help
      (pp. 322-335)

      There is a popular perception in America that rural communities are places of failure, a perception apparently shared by rural communities themselves. By the late 1980s, most rural citizens in the Midwest harbored the notion that their communities were dying. The metaphor that dominated the thinking of rural community residents was the “corpse.” Rural citizens believed that the death of their communities was inevitable, and their only reason for staying around was to prepare the corpse for burial. Still, some believed that a new industry might yet come to town and revive the corpse.²

      By the early 1990s, the media...

    • Rethinking Food
      (pp. 336-341)

      During the past 150 years, we fully incorporated our food system into the industrial economy. Accordingly, the industrial principles of specialization, simplification, and consolidation now dominate our food web—production, processing, and distribution. However, our food system will likely undergo significant changes in the decades ahead.

      This industrial food system has proved incredibly successful. Yields of a few crops rose spectacularly. Milk, meat, and egg production increased exponentially. Efficiencies improved, and transaction costs were cut. The cost per unit of food decreased dramatically. And despite the recent explosion of human population and increased rate of human consumption, we still managed...

    • Using What We Know to Make a Difference
      (pp. 342-357)

      In academic circles we often explore problems in great depth but fail to come up with creative ways to solve problems. Consequently we end up knowing a lot about problems but little about how to solve them—so we often end up failing to make a difference. As I wrestled with this challenge it occurred to me that there are at least four questions that we might fruitfully address:

      What do we think we know?

      What is the narrative that informs our interpretation of the world we live in?

      What kind of difference do we want to make?

      How can...

  9. Afterword
    (pp. 358-360)
    Jim Ruen

    It was a little over twenty-eight years ago that a young writer fromThe Farmer/Dakota Farmermagazine came to interview you at your farm in North Dakota. I was that writer, and I recall our visit very clearly, including the nearly completed earth-shelter home you were building on your beloved prairie. I came away very impressed with what you were doing with building a healthy cropping regime. You opened a door to new possibilities for farmers and new/old ways of doing things. It remains one of my favorite interview experiences.

    Although I sent you a copy of the article for...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 361-386)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 387-394)
  12. Index
    (pp. 395-404)