Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The City and the Farm Crisis

I’m grateful to Bob Swann, and I’m grateful to all of you. I couldn’t address a topic that I would take more seriously or be more humbled by.

Perhaps it is impossible for anyone, and certainly for me, to talk about this agricultural issue without being political. Everything I say is going to have political implications, and I will be pretty well aware of what they are. But I thought today I would try to be, as far as possible, practical rather than political because I think most of you already know how to be political and because when it comes to the question of the city and the country in the agricultural crisis, I confess to some bewilderment. I suspect that other people may be bewildered about how to be practical.

I don’t know whether the connection between city and country is the most important connection involved in the present farm crisis, but it’s as important as any, and it is urgent that we begin to talk about it across the division. There is a connection of course, and I want to try and suggest what it is.

The connection between country and city, the connection and the difference, has been a worrisome subject for a long time, you know. And as the population has gone more and more into the city, I think it has become an even more worrying question. There is a lot of prejudice at work on both sides, and not enough communication. We understand how that can be if we reflect for a minute that a lot of country peoples’ experience of city people occurs most intensely during deer season, or in dealings with a commission or an agent of the stockyard or something like that, and that most city people’s experience of country people has to do with the comic yokels who appear to represent farmers in television situation comedies.

Well, the trap we’re in, all of us together, city people and country people, is that we have to eat. We’re doomed to use the world and to live in our tradition. Of course, this has always implied some form of the doctrine of stewardship. In religious terms, that has meant to us that we hold the land because of an absent owner or a non-participating owner who expects good stewardship of us in return. The scripture, you know, doesn’t grant us a free title, it withholds ownership. The secular version of this is that we are stewards for the unborn and that as the unborn come to birth and approach actual ownership, they become ethically borrowers and stewards again. The companion word in our tradition is usufruct, which means the use of fruits, and the term in legal usage means the right to use the fruits or the produce of a property belonging to someone who is absent, without impairing the worth of that property.

You see, this is our condition, and it’s terrifying any way you want to construe it. It means that a great deal is expected of us, that we are not living up to expectations, and that we had better be more uneasy than we are at present, or than most of us are.

What’s happened is an old thing that has come to a crisis now. Maybe it’s the most significant part of the agricultural crisis: the granting of proxies to others, namely farmers, to produce food and carry out stewardship in our behalf. The boast of American agriculture is that 78 to 100—who knows how many?—of city people have given their proxies to one farmer to produce food and care for the land in their behalf. That’s offered as the first item in the ritual praise of industrial agriculture. I’m glad to make it the first item in my criticism of industrial agriculture. I think that’s dangerous. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be one of a hundred people or 78 people either, who are dependent upon one person to produce their food.

At least that’s a very special kind of statistic. The food production system employs many more people than it employs farmers. But the thing about a proxy we understand much better in political terms is that you can’t give it away. You retain a responsibility for it. If the proxy isn’t properly used, it’s your fault. I think that partly accounts for the fix we’re in: we give these people our proxies and then don’t look after them.

Now, this is a part of what I call a myth. You can also call it a modern industrial economic fantasy: that your welfare can safely be given to someone else’s care and you’ll never have to worry about it anymore. Actually it doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot more complicated and a lot more troublesome than that.

Probably you can get a fairly sufficient understanding of stewardship, of good land use, by going at it from two directions, and not either one or the other but both together. One is from the direction of knowledge. The great problem with modern urban life is that it institutionalizes a great ignorance, and I hope you don’t take this as one of the prejudices of a country person, because I will say immediately that the tone is set now, and has been for a long time, by the cities. This institutionalized ignorance has been insidiously creeping out into the country so that country people now share in it and even pride themselves on sharing in it. The fact of our condition here is that if we use the world we have to know how. And not just know how, but we also must have the will and the motive to put that knowledge into effect.

I’m going to try to hold out for the idea that the motive finally for using the world well is love. I almost hate to speak the word aloud, it’s been so abused and sullied, but I’m trusting that because I put it in so practical a context you’ll understand it as a devotion to be strictly acted upon. If we have to use the world, we have to use it well; we have to use it lovingly; and, as we are beginning to see, we have to use it cheaply. Those aren’t necessarily contradictory terms.


I think that there are three questions we have to answer satisfactorily with respect to our domestic economy in any given place. The first is, What is here, and what is the nature of this place? What would be here if we weren’t, and what is here now that we’ve been here? What do we have to start with? That’s a rather academic question, you might think, a purely scientific question. But the next two questions don’t make any sense until that question is answered. Because by “knowing” I don’t mean a list as in an environmental impact statement or a catalogue. That’s necessary—we must have inventories—but I’d like to go a little further and suggest that we have to be familiar with what is here. We have to understand it as being in a family, in a familial relationship with us and us with it.

The next question is, What will nature permit us to do here? It’s a question that’s overridden every time a pound of soil washes out of a cornfield. What will nature tolerate?

The third question is, What will nature help us with here? And this suggests limits that are being overridden, the overriding of which lies behind every bankruptcy, almost. I’ll go into that a little later. But the help you get from nature is indispensable because it’s free. Henry Besuden, my great sheep-farmer compatriot from Kentucky, who died not long ago, used to say: “It’s good to have nature working for you. She works for a minimum wage.”

The knowledge that comes with the correct answers to those questions can’t be applied if the scale is wrong. If the farm is too big, if the equipment is too big, again a terrible ignorance is institutionalized and cannot be dealt with on its own terms.

It’s difficult to do, but let me see if I can describe a kind of regardlessness that can be institutionalized in a piece of equipment. You understand from looking at contour maps that contours, lines on the terrain, are parallel on the vertical plain but not on the horizontal plain; they will, with respect to the surface of the field, be close together in some places and far apart in others. You can work on the horizontal very well if you have one- or two-row equipment. If you have bigger equipment, you see, you finally get to a place, working between those two contour lines, at which your rows will butt off—farmers call it point off—against the next contour. That is, they won’t go all the way across the field on the contour. Now, if you are pulling a large piece of equipment, you don’t want to have two planters in the ground and four, or whatever, dragging in the grass.

So as the scale of equipment increases, the pressure on the farmer not to be ruled by the shape of the field as terrain, as topography, but by the shape of the field as a boundary also increases. That is, you make your row parallel to the line fence, not to the contour. I’ve seen the increasing scale of equipment drive out contour farming in my part of the country, and you get as a substitute in some places strip farming, where you make the strips exactly parallel. Again it’s an example of using a law of geometry rather than a law of topography. As the scale of equipment grows larger, the farmer also is under more and more pressure to keep the equipment on the ground, which means that you don’t raise it up, for example, as you cross a waterway. That’s why you see these large grain fields laid out geometrically across everything that stands in the way that can be driven over the top of.

Now let’s suppose we had adequate responses to my three questions and we were farming on a scale—and some farmers are—to permit the good or caring or loving application of the knowledge we have. The next question that we are under pressure to deal with is, How do we keep it in place? How do you keep that knowledge of that field at work in that field as its property, as one of its appropriate belongings under the rule of the human economy? I’m using the word economy, let me point out, not economics. Namely, the business of how we eat, stay warm, and are clothed.

In the first place there is the individual who stays put: the individual who in his or her own experience responds sensitively to the messages that are coming back from the field. The field finally says, “You can plow me every third year safely.” Or it may say, “You’d better quit plowing me at all because I need to be in grass.” People learn this, and it’s easy to see how their knowledge becomes a stock-in-trade that belongs to them, to the field, and to everybody whose proxy is held there—in fact, to the whole country; you save soil in behalf of the country, you farm well in behalf of the country and all we mean by it.

The next thing we get hard up against is mortality. The person who knows how to farm this field is not going to live forever and may not live through the next year, you know. So we need a larger vessel to contain this knowledge, and the next larger vessel in this world as we have it is the family. Through the family this knowledge can be handed down. Gene Logsdon argues that this handing down begins to pay, and I’d argue it too. I don’t know if either one of us has any statistics to show it, but Gene says that third generation farmers begin to be pretty noticeably better than the first generation. Anyway, you suspect it. You suspect that it pays off economically because, as a certain friend of mine said about a community of people who really know each other, “You don’t have to explain all the time.” There are certain things that are going to begin to happen without having to be explained, and certainly there is learning going to be taking place that is not experimental. You are not going to have to learn not to plow the field every generation by paying a tuition of an enormous tonnage of topsoil.

But families die out too. We are not out of the mortality sack yet. We’re not going to get out of it entirely, but we’ve got to do the best we can. The next vessel that can contain this knowledge and keep it alive is the community. How is it going to be kept alive? Well, I suspect not in official reports. I think it’s going to be kept alive in stories, in songs, and in peremptory instructions from parents with a finger pointed. “Don’t do that.” I think this probably is more effective than the Department of Soil Science. But to keep the community in place we’ve got to have an economy that can do it. Now I’m completely in deep water because I can’t deal too authoritatively with this matter, but I’ll try and say a little something.

I think that in dealing with human economy we have to acknowledge that it is an artifact. It’s arranged to give certain people certain advantages, either a few people or a lot of people. There is no escape, I think, into natural or evolutionary metaphor. This is a thing we made, just as we ourselves are things to a considerable extent. We make ourselves with the help of each other. We are given certain things, but we make ourselves to a considerable extent, and we make our economy to a considerable extent.

If my description of the importance of knowledge in agriculture is correct, then what we’re losing now by the economic destruction of rural communities is indispensable knowledge about how to use the land—of which we didn’t have enough to begin with. We never have farmed as well as we ought to have farmed in most parts of the country. What’s happened, or one way to describe what’s happened, is that farmers have gained the means from the city to produce far beyond the city’s need, and their surplus production is suffocating them. If we need those people, not for sentimental reasons but because we need their knowledge and we need the association that will eventually develop between them, their place, their families, and their communities for this most imperative practical reason, then it’s important to shape our artifact, the economy, to permit this to happen.

What we have in our economy, from a country person’s point of view, is a colonial system. I don’t know any aspects of the rural economy—mining, logging, farming, which are all now extractive industries—that are not colonies. If I set down the history as far as I’m able to know it in my little part of the country, I realize that most of the money that’s been made on the produce coming from that area has been made somewhere else. How does that work? How does that happen? It was almost invisible to us as long as the country people were running a subsistence economy along with the commercial one. But as soon as they were persuaded to give up the subsistence economy, which they have pretty much done, as witness Willie Nelson’s donations to the farmers to buy food, then it became clear that they were part of a colonial economy.

How does it happen? It happens because the colonialist siphon can be inserted only when people, either by their own will or by persuasion or by other means, come to the point where they are willing to give up the help of nature, the free sources of energy and fertility that are natural and lead to good domestic agriculture the world over, and to give up the help they get from each other, which is free help.

Let me give you an example of how it works. My little county has 10,000 people in it. We now pay a $100,000 liability insurance premium, up from $12,000, that is to say up $88,000, since 1983. Ten dollars a head for every soul in the county. We are supposedly dependent on insurance; we don’t trust each other anymore enough not to need it. So the insurance companies stick it to us. They’re going to as long as we hold out. Some communities are beginning not to be able to hold out. They’re just getting along without it. Maybe a good thing, I think. My brother’s little law firm in the county seat of that county pays a $17,000 malpractice bill. The result is, as honest lawyers acknowledge, misbehavior, which is the result of irresponsibility in the legal profession. I don’t know what the local doctors will tell you—we’ve got five in the county now—but they too are paying a large malpractice premium. So it begins to be possible to see money going out of the county to the tune of a number of livelihoods, just to the insurance people, who don’t live near us and who don’t care whether we live or not.

On the other hand, David and Elsie Klein are old-order Amish and have a 12-acre farm in Eastern Ohio. The commercial part of their operation consists of 23 Guernsey cows, 23 heifers usually, 7 sows, and a boar. In addition they have about four acres in gardens and orchards and some beehives. Their subsistence goes along parallel to their commercial economy and contributes to the commercial yield. Last year, 1985, in the midst of a terrible agricultural depression, their farm grossed $47,000 and netted $25,000. That’s above “subsistence.” I think it’s a wonder of courage, and I don’t think that’s an unexpectable bit of accounting among the Amish. Into the bargain, David Klein keeps a woodlot, of which only 79 acres are arable. He has very well-preserved, well-kept permanent pastures and a very well-kept woodlot. He is a fine naturalist and is apt to do something like delay a hay-cutting in order to let the bobolink fledglings get away from the nest, which makes him extremely suggestive for our purpose.

Now, the reason I would call your attention to this example is that it leaps out of the accounting of agricultural economy. A list of the so-called inputs that are at work on the Klein farm would mostly be intangible: family coherence, community coherence, solar energy, fertility from manure—are bacteria and microscopic minerals tangible? Maybe I’m putting them in the wrong list, but also respect and reverence for gifts that are not made on the property: neighborliness, love for neighbors, love for families, things like that.

On the Klein farm things that are usually dismissed as merely spiritual or emotional or cultural or sentimental are producing an economic force and an economic return. A number of years ago David Klein attended a meeting held by some urban Mennonites on the predictable subject of community. What is it? How can we have it? At the end of the meeting David was asked to say what community was to him and what it meant. “Well,” he said, “in the spring when my son and I were plowing out in the field and we stopped to rest the teams, we could see seventeen teams at work on neighboring fields.” Already you have a good description of a good agriculture, do you see? Seventeen teams in sight in rolling topography. “And I knew that if I were sick or died, those seventeen teams and those seventeen people would be at work on my farm.”

Well, conditioned as we now are to the work of the economists, we have to stop in order to understand the significance of this description of community. It’s a practical description of a spiritual condition, and in the process it’s a description of what now passes for us as insurance, free to David Klein as a member and expensive to us because we’re not. We’re not members and therefore are definable to exploiters as victims. I’m not recommending that we all become Amish, and I’m not trying to turn back the clock. All I’m trying to do is work at an honest description of what is required of us. This is not going backwards. This is an effort to recover certain critical responsibilities.


Now I want to talk about the stakes that urban consumers have in the present agricultural prices. I don’t think it needs much explaining for people to see that if they live on food and the food grows on the land, they lose when the land washes away and when the people who know how to produce food from the land are washed away by bankruptcy. That’s clear enough. But how vulnerable is this food system? I already said that I thought it’s dangerous for however many people to depend on the work of just one farmer, but it’s not just one farmer: it’s the transport industry, the petroleum industry, the chemical industry, and however many other industries that are involved between the grower and the eater of food.

We must realize that with the addition of each one of these industries the system becomes more vulnerable. We have to transport, we have to import; the lines of supply are everywhere pinched so narrowly into roads that one wonders how many well-informed terrorists it would take to strangle the northeast or the southwest, for instance. Food is of poor quality, as can be perceived readily by the taste test. I do the taste test every time I leave home, and I’m astounded by what people are willing to ingest in the holy name of food. We’ve got the problems of pollution and contamination. Poisoned is about the common state now for food to be in.

I’m hearing a lot of worry about this, principally from mothers who understand at the very quick that love is the issue here. How can you love your children and at the same time feed them contaminated food? A terrible anxiety has grown about it; people tend to sound like they want to cry when they talk about these problems sometimes, and you can understand why.

Another question that’s been on my mind and has been for a very long time is, What is the future for democracy and liberty in a situation where most of the people are economically helpless? A recent government survey predicted that in only a few years, around the turn of the century I think, fifty farmers in this country will produce 75% of the food. That’s one per state. Will they be farmers as we’ve known them? Or can they even be counted on to be human beings as we’ve known them? I don’t think that the question, and we don’t have the answer of course, is one that we can rest very easily with. The assumption is that big is better. I was on a panel discussion yesterday with a Farm Bureau Vice President and a representative of a large real estate developer. The assumption that they rested on was that one big farmer or one big developer was much better than a lot of little ones.

This defines my anxiety, or makes a stab at it, and perhaps it makes a stab at defining yours. The question then is what to do? If you’re anxious, then you’d better do something. I think we all understand that. I’m just going to make a rapid run-through of an agenda that sounds modest but that I think is powerful.

One resource that people have is the use of their own land. Now, for my own purposes I don’t really care very much in any given case whether a person uses his or her urban land to farm or to grow timber on. I think it would be wonderful if there were forests on people’s front lawns, but if you’re not interested in forestry, if you don’t intend to log your own front lawn, a good idea would be to think of farming it. It’s amazing how much can be grown on a little scrap of land. I think that urban people need to do this both as self-protection and as self-education, and also as fun.

There is the buying co-op in which city people get together and try to get hold of food that is purer than what they can get on the supermarket shelves. By joining together they are able to do that. It’s a good idea for them to join together in behalf of their own health and their own interest in that way. I’d like to see that effort grow. There is the possibility of direct trading with a local farmer, which I think ought to be a principle of the local food co-op to begin with, but it’s also open to individuals.

This proposes a kind of regional healing. Local independence built on local resources is a Schumacherian ideal and a proper one because it’s safe. Local produce from local sources for local consumption. But that implies diversification of the local agriculture and probably the local ecosystems too, because as diversity comes in, the domestic boundaries begin to occur, divisions that are good for nature. I think that nothing could be more hopeful or more instructive to the people who are willing to think about it and hope for it than the idea of a healthy local food economy. The New England states are beginning to think of these things because they’ve had their spatial limits in sight longer than some of the other states. They’re feeling the population pressure very strongly, and they feel uneasy about it. A very smart woman in the Maine Department of Agriculture said, “It doesn’t make a difference to the rest of the country whether Maine has an agriculture or not, but it makes a difference to Maine.” These are words that I think might have come out of the Continental Congress.

What I wanted to end by saying was that these remedies that lie open to urban people, the ones I’ve dwelt on most, imply work, and they imply good work. If you are sick of feeding your children poisoned foods, the real remedy is not to put an inspector, another bureau, between you and what you eat; it is to learn to practice the homestead and the household arts. They are in eclipse now, you know, but they exist, they can be recovered, and they are our last resort in self-protection.



Publication By

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry—farmer, essayist, novelist, poet, activist, teacher—lives with his wife Tanya on the banks of the Kentucky River. There he has farmed a Kentucky hillside for over half a century in his native Henry County, where his family has lived for eight generations. As a small-scale farmer who has used mules instead of machinery for … Continued

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