Happy Thanksgiving!

From all of us at the UVM Extension New Farmer Project …

A Safe and Happy Thanksgiving Holiday!

We know this has been a challenging year for many of you. We are inspired by your determination and passion.

As we gather the generations around tables laden with the fruits of the harvest, this essay by Wendall Berry seems appropriate.

Conserving Farm-Raised Children

If we want a decent food economy and a decent rural landscape, we have got to find the ways to prepare and encourage our farm children to grow up to be farmers. Because of the dominance of industrial values and the prevalence of economic distress on the farm, our rural schools act and have acted for a long time–as child-confinement operations, where our farm children are gathered up, processed, certified, and shipped out. This may be the most urgent “farm crisis” that we have.

To conserve our capacity to produce crops and livestock and timber, we must maintain the productivity of the land. This means we must conserve our soils and our soils’ capacity to conserve water. In regions of varied and difficult topography, soil conservation must always involve the conservation of farmers, farm families, and farm communities. To keep the land productive, we must keep a resident population that is able, and is motivated, to use it well.

This implies a need to conserve farm-raised children. But to speak of the conservation of our farming people is only another way of saying that we must conserve local memory and local cultures, which include the knowledge of the best ways of using local landscapes. For members of rural communities and (whether they know it or not) for consumers, it matters whether our farmers farm or work in factories. This is not an easy point to get across. Most journalists and politicians evidently cannot see the connections among farms and farmers and food. They think that (for other people) any “job” will do.

We need also to think of forest conservation and wildlife conservation, and not just for the sake of hunting and fishing, but because our woodlands are economically precious and because farming depends on nature’s processes and its health.

In landscapes so varied and demanding as ours, we need to think of the conservation of livestock breeds and plant varieties. It is shocking to realize that once popular breeds such as Guernsey and Ayrshire cattle and Oxford sheep are now in dangerous decline, with North American populations of fewer than 10,000 head. This means that in only a few years these breeds could become extinct–along with the genetic diversity and the agricultural adaptability they represent. That a breed or variety doesn’t fit in now does not mean that it will not fit in later, when we will need to adapt our farming to the nature of places and the requirements of local ecosystems, as well as to our own economic needs. We must not allow fashion and the market to be the only determinants of what is to survive.

In thinking about breeds and varieties, as in thinking about everything else, we must start with the landscape. What does it have in it now that we want to keep? And how can we keep the good things we have?

The problem for rural communities in a time of general agricultural depression, people will say, is a development problem. I want to urge that we think of it first as a conservation problem. Farmers use the landscape, and in doing so they are the only stewards of soil and water. The landscapes of most of our agricultural regions are diverse and easy to abuse. If we lose local farmers, we risk losing the land.

After we have thought justly and extensively enough about conservation, then maybe we are ready to think about “development.” Let us realize, to start with, that development is not necessarily inconsistent with conservation, but that it often has been. Change puts things at risk. Therefore, I am both pleased with the new phrase “agriculture-based development” and uneasy about it.

I am pleased with the phrase because I assume it recognizes our need to process farm and forest products in the same localities in which they are produced. This need is critical. We should do all that we can to find ways for local money to be invested locally in small slaughterhouses, meat-processing plants, canneries, coolers, cheese factories, and the like.

I am uneasy about “agriculture-based development” because it so urgently requires us to deal with issues of locality, local work and enterprise, and scale. Scale, maybe, above all. People who want to found their thinking and their work upon the landscape must tell themselves over and over again: There is no law requiring the processors of farm and forest products to be big, let alone global. What makes them big is not necessity and not efficiency, but greed.

Why do we need to prefer agriculture-based development to industrial development? Because we are using fragile landscapes that we must either use well or destroy, and because we need to eat.

If we keep our work and our goals comprehensive enough, we will be saying to people outside the farm communities that what we are working for is not just our own interest but everybody’s health–and this will be the truth. The problems of farmers and farm communities are the same as they have always been: how to survive, how to hold together in our families and communities and keep on, how (if possible) to prosper a little while we survive, how to take care of the natural and cultural inheritances that we use and depend on.

This is good work, a good calling. I am honored to take part in it with my friends and allies.

Wendell Berry is a writer and a farmer in Henry County, Kentucky. This essay first appeared in The Progressive in January 1999.

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About Mary Peabody

Working with beginning farmers since 1994.
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