“Serfs of the soil”?
“I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn, stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood lot!” Thoreau, Walden
Henry David Thoreau observed that “the better part” of his farming neighbours “is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” His descriptions of 1800’s agrarian life in New England are an effective dose of cold water on the romantic imagery that surrounds pre-industrialized farming in North America: of working the land, ploughshares, beasts of burden, hay stacks, stooking sheaves, threshing floors and barn-raisings.
Farming families were large for a reason. As were communities close. There was constantly an insurmountable amount of work to be done, much of it sheer drudgery in today’s eyes, but pure necessity. There was no choice, and folks were in it together. It is true that then as now farmers were largely not their own masters, held in servitude to the banks and the speculators. But they, together with those bankers and stockbrokers, all needed to eat. As we still do, though those connections have now become increasingly obscured.
As farming industrialized, most of this drudgery was gradually tilled under, and along with it the farming family. Community-mindedness was replaced with entrepreneurial competitiveness as farmers became further and further in debt in order to buy the equipment and inputs needed to keep farming. Teamwork and toil was replaced by long, solitary hours sitting in a climate-controlled tractor cab. As commodity mono-crops replaced the traditional mixed farm, farmers no longer ate what they grew.
“We all eat for a living”
Wendell Berry’s simple statement, which may have been completely obvious back in Thoreau’s day, has an air of profoundness to it as we spend less and less time and energy working for food, preparing food, thinking about food – where it is coming from and what it is, exactly, that we are ingesting. Food has become an afterthought, a product, a commodity to be speculated on. Agriculture is an industry, measured by profit and loss, imports and exports, a technological race to the next innovation, damn the risks. But as Berry’s quote reminds us, it as our ‘living’ that we are risking, and it is us that would well be damned.
A rejection of industrial farming and return ‘back to the land’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean a return to the horse and plough. Innovation and the use of technology does not have to be an obtrusive buffer between the farmer and the land stewarded; if used selectively and conscientiously it can perhaps prevent the better part of Thoreau’s farmer from being ploughed into the soil. Careful use of an old tractor, while not truly sustainable, frees the ‘poor immortal soul’ from the bulk of his or her heavy load. Electric motors, drip irrigation, poly tunnels, electric fences, and square balers all allow farmers to focus more time and attention on growing food, efficiently and well. There is a balance – somewhere between ethical ideals and practical realities – where the farmer can retain and nurture the better part of him or herself; not have it either ploughed under or lost in the lofty cab of a combine harvester.
We all need to eat, that is the lowest common denominator. The growing, preparation, and sharing of food should be one of our main occupations, not merely a distraction. A region’s strong local food system is the true judge of its health, as diverse, locally-focused farms bring so much more to the market than their nourishing, fresh produce. Supporting local farms preserves and nurtures our rural values of resourcefulness, ingenuity, self-reliance, generosity, and community.