Agriculture, Place, and Belonging
The coronavirus has really messed up my sense of place. Chiefly being, it’s shown me I have no sense of place at all. Not until last week.
Doing my duty to flatten the curve has been tough. I’m a journalist, photographer, and adrenaline junkie. Naturally, anything that urges me to “stay home, stay safe” elicits a visceral “Ummm, no.” Nonetheless, my butt has been staying in place (sorry, world, you’re being dispossessed of my Pulitzer-worthy content for a short time). Just before my state issued a mandatory shut-in-place order, my fiance and I decided to jump ship from our cramped college apartment complex, a place we foresaw becoming a petri dish of sick frat boys and graduate students.
We headed to her parents’ in the country and convinced ourselves in a week, this would all be over.
Here we are, nearly two months in. Through it, I’ve wrestled with independence and personal space. I’ve frantically grasped at self-efficacy as it washed through the sieve of the coronavirus. I’ve mourned the loss of “my” apartment, “my” freedoms, “my” space, “my” prerogative, “my” choice.
And as of a week ago, it culminated in me feeling defeated, powerless, and with no sense of place.
Then I got dirty.
I accidentally discovered what renowned naturalist Wendell Berry calls a “living relationship” with the land.
Dirt, roots, and belonging
I grew up on an organic hobby farm. In hindsight, it was organic by accident: How we farmed was the result of an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationship with the land. Up until the time I left for college, my relationship with the land and its careful stewardship rooted me into a place.
Fast forward ten years. That land I loved is fallow. Some of it has been sold. I’ve attempted to scratch that agrarian itch at my apartment, my labor resulting in a file stuffed with lease violations.
For ten years, I’ve championed the cause of caring for the earth without practicing what I preach. Last week, the coronavirus backed me into a corner. Out of boredom/desperation/curiosity, I pulled out an old rototiller from my soon-to-be in-laws’ garage and fired ‘er up. As the tines broke and churned long fallow ground, a far away, familiar sweetness embraced my nostrils. The earth opened beneath my feet, yielding its joyful soil.
What I was experiencing was a sense of place.
For ten happy hours, I carefully cultivated awakened ground, introducing manure and compost into the rows materializing in my mind. Tomatoes go there, beans here. A switch flipped, and for the first time in nearly a decade, amidst turmoil and uncertainty, I felt an undeniable connection to where I was.
Why? Because I became a collaborator in the beautiful dance of death, decay, and life that nourishes every living thing on the planet. I ceased being a mindless consumer and became a co-producer with the land.
In those ten hours cultivating, I found my place.
This is in no way my idea. And perhaps no one champions this idea of a sense of place better than Wendell Berry. In his essential book The Unsettling of America, Berry outlines the fundamental premise that the farther humans distance themselves from the realities of their dependence on the land, the more inhuman we become.
How we consume is fundamentally broken. When we engage in a broken system of consumption, we miss out on the redemptive proclivity that good work has to bind us to the land.
“If human values are removed from production, how can they be preserved in consumption?” writes Berry. “If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.”
Where and how we work inevitably fosters in it a sense of meaning and place. When we work in a place that’s fractured, centralized, and sterile, we miss the ability of work to imprint value. Even worse, it can drive us into jadedness.
When we separate our land and our spirits from the things we consume, some dicey things happen. So says Berry,
“We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis — only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.”
You can’t escape the fact that we survive by the fruits of the earth. Even the tawdriest of TV dinners found its genesis in something that could once have been called earth, and it contains a thread of a reminder that we are entirely dependent on it for sustenance. How we respect that connectivity tells a great deal about how we respect our land, ourselves, and each other. Simply put, the more estranged we are from the dirty, beautiful miracle of production, the easier it is to forget it for what it is — something worthy of respect. When we lose our sense of place, all manners of evil follow, such as pollution, disregard for carrying capacity, oppression of the marginalized, and so on.
All the while, we get fatter and sadder.
“[T]here should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth,” writes Berry. And later, “To damage the earth is to damage your children. To despise the ground is to despise its fruit; to despise the fruit is to despise its eaters. The wholeness of health is broken by despite.”
Berry argues most of our ecological and sociological woes stem from what he calls “specialization.” By ceding our responsibility for production, we not only lose our sense of place but conveniently distance ourselves from the consequences of consumerism. Today, a mere 2% of Americans are responsible for producing virtually everything we eat in the U.S. These farmers and ranchers and their land are being pushed to the breaking point to “get big or get out.” They are slaves to commodity, left with little time or resources to consider how the push to produce more for less is hurting their lands and communities.
Relegating our basic needs to specialists allows us to escape liability and place it on scientists, agribusiness, and unjust systems of production. Separation from production blinds us to its consequences. By relegating every single thing we consume to some outside entity, our fingers are no longer on the pulse of the planet’s health. We assign that sacred right to corporate “specialists” — ostensibly working in our best interest — who, in reality, are motivated primarily by greed. Moreover, we lose the life-giving sense of purpose only found in a sense of place and belonging there.
In essence, a life well-lived can’t be had without some vested interest in the land, without an intimate understanding that everything we consume comes from it, and with a price. The farther we remove ourselves from production, we become nothing more than economic units, “consumers,” and the land suffers without a caretaker.
A moral distance from the land makes a healthy culture difficult, if not impossible, to reify.
“When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do,” writes Berry.
If I have a right to consume, there simultaneously exists a responsibility associated in proportion to that consumption. When I eat conventionally, I’m responsible for the following:
- 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef
- 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide produced from a gallon of milk
- The average distance of 1500 miles produce travels from farm to table
- The loss of US topsoil at a rate 10x faster than nature’s ability to replenish it
- 668 million metric tons of CO2 from U.S. agriculture every year (that’s 10% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions)
- An all-time high farm debt over $416 billion
- More than half of US farmers losing money every year since 2013
- A US farmer suicide rate five times greater than the rest of the population
Production as a corporate prerogative
“[H]ow crude and dangerous are our absolute divisions between city and farmland, farmland and wilderness …”
Take a look at any industrial food production facility, be it a cornfield in Nebraska or a feedlot in Colorado. It doesn’t take an extension specialist to understand something is afoot there. The boundary between “agricultural” and “non-agricultural” is razor-sharp. You’ll find no gradual buffer between nature and domesticity. Instead, you’ll discover monoculture planted right up to creeks and forests. You’ll be greeted with chain-linked fences and “keep out” signs.
Industrial agriculture is designed to keep everything but the “product” out. The only thing it despises more than biodiversity is inquiry. It’s as if a sign were posted above the gateway reading, “Shut up, keep quiet, and eat your Pop-Tarts. We’ve got it from here. Oh. And stay the hell out.”
Within these barriers of production hides an utterly unsustainable truth about how we get our food. As our land and health wither away in the bosom of corporate-controlled agribusiness, so does our sense of place and connection with the earth.
Modern systems of production have externalized the massive toll of industrial agriculture at the cost of the people and ecosystems where the production occurs. We’ve lost over four million family farms since 1948. These people had a deep connection with the land and their communities, and they were able to turn a decent profit. Despite losing these small farms, agricultural output has more than doubled, thanks to the massive influx of tech-dependent monocultures only attainable with dizzying lines of credit and federal subsidies.
All the while, small farmers who care about the land and their communities are purposefully pushed out. In the words of current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue,
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
This leaves little to the imagination how policy views people who want to have a relationship with food.
Remote production = death of place
“[H]ow much can we ‘modify’ the environment before we fatally ‘modify’ ourselves?”
How we consume has elevated culture (mainly, more consumption) over place. Place has ceased to be considered for value in and of itself, but for what it can produce. As our grotesque obsession with droves of cheaper goods expands, we have off-shored the nasty realities of a land devoid of intrinsic purpose. You can bet if the conditions which support American consumerism were brought to our neighborhoods, there’d be riots in the streets.
“Therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.”
A local, regenerative approach to agricultural production can become a net carbon sink (sequester more carbon than it produces), produce healthier food, and build strong, resilient communities.
The healthy farm balances the needs of production with the needs of the ecosystem. It respects carrying capacity. Agriculture that destroys its land is no agriculture at all; it’s merely a factory.
“The healthy farm sustains itself the same way that a healthy tree does: by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground … If we are to have a respectable agriculture we will have to think competently and kindly of lands of all sorts, even the apparently useless.”
This is systems thinking before systems thinking was cool.
Taking on some of this responsibility for production can make a difference. It can change how food is produced, how the land is stewarded, and how people are treated.
A healthy culture “… reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.”
Cool. But we can’t all quit our nine-to-fives and buy a cow and back forty. What can the average person do to reclaim our relationship with the land and food, and develop a sense of place?
By being as intimate with the process by which the land sustains us as possible. This doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and moving off-grid. For most, that’s not only unfeasible but an unsustainable option. What you can do is familiarize yourself with what you eat. If you don’t know where your food comes from, read the label. If you’re disgusted by how it’s produced (I hope you are), look for better alternatives. Better still, look for ways to secure your food as close to home as possible. Get involved in community supported agriculture (CSA), a local food co-op, or farmer’s market. Get to know the farmers who know and love their land and share their labor of love with you. Visit the farm. See, feel, and smell the living soil where your sustenance grows. The social and nutritional difference you’ll experience will be astronomical. And don’t give in to the haters who’d make you believe growing and knowing food is above the “civilized” person: It’s the most civilized thing we can do.
“The ‘drudgery’ of growing one’s own food, then, is not drudgery at all … It is — in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need — a sacrament, as eating it also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation …”
Reclaiming relationship with food and place need not be the prerogative of the privileged. Anyone, anywhere can find resources to get plugged in to localized systems of production. Like Berry, I believe the greatest change begins in the heart. From there, it grows organically not because it’s sexy, but because the solution works.
“One must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions,” Berry writes. And later, “I do not believe in the efficacy of big solutions … On the other hand, if the solution is small, obvious, simple, and cheap, then it may quickly and permanently solve the immediate problem and many others as well.”
Next time we are daunted by the vastness of the status quo, let’s remember one thing: