Wendell Berry was recently featured on Bill Moyer's public television show. Berry, for those who don't know, is a farmer and a long time critic of modern production agriculture. He is something of a hero in the "food movement." Indeed, Moyer's show is titled "Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet".
There is much that could be said about Berry's views (the show is embedded below). Berry seems like a nice grandfatherly sort of guy who would be fun to hang out with. But, I think some of his views and prescriptions for the future are misplaced. I'll pick just two examples.
First, Berry wants us - as a nation - to get back to the farm and to "resettle" America. Here are a few back-and forths:
BILL MOYERS: When you and I were born in 1934 there were almost seven million family farms in this country. There are now roughly around two million family farms and most of us are further away from the foundations of nature than we’ve ever been.
WENDELL BERRY: Well, there’s another tough problem. And so you have to look ahead a little bit. I don't like to talk about the future very much because it doesn’t exist, and we don’t know anything about it. But one thing we know right now is that people want to be healthy and to be healthy you have to have a diverse diet and diverse agriculture employs a lot more people than monoculture. So you imagine people moving out into the landscape because it will pay them to do it. It’ll be what we now vulgarly call job creation.
. . .
BILL MOYERS: Resettling of America means….?
WENDELL BERRY: It means putting people on the land enough people on the land to take proper care of it and pay them decently for doing it. The fact that we and our families know the history of people having to leave the country because they couldn’t make a living there, is the history of rural America. But that they left because they couldn’t make a living is an indictment of our land policies. The idea that you have to go somewhere else, that you have to leave a fertile country in order to make a living is preposterous and it’s a result of the wrong idea of what we mean by making a living in the first place. To make a living is not to make a killing, it’s to have enough.
So, people left the countryside because of bad "land policies", and we should now "resettle" America and somehow pay people to do the resettling??
Putting aside the fact that most of the productive farm land in the US is already privately owned (the US government owns huge swaths of land in the West that it leases for grazing) by someone (most of them family farms if you look at the USDA data), and that farmers have been relatively profitable in the past decade, I think this take is a bad reading on history.
People left the countryside because they found more profitable opportunities in town, and this transition is largely a positive development. Technological development, to be sure, played a big role in the reduction of labor in agriculture, but so too did new opportunities off the farm.
The Harvard economics professor, Edward Glaeser, has written a book about the benefits of cities, cultural, economic, environmental, and otherwise, and he argues that the government has actually unduly subsidized rural (or suburban) living relative to city living.
Take a look at a country like China. As that country develops, hordes of citizens are trying to get out of the countryside and find factory jobs in town. One of the biggest problems for the Chinese government's restrictive migration policies is keeping those people on the farms (or in trying to "manage" the transition).
So, it can't be "our" land policies - because the rural to urban migration has happened in virtually every developed country, and it is unclear to me why or how we'd want to pay people to move back out to rural America.
All this is coming from a guy who grew up in a town of 300 people, and who had to drive 15-20 miles to get to a grocery store. There are some joys of small-town rural living, but I hardly think it is something many (perhaps most) Americans would enjoy. By all means, if people want to move out and run farm, go for it! But, why should taxpayers subsidize this activity?
A second, smaller observataion.
Berry makes a big deal about "monoculture" and the value of diversity of diet:
WENDELL BERRY: But one thing we know right now is that people want to be healthy and to be healthy you have to have a diverse diet and diverse agriculture employs a lot more people than monoculture.
But, there has never been a time in world history when citizens have had access to a more diverse diet than we do now. Here is how I put it in the Food Police:
A person who restricts their diet to only those things grown locally is one restricting diversity in their diet – especially in the winter. Walk in almost any supermarket in almost any town in America almost any time of year, and the diversity and abundance of fruits and vegetables is absolutely astounding. Vidalia onions from Georgia, oranges from Florida, Californian lettuce, sweet corn from Iowa, mangos, bananas, and jalapenos from south of the border. If you live in the right location, you might have access to such a cornucopia a few weeks or months out of the year but Wal-Mart offers it to us every day. Fifty to a hundred years ago, the available transportation and storage technologies required people to eat a lot more local food. Yet, despite weighting a bit less, people weren’t healthier then. One reason, among many, is that our great grandparents lacked the diversity of diets that we enjoy by eating food from places that come from beyond our backyard.