Monday, January 07, 2008


The Agrarian Challenge of the Twenty-first Century

My wife Geeta and I attended a conference at Duke Divinity School, “Our Daily Bread” in October, which essentially outlined the worldview of what I call the New Agrarians, a way of life much closer to traditional agriculture as practiced prior to the massive industrial build-up of the second world war and its aftermath. The keynote speaker was Norman Wirzba, who brilliantly highlighted the substantial biblical underpinnings of an agrarian way of life and an ethic that included the land as well as how we should treat each other. But the highlight for us was the extended conversation between Wendell Berry and his old buddy Wes Jackson. I have long been an admirer of Wendell Berry, whose critique of industrial agriculture, The Unsettling of America, many consider to be the best American book of the late twentieth century. Wendell is a literary man as well as a Kentucky tobacco farmer who farmed with mules. We had heard him before, and admire his poetry and essays. I consider him to be the guardian of the American soul.

But the real delight for me was hearing and meeting Wes, Wendell’s foil. Thought they are both farmers, Wes is a man of science, a soil agronomist, even drier than Wendell. For this audience of mostly ministerial graduates, his pastoral plea was for an understanding of the basic science of ecology. He posed the key problem that framed the conference by showing the graph of bacteria consuming sugar in a petri dish and of humanity consuming petroleum in our petri dish, the earth. They were essentially the same. He pointed out that once the sugar was consumed, the population of bacteria plunged, and posed the question: Are we, who consider ourselves a unique species, made in the Creator’s image and capable of profound spiritual growth, really any different from those bacteria?

Beyond his ability as a dialectical teacher, Wes Jackson is the most revolutionary soil agronomist since the beginning of settled agriculture. At his Land Institute in Salina Kansas, he is working with a team of scientists and students to hybridize species of perennial grains, crossing, backcrossing, and re-crossing native prairie grasses with a variety of annual food grains If his team is able to accomplish this, then Wes Jackson will have re-invented agriculture. Seventy per cent of our calories are provided by food grains. He has been at it for 22 years, and has already been given a MacArthur Prize for his efforts.

The key to his approach, like any good ecologist involved in providing human sustenance, is to mimic the local ecosystem as much as possible. With their keep roots, the mixed prairie grasses are able to efficiently utilize the sparse annual water of the Prairie. And by cultivating perennial plants, Wes avoids the gross disturbance created by annual plowing, which releases a lot of CO2. The best soils in the world have been sacrificed in the Great Plains, dedicated since the late nineteenth century to producing annual wheat (as well as soybeans, beetroot, and sunflower seeds). Along with this waste of topsoil, the region’s industrial farmers have systematically extracted fossil water reserves as they drew down the world’s biggest Paleolithic aquifer, the Oglalla Aquifer.

I have just finished Wes Jackson’s book, Becoming Native to this Place. In this 1994 work, he outlines an agrarian revolution in the short amount of time left before the system starts to collapse. Our way of life in North America would shift from an extractive economy to one that lives on current sunlight. Jackson’s forebears in Kansas accomplished this by hunting buffalo, even though the bison, and the short grasses form which they created their calories, was an “import” via the buffaloes’ wanderings. His vision for a new agrarian economy is to repopulate the ghost towns of the Prairie with young families who farm sustainably with as little machinery as possible and provide their household energy through solar panels. He says, laughing, that he will need one hundred years for hybridizing the perennial grains (no gene-splicing here, with unforeseen results, but the careful crossing long practiced by plant husbandists).

But no-till is fast becoming a watchword among farmers of many regions, including the upper Midwest, where we lived in economic exile for a decade. So maybe post petroleum, post corporate farmers can hang on until Wes’s descendants at the Land Institute have accomplished their goal. Having been there, I understand both the importance of wheat fields to our economy and physical well-being, and I have seen many ghost towns, sober reminders of the perils of living off the land in a money economy where agribusiness rules. One of my colleagues at Moorhead State was totally depressed by going to her fortieth high school reunion, a little town in western North Dakota, and finding that out of a class of 9, she was the only one who had “made it.” Most (including her) had divorced, and four – farmers and smalltown businessmen - had suicided.

The vision of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, backed by the neo-agrarian theology of Norman Wirzba (see his Essential Agrarian Reader), is both heartening and challenging. My question is, can we still make the transition in a meaningful way to a sustainable agrarian future? What sacrifices and compromises will be necessary? What kinds of perennial agriculture might emerge in other bioregions, and is there anybody out there working on it? What happens to the “surplus population” in a post-industrial era without artificially pumped-up yields?

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