The 50-Year Farm Bill

The author of a landmark 1991 Atlantic piece on sustainability looks at American agriculture's current land "emergency" and how to solve it.

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(John Sommers II/Reuters)

The uplands of my home country in north central Kentucky are sloping and easily eroded, dependent for safekeeping upon year-round cover of perennial plants. Their best agricultural use is for the production of grazing animals, with most of the land in pastures and hayfields, and perhaps 5 to 10 percent plowed and row-cropped in any year. This was the practice of the best farmers of that country 50 or 60 years ago.

The land husbandry there, as elsewhere, has been in decline since the end of World War II, as agriculture has become more and more industrial, and more and more of the farming people have taken urban jobs or moved away.

But recently and almost suddenly, as ethanol production has driven up the price of grain, our fragile uplands have been invaded by corn and soybeans. Whole farms, with sloping fields that have been in grass as long as I can remember, have been herbicided and planted to annual crops that, because of the drastic reduction of the number of farmers, will not be protected in winter by full-sown cover crops.

This is agriculture determined entirely by the market, and limited only by the capacities of machines and chemicals. The entirely predictable ruination of land and people is the result of degenerate science and the collapse of local farming cultures.

Industrial agriculture characteristically proceeds by single solutions to single problems: If you want the most money from your land this year, grow the crops for which the market price is highest. Though the ground is sloping, kill the standing vegetation and use a no-till planter. For weed control, plant an herbicide-resistant crop variety and use more herbicide.

But even officially approved industrial technologies do not alter reality. The supposed soil saving of no-till farming applies to annual crops during the growing season, but the weather continues through the fall and winter and early spring. Rain continues. Snow falls. The ground freezes and thaws. A dead sod or dead weeds or the dead residue of annual crops is not an adequate ground cover. If this usage continues year after year on sloping land, and especially following soybeans, the soil will erode; it will do so increasingly. And this will be erosion of ground already poisoned with herbicides and other chemicals. Moreover, even with the use of no-till and minimum-till technologies, an estimated half of the applied nitrogen fertilizer runs off into the Mississippi River and finally the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Thus an enormous economic loss to farmers becomes an enormous ecological loss as well.

The industrial providers of single solutions assume that the agricultural structure of a country, a region, or a farm can be built piecemeal of disparate single parts -- parts that do not necessarily, or even probably, fit the other parts of the farm or local ecosystem, and yet will ultimately resolve into a coherent, sensible, even sustainable pattern determined by the disposition of the market. This obviously is nonsense.

A good or a sustainable farm cannot be made in this way. Its parts, even its industrial parts, can be made coherent and lasting only in obedience to the natural laws that order and sustain the local forest or prairie ecosystem. This obedience is not just an option. It is a necessity. By ignoring it, we have condemned our land to continuous waste and pollution, and our cultures of husbandry to extinction.

You can't run a landscape, any more than you can run your life, indefinitely in a state of emergency.

If we hope to correct the consequent disorder, which is both human and natural, we have to begin by recognizing the fundamental incompatibility between industrial systems and natural systems, machines and creatures.

This recognition is not new. The problem was closely studied and made clear by such reputable people as J. Russell Smith, Albert Howard, and Also Leopold, whose publications were available, and were ignored, in the mid-20th century, when the all-out industrialization of farming got underway.

I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture -- not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable.

Presented by

Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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