Farmland Without Farmers
As industrial agriculture replaces men with machines, the American landscape loses its stewards, and the culture they built.
The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.
This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.
To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables. The need for the right eyes-to-acres ratio appears nonetheless to have the force of law.
We can suppose that the eyes-to-acres ratio is approximately correct when a place is thriving in human use and care. The sign of its thriving would be the evident good health and diversity, not just of its crops and livestock but also of its population of native and noncommercial creatures, including the community of creatures living in the soil. Equally indicative and necessary would be the signs of a thriving local and locally adapted human economy.
The great and characteristic problem of industrial agriculture is that it does not distinguish one place from another. In effect, it blinds its practitioners to where they are. It cannot, by definition, be adapted to local ecosystems, topographies, soils, economies, problems, and needs.
The sightlessness and thoughtlessness of the imposition of the corn-and-bean industry upon the sloping or rolling countryside hereabouts is made vividly objectionable to me by my memory of the remarkably careful farming that was commonly practiced in these central Kentucky counties in the 1940s and 50s—though, even then, amid much regardlessness and damage. The best farming here was highly diversified in both plants and animals. Its basis was understood to be grass and grazing animals; cattle, sheep, hogs, and, during the 40s, the workstock, all were pastured. Grain crops typically were raised to be fed; the farmers would say, “The grain raised here must walk off.” And so in any year only a small fraction of the land would be plowed. The commercial economy of the farms was augmented and supported by the elaborate subsistence economies of the households. “I may be sold out or run out,” the farmers would say, “but I’ll not be starved out.”
My brother recently reminded me how carefully our father thought about the nature of our home countryside. He had witnessed the ultimate futility—the high costs to both farmer and farm—of raising corn for cash during the hard times of the 1920s and 30s. He concluded, rightly, that the crop that could be raised most profitably in the long run was grass. That was because we did not have large acreages that could safely be used for growing grain, but our land was aboundingly productive of grass, which moreover it produced more cheaply than any other crop. And the grass sod, which was perennial, covered and preserved the soil the year round.
A further indication of the quality of the farming here in the 40s and 50s is that the Soil Conservation Service was more successful during those years than it would or could be again in the promotion of plowing and terracing on the contour to control soil erosion. Those measures at that time were permitted by the right scale of the farming and of the equipment then in use. Anybody familiar with topographic maps will know that contour lines remain strictly horizontal over the irregularities of the land’s surfaces; crop rows cannot be regularly spaced. This variability presents no significant problem to a farmer using one- or two-row equipment in relatively small lands or fields. And so for a while contour farming became an established practice on many farms, and to good effect. It was defeated primarily by the enlargement of fields and the introduction of larger equipment. Eventually, many farmers simply ignored their terraces, plowing over them, the planted rows sometimes running straight downhill. Earlier, a good many farmers had taken readily to the idea of soil conservation. A farmer in a neighboring county said, “I want the water to walk off my land, not run.” But beyond a certain scale, the farming begins to conform to the demands of the machines, not to the nature of the land.
Within three paragraphs I have twice quoted farmers who used “walk” as an approving figure of speech: Grain leaving a farm hereabouts should walk off; and the rainwater fallen upon a farm should walk, not run. This is not merely a coincidence. The gait most congenial to agrarian thought and sensibility is walking. It is the gait best suited to paying attention, most conservative of land and equipment, and most permissive of stopping to look or think. Machines, companies, and politicians “run.” Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk.
Farms that are highly diversified and rightly scaled tend, by their character and structure, toward conservation of the land, the human community, and the local economy. Such farms are both work places and homes to the families who inhabit them and who are intimately involved in the daily life of land and household. Without such involvement, farmers cease to be country people and become in effect city people, industrial workers and consumers, living in the country.
I have spoken so far of the decline of country work, but the decline of country pleasures is at least equally significant. If the people who live and work in the country don’t also enjoy the country, a valuable and necessary part of life is missing. And for families on farms of a size permitting them to be intimately lived on and from, the economic life of the place is itself the primary country pleasure. As one would expect, not every day or every job can be a pleasure, but for farmers who love their livestock there is pleasure in watching the animals graze and in winter feeding. There is pleasure in the work of maintenance, the redemption of things worn or broken, that must go on almost continuously. There is pleasure in the growing, preserving, cooking, and eating of the good food that the family’s own land provides. But around this core of the life and work of the farm are clustered other pleasures, in their way also life-sustaining, and most of which are cheap or free.
I live in a country that would be accurately described as small-featured. There are no monumental land forms, no peaks or cliffs or high waterfalls, no wide or distant vistas. Though it is by nature a land of considerable beauty, there is little here that would attract vacationing wilderness lovers. It is blessed by a shortage of picturesque scenery and mineable minerals. The topography, except in the valley bottoms, is rolling or sloping. Along the sides of the valleys, the slopes are steep. It is divided by many hollows and streams, and it has always been at least partially wooded.
Because of the brokenness and diversity of the landscape, there was never until lately a clean separation here between the pursuits of farming and those of hunting and gathering. On many farms the agricultural income, including the homegrown and homemade subsistence of the households, would be supplemented by hunting or fishing or trapping or gathering provender from the woods and berry patches—perhaps by all of these. And beyond their economic contribution, these activities were forms of pleasure. Many farmers kept hounds or bird dogs. The gear and skills of hunting and fishing belonged to ordinary daily and seasonal life. More ordinary was the walking (or riding or driving) and looking that kept people aware of the condition of the ground, the crops, the pastures, and the livestock, of the state of things in the house yard and the garden, in the woods, and along the sides of the streams.
My own community, centered upon the small village of Port Royal, is along the Kentucky River and in the watersheds of local tributaries. Its old life, before the industrialization of much of the farmland and the urbanization of the people, was under the influence of the river, as other country communities of that time were under the influence of the railroads. In the neighborhood of Port Royal practically every man and boy, some girls and women too, fished from time to time in the Kentucky River. Some of the men fished “all the time” or “way too much.” Until about a generation ago, there was some commercial fishing. And I can remember when hardly a summer day would pass when from the house where eventually I would live you could not hear the shouts of boys swimming in the river, often flying out into the water from the end of a swinging rope. I remember when I was one of them. My mother, whose native place this was, loved her girlhood memories of swimming parties and picnics at the river. In hot weather she and her friends would walk the mile from Port Royal down to the river for a cooling swim, and then would make the hot walk back up the hill to town.
Now the last of the habituated fishermen of the local waters are now dead. They have been replaced by fishermen using expensive “bassboats,” almost as fast as automobiles, whose sport is less describable as fishing than as using equipment. In the last year only one man, comparatively a newcomer, has come to the old landing where I live to fish with trotlines—and, because of the lack of competition, he has caught several outsize catfish. Some local people, and a good many outsiders, hunt turkeys and deer. There is still a fair amount of squirrel hunting. The bobwhite, the legendary gamebird of this region, is almost extinct here, and the bird hunters with them. A rare few still hunt with hounds.
Most remarkable is the disappearance of nearly all children and teenagers, from the countryside, and in general from the out-of-doors. The technologies of large-scale industrial agriculture are too complicated and too dangerous to allow the participation of children. For most families around here, the time is long gone when children learned to do farmwork by playing at it, and then taking part in it, in the company of their parents. It seems that most children now don’t play much in their house yards, let alone in the woods and along the creeks. Many now descend from their school buses at the ends of lanes and driveways to be carried the rest of the way to their houses in parental automobiles. Most teenagers apparently divide their out-of-school time between indoor entertainment and travel in motor vehicles. The big boys no longer fish or swim or hunt or camp out. Or work. The town boys, who used to hire themselves out for seasonal or part-time work on the farms, no longer find such work available, or they don’t wish to do the work that is available.
Local people who regularly hunted or fished or foraged or walked or played in the local countryside served the local economy and stewardship as inspectors, rememberers, and storytellers. They gave their own kind of service to the eyes-to-acres ratio. Now most of those people are gone or absent, along with most of the farming people who used to be at work here.
With them have gone the local stories and songs. When people begin to replace stories from local memory with stories from television screens, another vital part of life is lost. I have my own memories of the survival in a small rural community of its own stories. By telling and retelling those stories, people told themselves who they were, where they were, and what they had done. They thus maintained in ordinary conversation their own living history. And I have from my neighbor, John Harrod, a thorough student of Kentucky’s traditional fiddle music, his testimony that every rural community once heard, sang, and danced to at least a few tunes that were uniquely its own. What is the economic value of stories and songs? What is the economic value of the lived and living life of a community? My argument here is directed by my belief that the art and the life of settled rural communities are critical to our life-supporting economy. But their value is incalculable. It can only be acknowledged and respected, and our present economy is incapable, and cannot on its own terms be made capable, of such acknowledgement and respect.
Meanwhile, the farmlands and woodlands of this neighborhood are being hurt worse and faster by bad farming and bad logging than at any other time in my memory. The signs of this abuse are often visible even from the roads, but nobody is looking. Or to people who are looking, but seeing from no perspective of memory or knowledge, the country simply looks “normal.” Outsiders who come visiting almost always speak of it as “beautiful.” But along this river, the Kentucky, which I have known all my life, and have lived beside for half a century, there is a large and regrettable recent change, clearly apparent to me, and to me indicative of changes in water quality, but perfectly invisible to nearly everybody else.
* * *
I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.
The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.
This may seem astonishing. At least, for a while, it astonished me. I thought that in a state in which water pollution is a permanent issue, people interested in water quality surely would be alert to the disappearance of a prominent member of the riparian community of a major river. But finally I saw that such ignorance is more understandable than I had thought. A generation or so ago, when fishing and the condition of the river were primary topics of conversation in Port Royal, the disappearance of the willows certainly would have been noticed. Fishermen used to tie their trotlines to the willows.
That time is past, and I was seeking local knowledge from conservationists and experts and expert conservationists. But most conservationists, like most people now, are city people. They “escape” their urban circumstances and preoccupations by going on vacations. They thus go into the countryside only occasionally, and their vacations are unlikely to take them into the economic landscapes. They want to go to parks, wilderness areas, or other famous “destinations.” Government and university scientists often have economic concerns or responsibilities, and some of them do venture into farmland or working forests or onto streams and rivers that are not “wild.” But it seems they are not likely to have a particular or personal or long-term interest in such places, or to go back to them repeatedly and often over a long time, or to maintain an economic or recreational connection to them. Such scientists affect the eyes-to-acres ratio probably less than the industrial farmers.
Among the many conservationists I have encountered in my home state, the most competent witness by far is Barth Johnson, a retired game warden who is a dedicated trapper, hunter, and fisherman, as he has been all his life. Barth has devoted much of his life to conservation. Like most conservationists, he is informed about issues and problems. Unlike most, he is exceptionally alert to what is happening in the actual countryside that needs to be conserved. This is because he is connected to the fields and woods and waters he knows by bonds of economy and pleasure, both at once. Moreover, he has lived for thirty years in the same place at the lower end of the Licking River. This greatly increases the value of his knowledge, for he can speak of changes over time. People who stay put and remain attentive know that the countryside changes, as it must, and for better or worse.
He tells a story about Harris Creek, a small stream along which he had trapped for many years. It was richly productive, and Barth was careful never to ask too much of it. But in 2007, confident that it would be as it always had been, he went there with his traps and discovered that the stream was dead. He could not find a live minnow or crawfish. There were no animal tracks. So far as he could tell, there could be only one reason for this: In the spring of that year, the bottomland along the creek had been herbicided to kill the grass in preparation for a seeding of alfalfa. In 2008, the stream was still dead. In 2009, there was “a little coon activity.” Finally, in 2013, the stream was “close to normal.”
I have also learned from Barth that upstream as far as he has looked, to a point two and a half miles above the small town of Boston, the black willows are gone from the Licking River. And in October 2013, he wrote me that the river had turned a brownish “brine” color that he had never seen before.
What happened to the willows? Two young biologists at Northern Kentucky University are now at work on the question, and perhaps they will find the answer. But other scientists have led me to consider the possibility that such questions will not be answered. It may be extremely difficult or impossible to attach a specific effect to a specific cause in a large volume of flowing water.
What killed Harris Creek? Barth’s evidence is “anecdotal,” without scientifically respectable proof. I have read scientific papers establishing that the herbicide glyphosate and its “degradation products” are present in high concentrations in some Mississippi River tributaries, but the papers say nothing about the effects. I have called up scientists working on water quality, including one of the authors of one of the papers on glyphosate. What about the effects? Good question. Nobody knows the answer. It seems that the research projects and the researchers are widely scattered, making such work somewhat incoherent. And besides, there is always the difficulty of pinning a specific cause to a specific effect. To two of these completely friendly and obliging people I told Barth’s story of Harris Creek: Does that surprise you? One said it did not surprise him. The other said it was possible but unlikely that the stream was killed by an herbicide. Was an insecticide also involved?
What caused the strange discoloration of the Licking River? Since the discoloration was visible until obscured by mud in the water when the river rose, I suppose that, if it happens again, the odd color could be traced upstream to a source. Will somebody do that? I don’t know. Is any scientist from any official body monitoring the chemical runoff from croplands and other likely sources? I have been asking that question too, and so far I have asked nobody who could answer.
In my search for answers, it may be that I have been making a characteristic modern mistake of relying on experts, which has revealed a characteristic modern failure: Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know. Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.
Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these. Science as it now predominantly is, by definition and on its own terms, does not make itself accountable for unintended effects. The intended effect of chemical nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is to grow corn, whereas its known effect on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophic accident. Moreover, science of this kind is invariably limited and controlled by the corporations that pay for it.
We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.