Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Authentic Agriculture

Today we refer to what the giant monoculture farmers do as agriculture. This is actually a misnomer. What the vast majority of farmers do today is in actuality agribusiness. This is an important and essential distinction. This is the dividing line between those who support the work of the Catholic Land Movement and the Distributist ideal, and those who support the modern Capitalist/Socialist system and the industrialized farming model. We have to go to the roots of these two words to understand their distinction.

"Agri" - means in its original context, the cultivation of the soil. It gives no hint as to how or why this is done, but tells us that it is done.

"Culture" - All of those activities, customs and traditions, religious, political, social, aesthetic, and otherwise that make up the life of a civilization.

"Business" - The buying and/or selling of goods for the purpose of making a profit.

It is here that we see the essential difference between agriculture and agribusiness. Agriculture is a way of cultivating the soil that builds up the life of the family and thus society. This rural existence provides "the ideal nursery for family life." as Pope Piux XII once stated. Thus this building up of strong families builds up strong societies.  Agribusiness is the cultivation of the soil for the purpose of making a profit. This way of working the land often destroys culture and even the land cultivated. The purpose is to make as much money as possible so that any possible means are used in the production of goods. In our own day this has led to genetic manipulation of crops, wide-scale destruction of productive farmland, the use of an abundance of poisons on fields, and an over reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers. Not the least is the fact that along with this constant seeking after profit has come the astounding decrease in family farms. Diversification has ceased, because it is more "profitable" to mono-crop. This tendency towards the monopolization of farmland for the sake of profit can only be stopped by those families willing to build up an authentic agriculture.

The agriculture that every great civilization is built upon is an agriculture that supports the life of the family. The constant contact with nature provides the natural revelation upon which can be built the divine revelation of Jesus Christ. The work of the homestead provides real meaning and purpose to parents and children. Women have an authentic economic role in the life of the family as they fulfill their roles on the farm. Children are given meaningful tasks with real consequences. When Johnny drops the basket of eggs, the family has none for breakfast. The constant rhythm of the seasons builds on the constant rhythm of the liturgical year. The family, being free from constraints of a "city job" are free to truly celebrate the feasts of Holy Mother Church. This is agriculture in its authentic understanding. This is a way of cultivating the soil that cultivates the soul as well. When business is a sort of accident rather than the purpose of farming, then we will begin to build upon an authentic agrarianism. At that point strong families will be built up into strong communities, and these in turn will be the building blocks for a restoration of Christendom.



Tantumblogo said...

We own a 440 acre farm in north central Kansas. It has been in our family since it was homesteaded in 1877. I find your analysis interesting, but extremely simplistic and rather separated from reality. You refer to modern farming techniques in harsh terms, and describe a relentless, rapacious pursuit of profit that is quite distant from the farmers I know. Quite simply put, a 440 acre farm, of which 360 acres is broken out, is not sufficient to maintain all but a very impoverished existence. For a family farm to be sufficient to provide for the needs of the family at this time, 1000 acres or more is necessary. We had a really good year on our farm, and yet we netted only about $20,000 after expenses for fuel, fertilizer (without which 60 bu/acre wheat is impossible), herbicide, etc. Most years, $10-15k would be a typical net. Kind of hard to raise a family on that. So I don't see alot of rapacious profiteering in Phillips County, Kansas. Most families have to have a wife that works in town as a teacher or whatever, for the extra, regular income and more importantly for the benefits like health insurance, etc.

My paternal grandparents were the last folks to live on the farm and have it as their prime, sole source fo income. I have the great blessing of having my grandfather's diaries, which he kept, ah.....religiously. He kept detailed records of everything he did on the farm, from ducking and one-waying the fields to how much he planted where, and of course harvest results. I can say unequivocally that modern farming techniques have doubled to tripled the average yield of a given plot of land over the last 50 years. These techniques include widespread use of the fertilizers and herbicides decried in your post. So called "genetically modified" crops, which used to be called cross-breeding, have yielded grains which are greatly superior to those of 50 years ago. Whereas a good year in the mid 50s might yield 30-35 bu/acre of wheat, nowdays that's more like 50-70, depending on the rain. In some places we've gotten 80-90 on our land, and I know up in Idaho where they can irrigate, they get 100-140 bu/acre all the time. The same applies to all cereals.

Yes, there are corporate farms that have unappealing aspects (except, perhaps, when many readers go to the store and get their produce or other products for a lower price because of the efficiencies of this kind of farming). I'm not a big fan of corporate farming, and I hate to see the family farms go bust. I hate to see the Great Plains emptying out (although, with grain prices where they are today, that process may stop, or even reverse). But I also have grave doubts regarding this "distributist" or any other utopian model. Such schemes can either only exist as leeches on the broader economy, or tend to cause devastation when implemented on a wide scale by force (the same reason I'm opposed to all forms of socialism). Every time I can recall one of these utopian models being implemented, such as the "back to the land" Catholics of late 19th century England, the results have not been very good. Call me a running dog capitalist lackey neo-Catholic if you want, but I see alot of pie in the sky in this post, alot of gross generalization, and a fair amount of unwarranted hostility.

May God bless you.

Kevin Ford said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts. Now I know that you may think I am so dreamer city kid who read some books about farming and thinks He knows something. In reality I am one of those small farmers raising his family on the land on income made from the selling of our crops. I know it may seem pie in the sky to you, but I am eating that pie and it is delicious. I farm 3 acres, Yes! 3 acres! and I make a living off of it. I believe I will make more than $20,000 this year profit, not gross. Yes that is more than $6500/year/acre. Not too bad. Of course all the farmers think I'm crazy. They say it can't be done. I grew up in the heart of Wheat country (Kingman County, KS) and I am back here. I know how much it costs to apply all those fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. I know how much those tractors, combines, etc. cost and how much they cost to keep fuel in. Yes, I will agree that modern farming techniques have increased yields, but these yields aren't making much of a profit. I know a local farmer here who does wheat organically with the use of manure and such. His current wheat yield is better than any time when he was farming conventionally. You are complaining about me being autopian dreamer, and then telling me that you can't make a living on a farm. Now I know organic wheat won't always go for 4x that of conventional, but it does now. Wheat can have undersown covercrops and a cover crop sown after harvest and before planting thus increasing humus and fertility. There are examples of diversified small farms all across the country making a good living. Yes, it is hard work, but tolerable. I am home with my family, and my wife is home as well, not out teaching.

I will accept that most farmers are not rapacious profiteers. (There are a few here.) Now in reality they are just trying to support their families. Does this modern system of farming support families on the land? I can tell you it does not. I know a whole lot of 50+ men out here with one child, or none. They couldn't afford to have children.... Thus this isn't really agriculture in its authentic sense. It is basically agribusiness because it does not support culture. Without strong families there is no culture.

Now with regards to genetic modification and cross-breeding: These are not the same thing. A raspberry and blackberry can cross to become a boysenberry. I can cross my brandywine and Eva Purple Ball tomato to produce a large pink beefsteak. This is all natural. Show me where in nature my corn will cross with an herbicide, or where my tomato will cross with a flounder. Both of these have happened unnaturally in a laboratory. It is a process that really isn't very well understood yet, and certainly untested. More and more research is showing that this process might actually be quite dangerous for the health of our entire ecosystem. See:

This is really concerning and ought to be enough to put the whole GMO project on hold. I don't care if it produces more or not (evidence is actually showing it doesn't, especially with plant stress situations) but it certainly is not worth endangering human lives.

Now, last I will give one last thought. Grain farming is much more difficult on a small scale. I grow vegetables, and even the big companies mostly harvest them by hand. I require little equipment an machinery. Thus very low overhead. I think though that the Amish do show that 80 acres of wheat, oats, corn, etc. can be profitable. Most of the Amish have chosen a meager existence, but actually are living quite well. A minimal use of certain technologies along with organic and less costly farming methods has given them a way to farm profitably. Now, I know most don't want to live like them, but I do think that farming like them may be an option, especially if oil prices continue to rise over the long run. Once again thank you for your time and response,

Pax Christi,
Kevin Ford

Rich said...

Maybe I don't fully understand what you are trying to say, but first you state,

"...Agribusiness is the cultivation of the soil for the purpose of making a profit. This way of working the land often destroys culture and even the land cultivated..."

Then, in your comment above you state,

"...I farm 3 acres, Yes! 3 acres! and I make a living off of it. I believe I will make more than $20,000 this year profit, not gross. Yes that is more than $6500/year/acre. Not too bad..."

You justify your farming techniques by telling us how much you plan to profit with no mention of how this might impact your family life, while condemning other forms of farming as being solely profit driven with no regard for family or community.

How is the profit you are making different from the profit someone that isn't an authentic farmer might make?

Kevin Ford said...

Dear Rich,

I hope you will take the time to come back and see my response. My point in my article was not to condemn making a profit off of the land. You and I both have to make at least some money to support ourselves and other who depend upon us. We hope to maintain more than an impoverished existence. My point in this was not to say you're not allowed to make a profit. Rather, my focus in farming is not merely profit motivated. It is a motivation, but not the motivation. Now on to my point. If large-scale agriculture is unable to truly support a family with many children then it is no longer truly agriculture. It is not a cultivation of the soil that builds up culture because it is a cultivation of the soil that tends towards smaller families and fewer children. I decided to farm for the sake of my family. I wanted a way of life where I could be home, (something most all farmers share). I also though wanted a way of farming that would support a large family rather than discourage. Small-scale made sense. The children become partners in work later on. Secondly I wanted an agricultural model that practiced good stewardship of the land. Now I believe many farmers are working towards this with no-till and such. However, the immense use of Roundup and other herbicides is doing immense harm to the micro-organism in the soil, thus stunting much of the good that no-till could potentially bring. In my own operation I try to be a good steward through cover crops, compost, etc. It is not easy. It would be easy to buy a couple bags of veg. fertilizer at the co-op, but I believe that God wants me to farm naturally. Third, I wanted a farming method that was sustainable. In my life I have seen dozens of the medium/large farmers go under. I have no doubt you have seen the same. I also see the bigger farmers still buying them up. As long as we have cheap oil then this isn't a problem, but when oil goes up then we see the 70's farm crisis, but this time it will be much worse.

To put it briefly
1 Family Oriented
2. Stewardship of the land
3. Sustainability.

Yes, I still need to make a profit, but that isn't the sole reason I farm. Large Scale farming often doesn't fit any of these 3 categories. In reality, it often doesn't break even, and this is even more true if you took out insurance payments and government subsidies. I'm not trying to knock the hard working farmers that I live, work, and pray with. They are doing what they've always done. My article was simply about whether this modern way of farming truly supports a Catholic culture.

Pax Christi,

OS Gamer Dad said...

My favorite post yet! Thank you for the inspiration.

Devin Rose said...

I think Tantumblogo shows the sad state of trying to do conventional farming for a living: work hard on a ton of acres and eke out what you'd get from a minimum wage paying job.

At that rate, sell the 440 acres for $2,000 per acre, then invest in gov't bonds at 5% and you'd double your income.

Or do what Kevin is doing and change the paradigm and go small-scale, high value.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate what your wife and you are doing Kevin with the CLM! It is inspiring to visit blogs like yours! I think a small farm is the way to go. My husband and I are trying to simplify our lives and live closer to God and the land. It is key for our children and the culture. As you know this is a challenge in our culture. God's will be done!

Rich said...

I readily admit that I don't understand much about Distributionism, but Devin Rose's comment puzzles me when he commented,

" hard on a ton of acres and eke out what you'd get from a minimum wage paying job...sell the 440 acres for $2,000 per acre, then invest in gov't bonds at 5% and you'd double your income..."

Isn't the amount of time spent earning that money also important? Working a few weeks a year to earn $20,000 must be better for the family than working 2000 hours a year at a minimum wage job to earn that same $20,000.

Why would you want to sell land (which has a true value) for some paper and the promise of more paper in the future? Wouldn't the family and community be better served by living off the production of that land (in whatever form it took, big or small) instead of trading it for some money? How sustainable is living off the interest of deposited money?

Devin Rose said...


My comment was half-facetious. Why work so many hundreds of acres for a pittance? Sure, if you make that much from "just a few weeks work" then that's something I suppose, but why wouldn't we want to work the land as appropriate year-round? And is the way we make that money improving the land or increasing its salinity and eroding it?

From Tanumblogo's comment, it doesn't seem like he's getting much joy or reward from his 440 acres, so why not sell it and make more money off the interest, taking the rest of the money to do something else (new job, new house, whatever)?

The absurdity is that a 440 acre farm, in our modern agribusiness usage, can only maintain an "impoverished existence." That is what points to there being something fundamentally wrong with agriculture today.

Zeb said...

This was a great article, though I think Tantumblogo made your point even better than you did Kevin. Those who do try to support their families through conventional agriculture usually end up being little more than sharecroppers. They are still farming for corporate profit, it's just that all the profit is going to the input makers, the commodity sellers, and the banks. My dad came from a family dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania where his three brothers stayed single and struggled to support just themselves until finally they couldn't afford the taxes and now have to sell out. Luckily for them suburban development has driven up the price of land so much that they will come away millionaires, but the farm and family life is lost. On the other hand I now manage a cooperative or Amish organic produce growers, and they're supporting families of 10 or more on 30-60 acres. They all grow spelt as a cover crop and last year we found a miller to make flour out of it and now we can pay them $0.50 a pound for raw spelt and sell the finished product at farm markets. Farming, including grain farming, is possible on a family scale and it can be both economically and ecologically sustainable.

Tantumblogo said...

I have no idea what you're growing on your land to make $20k profit off of 3 acres. Netting $6500 an acre is not something I've ever heard of before, outside of growing illegal substances. When I told my dad about your claims, he asked if you were growing pot. That's not a shot, I just don't see alot of evidence for that kind of performance in my somewhat limited experience.

I saw reference to onions in another post. Perhaps it's a boutique item. But if tens or hundreds of thousands tried to market boutique items, the market would collapse. So, again, if you're able to make a fairly good living with a speciality item, that's great, but I don't know how applicable it would be for the 3 million other farmers in the country.

Modern farming has gotten what I would call somewhat lazy. Farmers today would rather spray the fields onece or twice a season to kill weeds rather than work them with the tractor every week or two. But then again, with fuel being so high, maybe they have to do it that way. I tend not to judge the largely honest efforts of those who are doing what they feel is best. When our farm got started, manure was all they had to fertilize with, and they were lucky to make 10-15 bushels an acre. My grandfather rejoiced over the incredible improvements that mechanization and chemical additives yielded. He started off combining wheat with a team of 20+ horses. I've got a picture of him doing just that. But when the self-propelled combines came out, they didn't just fall for a sales pitch and start using them, they watched, they waited, they saw the results, and then they made the investment. Same deal with fertilizer. They didn't dump the old method just because they felt like it, they switched (and saw great improvements in yield) because it made sense to do so.

Having said that, I don't know why farmers today need such massive tractors that cost $100k. 400 acres can be farmed by an open cab tractor with 55 hp just as well as it can be with a 200 hp with radio, GPS, and air conditioning. Combines are even more ridiculous.

Don't know much what else to say. I don't see it. I've perused your blog, you seem very serious and definitely well intentioned, but I surmise you've carved out a narrow niche that isn't widely applicable. That's just my impression.

I pray it all keeps working out for you and more Catholics can live in the manner you describe. I'd live up there but there isn't a TLM for hundreds of miles, to my knowledge. Oh, I also pray for alot more rain, up there and down here (Texas).

Sorry for my grouchy initial comment.

God bless you.