Dr. David Newquist and Wendell Berry both meditate on the industrial hollowing out of America’s agricultural land and soul. I do both men injustice with mere excerpts and encourage you to read their full texts side by side. Newquist sees Brown County devolving from lively and livable landscape to a dull factory exclusive of all but business:
I like wandering the countryside. Once as a farm editor for a newspaper, I got paid to do it as I covered agricultural meetings, interviewed people for stories, and observed first-hand what was taking place in rural America. With my commutes to and from Tacoma Park, there Is the aspect of getting acquainted with the neighborhood, learning the people and the animals who populate land I travel through. In recent years, I hardly ever see people or farm animals. The industrial rural landscape does not include them. And I see much less wildlife, except for deer dashing across the road between bean and corn fields. The wetlands are plowed over and filled in so I see no water fowl where there once were ponds. The rural landscape has changed. The pasture land on which cattle, sheep, and horses grazed has been converted to cropland for corn and beans, and a little hay. The only hogs near Tacoma Park are in an incorporated complex of confinement buildings that shield the animals from observation. Their presence is evident only in the powerful smell that emanates from the place on muggy days. (Once one of my Tacoma Park neighbors who invited some foreign exchange students for a Fourth-of-July wiener roast had to cancel and move the event to their home in town because the odor was so repulsive and overpowering.) [David Newquist, “Where Did All the Cattle Go?” Northern Valley Beacon, 2015.10.23]
Newquist is seeing the disappearance of what Kentucky poet-theologian-writer-farmer Berry recognizes as a good farm:
Modern Farmer: How can you tell a good farm? Wendell Berry: The looks of it are satisfying. A good farm is recognized as good partly by its beauty: the presence of trees, grass, good livestock on the pastures. If you go up into Holmes County, Ohio, where the Amish are thriving on farms of 80 to 125 acres, you would be impressed by the flowers in the dooryards, the beautifully kept kitchen gardens, the lawns, the birdhouses, the beehives [Corby Kummer, “Last Word with Farmer-Author Wendell Berry,” Modern Farmer, 2015.10.20].
Newquist says that by moving away from the diverse farm and specializing to suit the contract system of Big Ag, farmers gained convenience and leisure but surrendered independence:
The focus on a few crops and a livestock speciality freed up time, but at the same time relinquished self-sufficiency and integrated farms into the corporate economy. Those farmers who continued more general operations with multiple crops and livestock found it necessary to gear their operations with food processors to market their products and receive a sufficient financial return. As farming became more closely enmeshed with the corporations who bought and used its products and supplied planting and harvesting materials and machines, farming became less and less operated for independence and self-sufficiency and more dependent on corporations to supply farming needs and sell farming output. The term family farm names a concept of the sentimental past, not the actual agribusiness of the present [Newquist, 2015.10.23].
Berry says farmers ought to be holistic stewards, not cogs in a machine::
MF: What is a modern farmer today? WB: An industrial farmer. We need to say that the countryside is suffering from want of caretakers. Farming at its best was diversified and very well done. The people who did that work here are dead or gone and their children are gone. They’re being replaced by huge machines and toxic chemicals. Industrial farming leads away from and against what Aldo Leopold called the “land community.” MF: What should a modern farmer be instead? WB: A farmer who has understood the dependence of agriculture on nature. The responsible farmer would not own more land than he or she could know well and pay close attention to and care for properly. Farming has to do with everything. We can’t reduce it to a transaction between a technician and a machine [link added; Kummer, 2015.10.20].
Berry and Newquist get me thinking about the political commentary offered by a third éminence grise of my thoughtosphere, Stan Adelstein, who contends that South Dakota is cheating its children by undervaluing and undertaxing agricultural land. Adelstein says we could find tens of millions more dollars to fund education by taxing just the 17.3 million acres of leased agricultural land (leased—i.e., not owner-occupied, not lived on and thus inevitably not tended with the same stewardly care of Berry’s agrarian ideal, but merely a patch of earth wholly commoditized) at the same rate as residential property.
I wonder if we could synthesize Newquist’s, Berry’s, and Adelstein’s thinking into property tax reform. Berry suggests the amount of land a farmer can really know, the kind of farm that would support the integral diversity Newquist says has disappeared from Brown County, is likely no more than 200 acres. Perhaps we should allow our 31,700 farms to enjoy the current reduced property tax rate (Adelstein calls it a subsidy) on their first 200 acres. Beyond that, a farm becomes an industrial complex, not the ideal family farm supposedly favored by our current property tax code. Tax those remaining industrial acres (almost 37 million) like any other factory, and watch the money roll in to pay agriculture teachers and every other teacher a competitive wage.
And maybe see a few more ambitious young people enter farming and bring some of those cattle, sheep, and horses back to small, lively farms along Dr. Newquist’s drive to Tacoma Park.