January 11, 2006

The Essential Agrarian Reader

If I had enough money, there would be a copy of The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community and the Land showing up in the postbox of everyone I know within the week. But I'm living on student loans at present, so all I can do is ask that if you only add one book to your reading list this year, you make it this one. Around 50% of the world's land and a minimum of 20% of fossil fuel usage is tied up in food production. There is no more important quality of life issue facing the world community as a whole than the question of where our food comes from and how it gets to us.

The Reader is an accessible collection of essays on the economics of farming, the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of the current market system, the nature of the public interest and what agrarian consciousness means, which sounds obscure but isn't. A basic definition of the agrarian concern could perhaps be summed up as follows:

Everybody has to eat and that food comes from land that needs to be passed on intact to future generations so they can eat.

See? Simple.

What this means for food suppliers (farmers, distributors and retailers) and food consumers (Everybody: see above.) is an awareness of how their behavior affects the rest of the chain and a sense of personal responsibility towards their impact on the planet. A Ramen packet, Dorito chip or pre-breaded chicken tender might not look like something that started on a farm, but it really did. It might not look like something that required perhaps several times its weight in fossil fuel to grow and eventually get to your market, but that's the way it goes these days. And I bet you never looked at the bread aisle and wondered how many bushels of soil blew away for each bushel of wheat represented there, but it was probably a losing proposition for the farm.

Meaningful political reform is glacial, but informed citizen and consumer demand may provide a way out. Two of fifteen essays focus on tying the desire for livable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods to a preservation of community supported agriculture and the development of local consumer bases that keep small, neighborhood farms and businesses flourishing. In fact, as several essayists note, it will be impossible to resolve the serious issues facing agriculture without creating an informed, urban consumer base that knows where its food comes from and demands that it be produced sustainably.

In this, as in so many other issues, we are all in it together.

Notablest Quotes:

... Many adults, I'm convinced, believe that food comes from grocery stores. In Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow, a farmer coming to the failing end of his long economic struggle despaired alound, "I've wished sometimes that the sons of bitches would starve. And now I'm getting afraid they actually will." Like that farmer, I am frustrated with the imposed acrimony between producers and consumers of food, as if this were a conflict in which one could possibly choose sides. - Barbara Kingsolver

... Agricultural experts are now discovering that returns on chemically intensive farming are actually decreasing. Many factors contribute to this decrease, foremost among them the degradation of the soil base itself. Besides massive erosion rates (in some regions one bushel of crop is matched by two to five bushels of soil lost to erosion), the heavy application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has reduced fertile soils teeming with billions of microorganisms to zombie status.

... Industrial farming is heavily dependent on cheap fossil fuel, not only for farm power, but also for fertilizer/pesticide production, irrigation, and food transport (the average grocery store item travels thirteen hundred to fifteen hundred miles before it reches the shelf) and preparation. In some instances it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. - Norman Wirzba

If being an affluent society doesn't mean eating well, I can't imagine what it does mean. - Brian Donahue

... But the main reason agrarian life was often deperately impoverished was because farmers were being systematically robbed. American agrarian culture came largely ... from Europe, where our peasant ancestors saw close to half of their production directly expropriated by a protection racket run by feudal warlords. ... American agrarianism developed, by contrast, in a capitalist market economy - under which the crop is frequently worth less than what it costs to produce. This means (if I'm doing my math right) that 100 percent of farmers' production is being expropriated, along with some of their other wealth besides - usually income from another job, or the investment in land with which they started. Such agriculture is indeed an economic miracle, but not for farmers. - Brian Donahue

... Economists are very fond of the circular flow vision of the economy, inspired by the circulation of blood discovered by William Harvey in the early seventeenth century, emphasized by the Physiocrats, and reproduced in the first chapter of every economics textbook. Somehow the digestive tract has been less inspirational to economists than the circulatory system. An animal with a circulatory system, but no digestive tract, could it exist, would be a self-enclosed perpetual motion machine. Biologists do not believe in perpetual motion machines. Nor do ecologists, who understand that living beings cannot survive alone but exist from and through their memberships with other organisms and their sustaining habitats. Economists, however, seem dedicated to keeping an open mind on the subject. - Herman E. Daly

... One example of how such systems may change the fundamental parameters of agriculture in the future is the integrated duck/rice system, developed by Takao Furuno, a farmer in southern Japan. Instead of producing rice in a monoculture, dependent on fertilizers and pesticides to achieve acceptable yields, Mr. Furuno developed an elegant, complex, species-interdependent system that has increased his rice yields while producing a full range of other food products, without relying on any outside crop inputs. ... [R]ice yields in this system exceed the rice yields of industrial rice systems by 20 to 50 percent. This natural systems design makes Mr. Furuno's six-acre farm in Japan one of the most productive in the world. According to conversations he has had with modern monocrop rice growers in Texas, the gross income from Mr. Furuno's six-acre farm in Japan slightly exceeds the gross income of a typical six-hundred-acre rice farm in Texas. - Frederick Kirschenmann

... Planting multiple crops in a mixture will have low yields of individual crops, but will have high total output of food. The Mayan peasants in the Mexican state of Chiapas are characterized as unproductive because they produce only two tonnes of corn per acre. However, the overall food output is twenty tonnes per acre. ... Home gardens in Indonesia are estimated to provide more than 20 percent of household income and 40 percent of domestic food supplies. - Vandana Shiva

... Nearly 40 percent of the soils of the world are now seriously degraded. Globally, nearly one-thind of the land devoted to farming has been lost to erosion in the last forty years and continues to be lost at a rate of some 25 million acres per year. - Wes Jackson

Posted by natasha at January 11, 2006 02:29 PM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

It's always interesting to note that in the US, we prefer planting suburbs - which only provide air pollution, stormwater pollution, and aquifer depletion - to crops on the most prime of our land.

And in the Pacific NW, more acres of forest are lost each year to urban expansion than to erosion or logging old growth.

But that doesn't trouble anyone.

Posted by: Crissa at January 11, 2006 11:36 PM

Natasha - this looks like a wonderful book and one I'll put on my need to read list. Thanks for sharing the info with us.

Posted by: Mary at January 11, 2006 11:54 PM

feed them ...........

soylent green ..........

Posted by: degustibus at January 12, 2006 11:25 AM

I've only been getting my books from the free place on Vashon, but I'll definately have a look-see for it. Homegrown food rules even if, in my case, it is Republican cows.

Posted by: Carl Ballard at January 12, 2006 09:29 PM