The Trouble With Farmers

Where do they get off being so self-righteous?


in Archive


Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has gotten people all riled up about farmers again. The last time this happened was when the first Farm Aid concerts reminded America that we have strong feelings about the family farm and its economic viability. The new round of farmer feelings is more directly related to issues of trade and the impact of globalization. As Pollan writes:

“I’m thinking of the sense of security that comes from knowing your community, or country, can feed itself; the beauty of an agricultural landscape; the outlook and kinds of local knowledge the presence of farmers brings to a community; the satisfactions of buying food from a farmer you know rather than the supermarket; the locally inflected flavor of a raw-milk cheese or honey. All those things—all those pastoral values—free trade proposes to sacrifice in the name of efficiency and economic growth.”

My general feeling about farmers is that they can go fuck themselves. Perhaps this is strong. But farmers also come on strong in their own sort of farmer way. They take a homespun approach but they often wrap themselves up in a hell of a lot of self-righteousness. It all has to do with the land, I suppose, the importance and simplicity of the land. Americans love the simple even if we’ve been destroying it for generations. A few pithy sayings and we’re eating out of their hands. The farmers.

I, for one, am a city boy. Even when they tear down something great in New York City and build something new and stupid in its place I feel okay, even a little excited, because I think about how the new and stupid thing won’t last all that long either. The wrecking ball is indifferent as it swings and bashes season to season, a democracy of unreasonable reason and an obliterator of all things great and dumb. Sometimes I’m willing to give it all up just to keep going. I walk by the wounds of the city every day; a recently torn-down whatever-it-was, a gap in the otherwise toothy smile of some street or avenue, something lovely lost in the thoughtless march of necessity, which is usually just arbitrary. But I don’t mourn in these places for long. How can I? I hear something extraordinary in the tearing down and the building up that drowns out all these individual losses.

What do the farmers really believe, anyway? Have they found something real and timeless as they tarried out in the fields under a summer sun that bronzed their skin and baked their skulls just right? Don’t they know that the mute indifference of nature is as terrifying and empty as the noisy scrambling of the metropolis? Surely they know. They just don’t want to let on that it is all the same because it would lessen their one advantage to power in the universal will. The one play for the farmer, the one card up his sleeve, is in the mysterious promise that there is something more out there in the rows of growing things, in the peculiar rhythm of the hearth and the harvest. “We’ve got it right,” they are saying. But what they are really saying is, “We too will defend our ways, if for no other reason than that they are ours.” City dwellers are rarely so sure of ourselves. We don’t really know what our ways are and we keep changing them before we have the chance to decide. Somewhere, deep down, we realize that it is precisely that changeful not-knowing that we want to defend but we are seduced by the laconic self-assurance of farmer talk. Farmer poets like Wendell Berry exploit some strain of American yearning when they write poems with lines such as:

“Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.”

Indeed, there is a growing movement of just this sort of farmer talk. You can find it in books and magazines, on the radio, and on television talk shows. Charismatic figures like José Bové in France (who famously demolished a McDonald’s with his tractor and became a farmer cult hero), Carlos Petini of the Slow Food movement, and the numerous promoters of the organic and the natural give voice to the ongoing dissatisfactions with the modern world.

Farmer hero Joel Salatin, impresario of Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, says:

“As a teepee dwelling, herb healing, home educating, people loving, compost building retail farmer, I represent the real answers, but real answers must be eradicated by those who seek to build their power and fortunes on a lie — the lie being that genetic integrity can be maintained when corporate scientists begin splicing DNA. The lie that, as Charles Walters says, toxic rescue chemistry is better than a balanced biological bath. The lie that farms are disease-prone, unfriendly, inhumane places and should be zoned away from people.”

These are plodding thoughts at best. When I read them I think of Nietzsche and his abandonment of Wagner in the name of Bizet. Nietzsche said, “What is good is light; whatever is godly moves on tender feet.” The farmer crowd lumbers around on feet of clay. They make me want to spend a day with Andy Warhol drinking Coca-Cola and dreaming of a future when we’ll get all the sustenance we need from a small pill we swallow on the subway heading to a rendezvous with people beautiful and famous.

But then the dialectician in me starts whispering and I’m not as sure that the prophets of slowness are so wrong. Usually it’s because I’ve been reading one of E.B. White’s essays, sent out to the world from his haven up in Maine. Essays like “Coon Tree” vex me. There was as much humanity in the bones and fibers of Mr. White as in just about anybody you’re likely to meet anywhere. So his words aren’t the kind that can be dismissed. Sure he has his tricks. His honesty itself is a kind of literary maneuver. But it is a maneuver that works. His writings are so good and solid that they serve as their own justification. In “Coon Tree” White talks a bit about his wood burning stove. I myself have always liked wood burning stoves. After singing the stove’s praises for awhile, White says something that could just as easily have come from the mouth of Mr. Salatin or Mr. Berry: “Perhaps success in the future will depend partly on our ability to generate cheap power, but I think it will depend to a greater extent on our ability to resist a technological formula that is sterile: peas without pageantry, corn without coon, knowledge without wisdom, kitchens without a warm stove.” There is something undeniably ugly and stifling in kitchens without a warm stove. Despite myself, I have the yearning. I want to spend an evening with White and his wood burner. I hear him when he says:

“I don’t think I’m kidding myself about this stove… In a way, the stove is my greatest luxury. But I’m sure I’ve spent no more on it than many a man has spent on more frivolous or complex devices. A wood stove is like a small boat; it costs something to keep, but it satisfies a man’s dream life.”

At the same time, I don’t think Salatin or Berry or Pollan could write that paragraph. It’s a great paragraph because, of course, he is to some degree kidding himself about the stove. He is working himself up about the stove because he wants to like things like wood burning stoves, he wants to want to expend the extra work and effort it takes to run it and he wants to have the time to do the kind of cooking one does on a stove like that. The stove is a fantasy object for E.B. White, capable of satisfying a man’s dream life, as he puts it. And his acceptance of the fact that he simply opted for one fantasy over another was why he would still take that train from Bangor down to Grand Central Station every so often, and why he kept a running commentary on his rural fantasy until the very end. He was experimenting with an idea, testing the ground of our odd civilizational project in order to keep the options open. But he always knew that the game he was playing with rural life was also just that. He knew that he couldn’t live his fantasy life in Maine without the vast energies of New York City churning away down the coast. He was living his dream life for us as much as for himself. He satisfied his dream life in the tensions therein, in the discombobulating and productive incoherencies between Bangor and New York City. He was, in two words, having fun.

Many of today’s zealots of the land and the slow purity of the natural aren’t nearly as honest about their dream lives. They don’t portray themselves as offering up a fantasy riddled with laughable contradictions, yet compelling nonetheless. They don’t ever allow themselves to see it the other way and they never feel, or don’t admit to feeling, the uncanny desire pulling them onto a train bound for Grand Central Station.

When Joel Salatin was asked by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about how his approach to agriculture would apply to a place like New York City, his response was, “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” Well, we do have to have New York City. I can’t explain why in a sentence or even in a book. I shouldn’t have to.

Maybe it is best to let E.B. White speak. When considering a tree in Turtle Bay that represented to him both the resilience and fragility of New York City he thought, “‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree’. If it were to go, all would go—this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.” • 4 September 2007