Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wendell Berry's Pipe Dreams



Earlier this Spring, Wendell Berry, the poet, writer, cultural critic and farmer, spoke at George Washington University, about four blocks from my office. You can see a portion of his presentation in the video, above.

Berry has made a small name for himself as a professional mourner for rural America, and as a confirmed Luddite who embraces a kind of romantic pastoralism.

To his credit, Berry notes that there is a certain dissonance to his presence, and indeed his very existence.

"I flew up here, to tell you, among other things .... that if I was going to get here guilt free, I would have had to walk.

This is paradox we are all caught in, and it ought to give us an appropriate sense of complexity.

[pause] ... Seems to me that for 35 or 40 years, I have been flying about all over the country to tell people, in effect, that they ought be be staying home.

[pause] ... That's a hard nut to crack."


Of course, he does not even try to crack it. And why should he?

After all, his stock in trade is not solving the world's social and economic problems, but bemoaning the way things are even as he paints a gauzy and pastel-tinted picture of the way things used to be.

I am not trying to break Wendell Berry's rice bowl here. He is a very good writer. I just wonder whether Berry gets his groceries delivered from town as Thoreau did? I do not know, but I would not be too surprised. After all, it's much easier to talk about living a simple life than it is to actually get off the grid and live a fully self-sustaining existence without benefit of trans-continental (and even international) commerce.

I do know that Berry bemoans the fact that his little town of Port Royal has gone from 18 stores to just 3.

I sympathize. If making a rural living was so great, more people would be doing it.

Now, to be clear, I am not begrudging Berry his airline flights.

Nor am I begrudging him his suit (which he did not make) or his shoes (which he did not make).

What I am going to call Wendell Berry out on is something else: his use of a manual typewriter.

Now, I do not care how Berry writes. He can scrawl on the wall with a crayon if he wants. He is a very good writer, and however he wants to work is more than fine with me.

What I object to is Berry's idea that he is virtuous because he uses an old manual typewriter rather than a computer.

His reasoning? He says he does not want to use electricity for fear of giving support to coal mining, and:

"when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of a computer with a more respectful tone of voice,
though I still will not buy one."


Right. Got it. Don't bother Berry with the facts. He is a poet bent on rhetorical flourishes. He will do what he wants to -- which of course is his right.

That said, I would point out that Dante did not write with a typewriter.

Dante did not use a machine made of metal and plastic, assembled in a factory sweat shop.

Dante wrote with a quill pen on vellum that was skinned from sheep that were probably slaughtered less than 50 miles from where he lived.

Berry, on the other hand, has spent 40 years flying about the country telling us to not do what he does.

His books are printed on bleached pulp wood paper that is the very definition of modern industrialism.

In the video, seen above, the lights, the video recorder, and the microphone are all powered by electricity. So too was the loom that wove his suit, and the machine that sewed his shirt.

So too, might I add, is the computer on which you are reading this little missive, and upon which I type at this very minute.

Berry thinks he is more virtuous than you and I because he pounds away on a typewriter.

Could he be simply more ignorant?

You see, I have read Mr. Berry's work, and while it is very beautifully written, I think it would be greatly improved if it was leavened a little bit by something other than romantic philosophy. A few facts. A little data. Some history. Maybe a smattering of real-world economics.

For example, in the poem that Mr. Berry reads in the video above, he moans that "the forests are ruined and the fields are eroded and the streams polluted."

Now, I do not want to quibble, but if Mr. Berry did some research, he would know we have more forests in America today than we did 50 years ago, and we have less soil erosion, and we have cleaner rivers, streams and lakes.

It was not modern farmers that made the Dust Bowl, or modern loggers that clear-cut Appalachia.

In modern America, we have fewer sewer outfalls than we did 50 years ago, and a lot more secondary and tertiary water filtration systems.

Does Mr. Berry not know this?

There is nothing wrong with beautiful words, but at some point it all becomes a little too close to aromatherapy: a nice smell to have wafting through the room, but pretty far from the kind of medicine we really need if we are well and truly sick.

And Mr. Berry thinks we are a very sick nation.

I am not so sure. I will profess agnosticism on the point, and let his thesis stand.

Nor am I quibbling with all that Berry has to say -- far from it.

Mr. Berry decries the fact that the world is moving too fast.

I salute that notion. I believe it was Mahatma Ghandi who observed there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Mr. Berry says we need to cultivate community and personal relationships more.

I do not disagree. One does not need to send money around the globe to engage in charity or good works.

Mr. Berry decries the decline of rural agriculture, and celebrates a return to the kind of rustic agricultural life that existed 50, 70 or even 100 years ago.

It is here where Mr. Berry and I part company.

You see, we no longer live in an age of schooners and candles. When Mr. Berry was born, in 1934, the population of the world was 2 billion. Today, the population of the world is 6.8 billion.

When Mr. Berry was born, the population of the U.S was 122 million. Today it is 310 million and growing rapidly.

Just as Mr. Berry cannot afford to come to Washington, D.C. by walking, so too can the nation no longer afford to plow its fields with horses.

The complete history of the world in 15 seconds.


As for electricity, I am not sure what Mr. Berry is afraid of. Surely he knows he does not need to make his electricity from coal? We have solar cells, windmills, generators that run on home-brewed bio-diesel, min-hydro sets powered by small streams, methane converters, and bicycle-powered generators, all commercially available off-the-rack, and easier to find than a typewriter repair shop.

You mean to tell me that in reading all of those copies of Mother Earth News, Wendell Berry never figured out how to make electricity without an electrical cord plugged into a coal-fired utility grid? Then he sure wasn't trying too hard!

But let's come back to that computer.

You seem, I am not pro-computer, I am anti-ignorance. I am pro-substance.

I do not mind poetic words, but they should be wrapped around something more than a vague yearning for a simpler time, and a beautiful whine that the world is not as it once was.

Yes, the world has real problems. It always has. Sadly, Mr. Berry (like Henry David Thoreau before him) does not seem to have real answers.

Take the issue of population growth.

Bill McKibben, who introduces Berry in the short video clip, above, wrote a book called Maybe Just One.

McKibben gets it: the natural world is not committing suicide, we are killing it.

And we are not killing the natural world because we are malevolent: we are killing it because there are too damn many of us.

So what does Wendell Berry have to say about human population growth?

Not a thing so far as I can see.

Well, that's not quite true is it? No, instead, he gives us more poetry and failed philosophy.

He tells us that there used to be a "natural" method of family planning called abstinence and self-restraint.

Really? Fascinating. You see, I am a demographer by training, and what I know for a fact is that the "natural" method of population growth has never been abstinence and self-restraint -- it has been fantastic and depressing rates of childhood mortality. That is how we really controlled population from the dawn of time until very recently. Surely Mr. Berry knows this?

And, at the risk of being being seen as mean-spirited, let me note that Mr. Berry's own family does not seem to have practiced too much "self-restraint" at the time of his birth. You see, Mr. Berry is the first of four children.

Four children!

Four children is a higher fertility rate than that of Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Burundi, Cambodia, South Africa, Honduras, India, Nicaragua, Mexico, Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, China, or Indonesia today.

What would the world be like if everyone had four children, and human population doubled every 25 years ad infinitum?

If we only keep score from the year of Mr Berry's birth, we would have nearly 16 billion people on earth today, rather than 6.8 billion.

The simple truth is that there is no amount of simple living that Mr. Berry can do to save the amount of resources that might have been saved if his parents had stopped at just one or two.

Which is not to say I am blaming Mr. Berry for his parent's inability to practice self-restraint.

I am simply pointing out that population and family planning choices matter a lot more than whether you grow a few organic tomatoes in your back yard.

Of course, when it comes to farming, things get really interesting with Mr. Berry and his own rural economy.

You see, Mr. Berry has become a kind of touchstone for the "eat local and eat organic" crowd.

Having read Michael Pollan, they see exported corn and soybeans as evil, and the local farmer's markets (if one can be found that is actually selling locally-grown produce rather than repackaged stuff from Florida and California) as nirvana.

The little joker buried in the deck here, however is that Mr. Berry's own farm is not a vegetable farm.

Mr. Berry's farm grows corn (that evil weed) and other grains, as well as tobacco (cough, cough).

In fact, tobacco has been the touchstone of the Berry household -- the cash crop that made everything else work, not only on his farm, but in his larger farming community which he now so eloquently bemoans the decline of.

Why did Berry and his neighbors grow tobacco? Simple: You could make a lot of money by plowing just a few acres of poor soil.

Never mind that tobacco bled the land white.

Never mind that tobacco killed 400,000 to 500,000 Americans a year -- more Americans than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.

And how come the Berry farm no longer grows tobacco today?

It is not because Berry "got religion." Wendell Berry himself explains his home-farm economics:

This is tobacco country. We've lost two-thirds of the allotment in the last few years, courtesy of the global economy. Not the anti-smoking people. This is traditionally a mixed farming country. Tobacco was the staple crop, but we also grew corn and small grains. The small grains were grown as cover crops on the tobacco and corn ground.... Tobacco acreages have declined here because the companies can fill their needs more cheaply elsewhere. The other products we grow are thrown into the world market to compete as best they can. With the help of subsidies, of course. In Kentucky we have always raised for export. One of this state's problems is that it hasn't added value to its agricultural products. I would say we are adding less now than ever. Louisville used to have two or three packing plants, for instance, and a stockyard. But no more. Most of the things that are produced in this state are shipped out, to have the value added elsewhere.


Right.

Berry's complaint is that foreign tobacco is killing Americans, not American tobacco.

He does not voice an objection to tobacco deaths, or the $96 billion a year we spend on smoking-related health care costs. He objects to the fact now we import death rather than grown it in local fields.

Wendell Berry's daughter, Mary Smith-Berry, is also a farmer, living just up the road from her father. In an interview she explains the economics of her region, and her creative solution for the modern era. As the article notes:

The land in Kentucky is rolling - beautiful, but much of it marginal for agriculture. For many generations, farmers relied on tobacco as their cash crop.

"Tobacco, for all its other problems, was a decent crop for a family to raise and make a fair price," Smith said. But the federal tobacco buyout program of 2005, which ended years of subsidies, made growing tobacco unprofitable for many.

Smith said the buyout had unintended consequences. Although tobacco had rarely been the only crop on a Kentucky farm, without the tobacco base, it is hard to keep farms as farms. The farm across from the Smiths' has been subdivided, and more neighboring land might be.....

.... Then, on a trip to California, Chuck Smith happened to ask a vineyard and winery owner how many acres of grapes he had. He was expecting to hear 300 to 400 acres; the answer was eight.

"Chuck said to me, 'That's tobacco,'" Smith said. "It's a way to make a living on a small area of crop."

So the couple is now proprietor of Smith-Berry Vineyard and Winery, which is open to the public five days a week.


I am glad Mary Smith-Berry and her husband have found a way to make a living on their farm courtesy of Internet-driven tourism.

Boutique wineries with musical groups to draw in the crowds are a thriving small-farm business in the hill country of my own native Virginia as well.

But let's not kid ourselves that this is "essential" agriculture any more than tobacco was, or marijuana is.

This is entertainment agriculture for well-heeled yuppies who burn thousands of gallons of gasoline driving out to sit on the grass listening to music at weekend wine tastings.

This is a nicety for rich people, not a necessity for our tables.

Tobacco, booze and marijuana have never made us stronger as a nation -- they have made us stupider, sicker, and less productive.

They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

You want to know the solution?

Less ignorance and more knowledge.

And you know the cheapest way to get that?

Buy a computer, plug it in, and Google away. You can even read, listen to, or watch a little Wendell Berry if you want!


15 comments:

retrieverman said...

I come from actual subsistence farming stock. They lived too far into the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia to ever be tobacco growers. My maternal grandfather raised some for his own use.

Instead, they worked all year on growing corn to feed the pigs and cattle, and then using what ground was left to plant vegetables for the table.

And even with that, it was a very hard life.

Subsistence farming has always been romanticized in this country. It goes all the way back to Jefferson and John Randolph of Roanoke ("I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.")

Lots of doey-eyed liberals and Romantics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worshiped agriculture.

The truth is it's very hard work to farm in most places in the US, and if you find a good piece of farmland, it's most likely to expensive to buy.

The farm where I live was once owned by a family who farmed it as a subsistence farm. The original owner worked a well-tender for the oil (and then gas) company, but most of what he and his wife ate was from that farm. It would be wonderful if we all could do that, but in this world, most people don't know how to farm, don't understand the soil, don't realize how much work it is, and won't be able to afford the land.

In the 1970's, we had tons of people who came to my part of West Virginia who wanted to live like Helen and Scott Nearing. The old farmers tried to tell them that they would have a hard time making it, considering the land was often poor and their agricultural skills were often lacking. Many of these people were very well-educated, and sometimes education prevents people from paying attention to those who actually know better.

Within ten years, most had already returned home. Those that remained got financial support from their parents and their trust funds (as you mention Thoreau doing. BTW, everyone talks about "Civil Disobedience" as a great essay, but most people don't know that his aunt actually paid his taxes, which was why he was released from jail.)

Others figured out that they could use their education to make a living and make this part of West Virginia a better place. I am glad some of them did, because some of my best teachers were former "back to landers."

Christopher Johnson said...

Interesting. I've read a fair amount of Mr. Berry's work and didn't sense that he was rigidly outlining a way of life for every person. I have always understood that he intends to lay out some concepts for readers to take and use as applicable. He is open with the complexities of application and has suggested that we simply do what we understand to do and can do in a practical way. In other words, I don't think he expects for everyone to live exactly as he does.

Or maybe that's simply my way of processing the message.

Matt Mullenix said...

Alright Patrick, you win.

PBurns said...

We're not fighting or arguing Matt -- we're stumbling forward asking questions and looking for answers. There is a place for poetry in the world. I LOVE the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, for example. But after memorizing the poem, I then wonder how many illegal aliens are coming in? And how many legal immigrants? And how many children are they having? And whose jobs are they taking? And what is the impact on wages, working conditions and housing and schools?

When you mate LITERACY (the poetry of life) with NUMERACY (the numbing numbers of life), you hope to get decent POLICY. Wendell gives us the poetry, which is great, but it is only half the equation and far from policy.

P

PBurns said...

Retrieverman, I LOVE the Thoreau and taxes bit. He owed six years of back taxes as I recall. A priceless story that his Aunt bailed him out. "Independent thanks to Mom's credit card." I think I have heard that before ;)

P

Sallie said...

Interesting that you quote an article that Berry wrote in 1987 to make a point.

I think you may need to read some more recent essays...or even just more of his essays. He does not direct everyone to become a farmer, but he does point out that there is a huge cultural lack of respect for farmers in this country, and also that it is dangerous to rely soley on imports for our most important commodity - food.

I think one of Berry's bigger points in all of his writing it that he does NOT have all the answers (see Way of Ignorance for example), but that he is rightly worried about the problems that most people chose to be oblivious to.

PBurns said...

.
Sallie did you actually read this post? You see, I start off with a video of Berry speaking in March of THIS year, riding an airplane to DC, and reading a poem fresh off his typewriter in which he says "the forests are ruined and the fields are eroded and the streams polluted." Yet, as I note, that is demonstrably NOT TRUE. We have more trees and cleaner water than we did 50 years ago. This post then ends with the wine tastings going on RIGHT NOW at Berry's daughters boutique winery for Kentucky and Ohio yuppies. Did you not go to the link and read the wine party schedules? And I really have to wonder at your age. Is 1987 a long time ago for you? Really? How old are you?

You say I should read more Berry. How about you do that for me and report out? School me. Tell me where Berry has changed his mind ahout the evils of international trade or even trans-continental commerce? Where has he talked about problems associated with U.S. population growth or international population growth? Where has he admitted we cannot bring in hand-harvested crops without illegal aliens and that illegal aliens are population growth that comes with too great an environmental burden? Where has Berry praised the efficiencies of modern lumber mills which do not waste a shred of the tree? Where has Berry given a discourse on what kind of energy he would prefer to use when he flies from Kentucky to Washington? Where has Berry said he regrets his family's 50-year complicity in the poisoning of the American people and land with tobacco? Where has Berry talked about the problems of pasturing horses for 310 million people? School me -- show me where Berry has given data and shown he has read a book or offered a REAL solution to real problems real people really face. Ever.

You say Berry says there is a huge lack of cultural respect for farmers in this country. Bullshit. The only one with disrespect for farmers is (ironically) Wendell Berry. He looks down his nose at the man who drives an airconditioned harvester and planter, who works a modern dairy herd, and who has GPS sensors in his fields to tell him where water and fertilizer need to be applied in the right amount. Berry sneers at farming in America today. Instead, he praises GARDENING. Gardening is when you shit in a composting toilet and stir in your eggshells and coffee grounds and spread it on your 20-foot row of carrots in the back yard. FARMING is when you take the dried sewage sludge of a city and spread it out on 4,000 acres of fields in order to help feed the city. America is not going to be fed by gardening; it is going to be fed by farmers.

Your thesis, if I understand it, is that if I simply milk this old goat a little longer, then lemonade will come shooting out of its udders. But I am tired and my hands are chapped. You are clearly young and talented and enthusiastic, and have read more Wendell Berry than I have. Perhaps you could type out a few specific citations to Wendell Berry doing anything more than talking vaguely about how lazy people are, and how small rural communities are great because he says they are? Perhaps I have missed his long essay where he explains why his farm's land is still as marginal today as it was when he settled it? Perhaps I am unaware of the change of crops that has miraculously occurred on his farm in the last few years. I doubt it, but I am eager to learn. Show me. School me. But please, do not tell me to read more Wendell Berry. It's your turn to milk that goat. I am all ears and ready to be schooled, but you will have to do the reading.

As for food independence, read Michael Pollan. You see, like it or not, we mostly eat corn and soy and potatoes and wheat in this country, and we EXPORT huge amounts of all of these crops. We are MORE than food independent in this nation. But does Berry tell you that? Please let me know the page!

Patrick

5:12 AM

Ryanaldo said...

"Modern" farming did cause the Great Dust Bowl. Plowing the hell out of the place did cause the great dust bowl.

There is a difference between subsistence agriculture and slightly smaller scale commercial agriculture. Thoreau did not have his groceries delivered by a transcontinental railroad or airliner.

Modern grain production is heavily subsidized so that American entrepeneurs can become billionaire or immensely rich fast food chain operators. Grain subsidies ultimately subsidize the beef, pork, and chicken industries.

PBurns said...

Ryanaldo, the plow originated in Sumeria. It is not modern agriculture -- is IS agriculture. This is basic.

What happend to the Dust Bowl? I love asking this question to kids. It's like asking them why the Japanese bombed Peal Harbor and McArthur legalized abortion in Japan. Blank looks. Absolutely no knowledge.

Here's the story about the end of the Dust Bowl: We planted winter cover crops. We put in wind breaks. We discovered contour plowing. The drought broke and we discovered fossil water (the Ogallala Aquifer). In short, modern farming stopped the Dust Bowl, which was created by the kind of romantic small-farm people and communities that Wendell Berry idealizes. Today the Great Plains is the Bread Basket of the world. There is no Dust Bowl.

Again, this is basic.

I have no idea what the second line means. Perhaps you can illuminate us a bit more? Do you mean New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston, and Kansas City can feed itself from roadside farm stands? Really? You believe that? I guess you have never had too much dirt under your finger nails! Have you ever done 30 straight days of hard labor in a 95 degree field? Most people who are not illegal aliens have not. There is a reason American agriculture is mechanized -- it's because we free'd the slaves.

As for your last line, it sounds like you have a problem with chicken, beef and pork (and grain production too). Great. Don't eat chicken, beef, pork ... or grain. Vote with your fork. I am all for that. Now, how do you feel about Wendell Berry's tobacco subsidies? How do you feel about housing subsidies (i.e. mortgage deductions). How do you feel about road subsidies? Public transportation subsidies? In fact, do you even know what a subsidy is? A subsidy is (to be simple) a tax policy created to encourage something. We subsidize things we would like more of, or that we think have a social benefit, or (in the worse situations like tobacco) where politicians have been slipped a lot of payola. What part of people eating do you object to? It sounds like you object to quite a lot of it! I do not get fast food very often myself (nor do I eat much meat), but I do not begrudge the people that do. They can vote with their forks same as you. Or do you object to that? McDonald's does not care what it sells. It will sell whatever kind of food people will buy. Is that a new thought? Think it through, and you will see it too is an elemental truth.

P.

PBurns said...

Ryanaldo, you write that "Thoreau did not have his groceries delivered by a transcontinental railroad or airliner."

Well actually, of a sort, he did.

While at Walden, Thoreau's main food stuff was rice and his main sweeteners were molasses and sugar, all grown oveseas and almost certainly the product of slave labor and movement by railroad and ship. Thoreau also had pork delivered, as well as apples (dried and fresh) and lard, flour, and sweet potatoes. The only thing Thoreau grew himself were beans, due to the poor soil of the area. Thoreau ate out quite a bit with friends as well. In short, Thoreau was just like Wendell Berry -- his nose firmly up the ass of the international food and commerce chain (airplanes, suits, groceries and international and domestic slavery), and producing little from the land, while swaddling himself in a cloth of virtue woven himself from pure poetry and rheumy rhetoric.

Fun reading, to be sure, but the reality classhes pretty hard with the philosophical fantasy of it all.

P.

saturnine said...

At the risk of providing your ire another target, I would like to understand something.

You seem to have great disdain for tobacco farmers for "poisoning the American people". I don't quite understand this perceived hatred for the substance & it seems to be contradictory to your attitude about fast food - another commodity people love to vehemently condemn. First of all, we must separate cigarettes from other forms of tobacco that are processed naturally & not meant for inhalation. Are the tobacco farmers to blame for the toxic chemicals cigarette manufacturers put into their product?

Certainly seventy years ago before smokers really knew the damage they were doing to their bodies by inhaling cigarette smoke, you could level this argument on anyone associated with producing cigarettes (though common sense should tell us that breathing in anything that is on fire is not good for us). However, anyone who is currently smoking is most certainly aware of the risks involved with the activity & have no one to blame for their health problems but themselves. Please tell me you are not calling for the outlawing of tobacco as it seems is the zeitgeist of our modern society. It is a product that there is a demand for, just as fast food is - which you stated you have no problem with for the same reasons. Nevermind the healthcare costs of obesity related problems that are also increasing our insurance premiums.

Your enlightenment of my naiveté without the vitriol would be most appreciated.

PBurns said...

.

Pretty simple.

There is a proper human consumption of food.

There is no proper human consumption of tobacco.

To make an analogy: I am a supporter of the Second Amendment because there is a proper use for both long guns and hand guns.

I am opposed to an *unrestricted* Second Amendment, as there is no proper civilian use for carrying a bazooka through a civilian airport.

Nicotine follows the same legal and logic structure -- a principle Congress recently affirmed.

Nicotine is an insecticide, and it should be regulated as such.

Since we do not allow the licensing of insecticides in food or pills or ready-made one-shot home-hypodermic sets, we should not allow the delivery of insecticides in cigerettes.

Cigarettes, cigars, etc. are simple nicotine delivery systems, no different than a syringe is for heroin.

If you want to go out and buy nicotine insecticide and drink it, shoot it up, or huff it, you are free to do so, same as paint thinner, gasoline, glue, or a good all-purpose rodenticide. All of these products have legal uses, and they are not banned as a condequence. That said, the sale of these products IS banned under the FDA and is *regulated* as a poison or carcinogen under the EPA.

That is what is going to happen to tobacco, and it's about time.

As for farmers who grow tobacco, they are people who are making a CHOICE to profit from human addiction, misery and death. Their actions, in that sense, are no different than those of a drug dealer who sells crack, or a car manufacturer that green-lights the production of a car with faulty brakes. There is no moral ambiguity here.

P.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Fantastic piece.

I have a good friend who has become addicted to this folksy nonsense about working the land. I say addicted because the thinking involved is essentially a salve not a solution. Mourning 'simple' by the fire with a guitar is a lot easier than dull grind of creating a meaningful alternative.

Regards
SBW

PS remind me not to piss you off - you cussed him good.

Rocambole said...

Patrick, I completely agree with you that Wendell Berry has some issues and should be looked at critcially (I sent you my famous book review where I got trashed by collegues for doing just that!).

Here in PA, I have the option to buy electricity from 100% renewable sources which may cost a little more, but to help the industry get going in PA, I think it's worth the investment. If such an option isn't available in KY, there are MANY people who could help him get "off the grid" for his electrical needs.

However, Patrick, as one who has been invovled in community gardening for nearly 20 years, I have to gentlely remark (because I do respect you) that I think you're looking at local agriculture/"farming in general" in "all or nothing" or "black and white" terms.

I think there's a place for most forms of agriculture -- I don't do grains because you need at least 200 plants for good seed set -- large mechanized acreage is best for that. However, I also know folks who make a good income from growing strawberries USING HORSES on small acerage. And most of my community gardeners can feed themselves most of the year -- and the local food bank in the summer because we have the right conditions for small-scale agriculture and we know what we're doing.

When it comes to feeding the hungry, it all helps. It's not "big farms or nothing." It's "what crop and what conditions" -- conditions being ecomomic (are you close to a market for your crop) AND enjoyment (if you've got small acreage and you're animal-oriented, rather than mechanial, horses/mules/oxen may be a better answer) as well as the agronomic requirements of your crop.

I joke that "agriculture is an addiction" but it's really not that much of a joke. Yeah, we need big farms for grains. But the small folks -- small-scale ag, urban ag and even -- GARDENING have a place in the wider food security picture.

As humans, some of us just plain like plants and animals and are willing to work in the hot sun to bring in the crops. Soceity should be encouraging our "addiction" (and I would say that the backyard chicken movement is an encourging sign here in the US) because "part-time" is NOT equal to "no time." It may not be the whole solution, but it does help. And, I would maintain, that it adds joy to people's lives, just like some people like to spend their time in fields with dogs, chasing groundhogs (but not killing them enough to suit my tastes! ;-D).

Will the adjudicated youth I teach become big farmers that export soybeans to China? Probably not. But after spending the month eating fresh blackberries from our bushes at the end of a work session, SOME of them will bug their grandmothers to put a blackberry bush in the backyard -- or when they become adults, they will remember the blackberries and what I told them about growing them and put them in their backyards for their own children (or to impress their girlfriends) -- and the entire families' nutrition will go up as a result.

It may be "partial", but I don't think it's worthless because it doesn't provide the entire families' nutritional needs. But it adds up. And that's worth something.

Oh and BTW, next time you update the blog, could you get one of those comment boxes that has a spell-checker? I know I blew all sorts of words in this post! ;-)

Dorene

PBurns said...

I COMPLETELY AGREE Dorene.

I am 100% for ALL gardens everywhere.

Gardens are good.

But gardens are not farms.

The issue is scale.

New York, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Reno, Dallas, Houston, etc. are not going to be fed by gardens. They are going to be fed by farms.

Do gardens help? Sure. Or at least most of them help (I will come back to this in a second).

But let's be honest that even if you have a garden, most of what you eat comes from a farm.
What comes out of most gardens are side dishes, not the main meal.

Why do I hedge about gardens always being good? Because it depends on how you garden. If you have good climate and good soil and engage in organic gardening with low inputs, it is very, very good.

But go to this little piece >>
http://www.boingboing.net/2009/07/22/geodesic-dome-solar.html and ask yourself what is going on here with a commercial greenhouse kit, plastic, electricity, treated timber, gravel, etc. Does what come out the other end -- a little endive, some very nice lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers -- justify the inputs? If this greenhouse is still producing 30 years from now, the answer might be yes. But will it be there even 10 years from now? I doubt it. The next residents of this house will tear this greenhouse down as an eyesore. But the plastic will still be there in a landfill somewhere.

In short, gardening is a nice hobby, and spiritually rewarding, but it is NOT how we are going to feed this nation, and it is not even how we feed our gardeners.

To say this does not mean you are against gardening. I am pro-gardening and I am pro-organic farming.

But unlike Wendell Berry, I am not kicking industrial farmers (i.e. farmers who actually produce most of the food we actually eat) in the soft parts.

To bring it back to the issue of population growth, let me phrase it this way: The Garden of Eden had no problem producing enough food for two.

That's gardening.

But in a world of 6.7 billion people, you will find that the Garden of Eden has been replaced by Eden Farms, a subsidiary of Eden Foods. If we want Eden Farms and Eden Foods to be organic, to produce their own energy, and to pay their workers well, we need to "vote with our fork" and make sure we only buy products that are produced that way. But we are not going back to 2 people and the Garden of Eden. Eden Farms stays, and Eden Foods stays, and as population grows so too will be the pressure to increase production. When land and labor become too expensive, the food will be shipped long distances and/or mechanized, or both.

P.