Thursday, August 26, 2010

Agrarian philosophies and the Morrill Act

Almost a year ago, I traveled to the US to receive an award for a paper I'd written. I took advantage of this trip to visit my alma mater, the University of Illinois. I had long felt sort of ambivalent about my agricultural education there. At UIUC I had learned a lot about the technical side of farming, but it was a very industrial focus, and there was something missing that I couldn't put my finger on. As I prepared for my trip, I thought more and more about this, and I realized a few things about the problems in my country's and my university's approach to agriculture.

The main problem with the agriculture education at UIUC was the lack of farmers. It seems that the UIUC goal was to increase gross agricultural productivity, and not necessarily to improve life for farmers. We looked at agriculture in terms of plants, soils, insects, fungi, pollution, economics, international trade, but never in terms of the farmers. During my four years studying agriculture at U of I, I never talked to any farmers, never analyzed a real farm. Even when we talked about farming systems, or sustainability, it was always in terms of plants, soil, the ecosystem, and sometimes large-scale economics, but never about the viability of a given farm.

On my visit last year, one professor said that we never talked to farmers because many of the students had grown up on farms and already knew farmers, but he conceded that as more and more agronomy students were coming from non-farming backgrounds, it would perhaps be good to visit a farm or two. But that wasn't my point. I didn't want more contact with farmers because they're swell guys or because they're cuddly or cute or something, but because they are the pillar on which all agronomy rests. If I had studied zoology and never worked with a live animal in four years, or if I had studied medicine without ever seeing a patient, I would have the same complaint, even if I'd had experience with these things before college. It's truly a sickly science that doesn't ever come in direct contact with its subject.

Some at my university might argue that farming in the US is so modern and industrial that the farmer is just an operator of technical processes. If this were the case, it wouldn't be important to study the farmer, just those processes. This is of course more a dogmatic modernist fantasy than an objective observation, but above all it's not true. Even our most technologically advanced farms in the US are run by people, usually families, and these people make farming decisions based in large part on their values, priorities, and social realities. There is more to farming in the US than just plants and chemicals and yields. There are people too.

My master's degree filled in what I'd missed in my undergraduate years. In my four years at UIUC, I'd always longed to learn about the human, the social side of agriculture. In my MSc courses, especially during my second year at SupAgro in France, this is exactly what I got. We studied farming systems, and moreover we learned how to study them in any context. The French definition of a farming system is not like in the US, where one would study a given crop rotation and its effects on local waterways or something like that. No, the French definition of farming system revolves around people, around the farmer that makes decisions within a given set of ecological and economic circumstances, and consequently the French way of studying farming systems involves a mix of observation, agronomic knowledge, and above all talking with local farmers. I think the SupAgro approach could really add to the US agricultural education system. At UIUC I received a great education about all the technical aspects of farming. I can speak with authority on plant diseases, soil structure, herbicide action, nitrogen ecology, you name it. So I'm really happy with most of my UIUC education, except that one point—there were no farmers in our discussions, in our studies. If we were to fix that one problem, it would greatly strengthen the agricultural education offered in the US.

At the same time I was visiting my old university last year, I was reading a book by Wendell Berry called “The Unsettling of America”, about farming and industrialization and ethics in our country. It was odd to read something so polemical or values-based, because I feel like the French, and particularly my farming systems education, try not to mix too much moral speech with political or practical programs. Mazoyer's masterwork on farming systems in history ends with a moral argument in favor of small peasant farming, but this argument is based entirely on economic efficiency, not on culture or morality itself. In contrast, Berry makes a condemnation of capitalism and modern industrial farming from a very values-based viewpoint. It's funny because in theory we in the US are more practical, economic thinkers, and in Europe they're more into the intangibles, the grand discourses. But in contrasting Mazoyer and Berry we see precisely the opposite. And it makes sense, because we in the US are also passionate about our values, our culture, our tradition, just as Europeans have their practical, efficiency-based side. Still though, after such a long time of my trying to distance myself from bombastic, confrontational discourses, it was odd to enter once again into the charged, extremist atmosphere that I remember from my undergraduate university education. I feel like university culture in the US revolves around a lot of radical, absolute arguments. Israel vs. Palestine, Classics vs. Postmodernism, religion vs. secularism. I don't want to readopt that way of non-dialoguing, dogmatic positions, etc., but it's important to read those who do. And I think Berry's moral arguments can help in my advocacy for small, responsible, sustainable farming, even if I prefer to focus on the more practical, non-discursive arguments.

During my years in college and living in the States, I was always frustrated that everything in our agricultural system and our very culture seemed so flawed, so problematic, so corrupted and anti-natural. I always felt impotent and angry, with an apocalyptic vision. In part my masters studies in Agris Mundus, especially the concepts we worked with in France, helped me to overcome this. But more than anything my knowing and learning from my wife changed how I view many agricultural and ecological and economic problems. With her I have spent years now forging a new ethic, one that recognizes flaws in the world agricultural system, and certainly urges us to work to change these problems. But our ethic is above all positive, empowered, with humans front and center in the quest for meaningful change. We focus not on the daunting wall of suffocating norms and the status quo that surrounds us, but on the autonomy, the protagonism of each person to live his or her life so as to promote the good, the right. So Wendell Berry coincides with me in that the US and modern agriculture in general should put the human farmer and his family at the center of any progress or change, but his worldview is very dim, pessimistic, almost impotent.

Quite a few former professors that I visited on my UIUC trip last year are very conservative in their view of agriculture and the world. I don't think they've ever decided if they are supposed to promote agricultural productivity or the quality of life for farmers. Implicitly, most seem to be tending toward productivity. Their research objectives are industry-focused, and researchers consult with ag input supply companies and not with farmers. These professors see their goal as improving crop productivity, and not necessarily improving farmer income or well-being. It doesn't matter if the farmer isn't living well, because the goal is to produce more and more from our farms in order to provide cheap food and raw materials for the rest of society. But this goal is only implicit, and is not total. There is no university mandate saying, “We value productivity over the producers”, but most of the teaching and research implies that. It would be better if this were made explicit, because then there could be debates over whether this is the proper path to take, or if the university should really be trying to serve farmers. But as is, there are no debates, because everything is sort of ambiguous, unspecified.

In fact, the US land grant universities (of which Illinois is one) would do well to look at their original mandate as expressed in the Morrill Act of 1863. This law declared that the federal government would provide land in every state in order to found a university dedicated:

“to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life”

This language indicates to me a clear desire to raise the living standards of the “industrial classes”, that is to say farmers themselves. Nowhere does it speak of increasing agricultural production or promoting the migration of rural people to cities. If only our agricultural universities in the US had taken this to heart, we might have a very different rural landscape today in our country. As is, the universities created by the Morrill Act have presided over 150 years of ever-decreasing farm viability, soil erosion, increasing obesity, and the replacement of the vocation of farming with exurban Walmart jobs. The universities have failed in the mission laid out in 1863.

Even progressives in the US sometimes suffer from an excessive focus on the technical side of farming. Miguel Altieri is one of the foremost thinkers in the field of agroecology, and one of the few professors at the big US ag universities that isn't toeing the corporate agriculture line. Altieri teaches at the University of California, but I believe he's Chilean by background, and consequently he talks a lot about agriculture both in the US and in Latin America. In this article he lays out some reasons that people in the US should be concerned with preserving small family farms in the Third World. Altieri demonstrates the role of Third World farmers as custodians of traditional techniques, and guardians of food security and biodiversity. I agree with most of his points (indeed, I've often made pronouncements along the same lines in my blog), but his attitude seems patronizing to me. He posits the peasant agriculture of the Third World as some sort of millenarian inheritance. This is true in some ways, but I wouldn't want people to fall into that old trap of thinking that Third World farmers are somehow museum pieces, stuck in a timeless past. Farming in the developing world is always changing and evolving, as it is in the developed world. In fact, the intensive farming methods used on some small farms in Asia or Latin America employ more pesticides per acre than do more extensive systems, or farms in the wealthy world!

Most importantly, for all of its benefits, in some respects small, intensive peasant farming goes hand in hand with poverty. People farm land intensively and create a lot of value per acre above all when land is very limited. Peasants with small parcels of land must make the most of it. Yes, they squeeze a lot of value out of every square foot, but they often have so little land (sometimes less than an acre) that their family still lives in misery. In economic terms, per acre productivity is often opposed to per-man-hour productivity. A Colombian peasant farmer that earns $3000 a year from his only acre of land is still in poverty, while a farmer earning a few dozen or a few hundred dollars per acre can have a high income if land availability, capital, and traction (animal or motorized) allow him to farm hundreds of acres.

Hence Altieri could be understood as arguing for maintaining Third World farmers in an ecologically-friendly poverty. He posits US farmers as “trapped” in an industrial system, in which the blessing of high income is paired with inherently destructive practices. This vision somehow justifies or takes responsibility away from First World farmers to improve the sustainability of their own practices, and puts the responsibility for ecological sustainability on Third World farmers that maintain biodiversity and the planet in general. In this vision, First World consumers can repay the priceless planetary services that peasant farmers provide us by purchasing their organic bananas and Fair Trade coffee to keep the peasants just above the poverty line.

I understand that Altieri is writing to convince a First World audience of the value peasant farms represent in their personal lives. Many of his readers likely have little concrete experience with peasant farming. I don't think Altieri means to say that we should favor “green” poverty in the Third World as an antidote or an enabler to the wealthy world's profligate lifestyle, but he can easily be misconstrued this way. Though Altieri's attitude is certainly different from the “productionist” religon of the major US ag universities, he seems to share with them a focus on abstract goals divorced from basic human wellbeing. So again, I feel like I need to reiterate the importance of remembering that farming is above all dependent on farmers. If we focus on other things, even good, progressive things like the ecological merits or the per-acre productivity of small-scale peasant production, then we risk ignoring the priorities of peasants themselves, as US universities have done for a century and a half.

No comments:

Post a Comment