Farming Is Cultural As Well As Agricultural


Last week, in company with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, I spent a delightful evening at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, discussing the importance of good food and good farming. [Podcast 42 minutes Wendell Berry / Wes Jackson / Gene Logsdon.mp3 or here.] At one point, someone in the audience asked what we thought of the practice of urban farming. As often happens at panel discussions, we got sidetracked a little, and I did not have an opportunity to say as much as I would have like on that subject. So I will try to answer the question more fully here.

I think urban farming is one of the most hopeful developments to come down the street in a long time. First of all, it encourages the practical economic advantages and benefits of raising and consuming food locally. But its importance goes beyond that for me. I am sometimes asked why I spend my time writing about farming and gardening when, it is suggested, there are more important topics to which to apply my talents. That, in one sentence, indicates one of the most troublesome cultural problems that modern society faces today: the notion that food-getting is not an important enough subject to merit the close attention of all of us.

First of all, if you let big food business rule the roost in agriculture, you are going to get just what you pay taxes for: more big food business. For example, most people don’t even know that they are eating potatoes that have been genetically modified to kill potato bugs. If sometimes you get a notion that potatoes don’t taste as good as they used to, you just might be right. The potato bugs would surely agree with you.

But there’s something else that I think is important in this regard. The fact that our country has become divided into so-called red and blue states is an outcome directly traceable to the urban-rural division of our society. This is something of a simplification, but food producers and their social allies tend to vote red and food consumers and their social allies tend to vote blue. The division is thought to be between conservative and liberal philosophies, but it much more reflects the difference between rural and urban values. (There are plenty of urban conservatives and rural liberals.) This division is hopefully coming to an end but has a long way to go yet. We are doing a fairly good job of bringing the city to the countryside but a very poor job of bringing the country to the city-side. Both sides need each others’ viewpoints for good government and social interaction. A good way that we can heal the friction is to bring farming to the city. There is nothing that will cure an overly zealous wildlife lover quicker than to make a farmer or gardener out of her. On the other hand, there is nothing that will change the overly-isolationist view of life cherished by rural people quicker than bringing them into close contact with city life. The rural dweller may think that all those rules that cities make are silly — until he is surrounded by suburbs.

It has become common to say that food is everybody’s business. The only way I know to become convinced of that fact is to grow some food yourself or at least live right next to someone who does. Otherwise it is so easy, especially if you have plenty of money, to demand totally “organic” food: no pesticides, no hormones, no antibiotics, no chemical fertilizers, no manure, no nothing except pure undiluted water and air and leaf compost touched only by the wings of angelic organic growers. Try to grow some of that angelicly pure food yourself and you will quickly realize that whatever you get paid for it, it ain’t enough.

Try to raise livestock and chickens as lovingly as you would raise a child as so many non-husbandmen think we should. Then have a ram plant its horns or head into your rear end, dislocating a disc or two in your back. Rams and bulls and roosters are very effective educators of new farmers who think our time-honored rules of husbandry are too cruel. Go ahead. Don’t dock your lambs. You might get lucky. You might even be on the trail to a better practice. But after you have scraped the maggots out of the lamb’s hide and then watch it die anyway, come talk to me.

I like to tell the story of an editor friend of mine who worked on my books at Rodale Press back in the days when we were first trying to champion environmental ways of farming. I told her once that I had just that morning shot a groundhog that was ruining my garden. She was horrified. She could not believe that someone who appeared very civilized (in those days I could appear very civilized when I needed to) would do such a beastly thing. A couple years later, she succumbed to her own desire to farm environmentally. She and her husband bought a place in the country and began garden farming in earnest. About a year later, I met her again at a conference. She came up to me and said she wanted to apologize for the callous way she had treated me when I said I had killed a groundhog. She explained, after swearing me to secrecy:

“Last week I finally cornered the groundhog that was tearing up my plantings. It was in the tool shed. I killed it with a shovel, the only weapon handy.”
See also:
Creating local food options in an urban setting
(The New Farm)

How one woman channeled her discovery about the perils of an industrial food system into creating local options for healthy, sustainably produced food in her own Chicago neighborhood.
Crossposted to


I just came across your site this week and I’m so glad I did. About a month ago I started reading “Fast Food Nation” and it has opened Pandora’s Box for me. Until now, I knew very little about where my food was coming from and honestly, I didn’t really care to learn. (Denial is so much more fun and convenient, until it comes time to pay the piper!) The more I educate myself and seek out new sources of information, the more troubling it is. WHAT have I been eating for 32 years?

I feel like I am finally awake and alert, and instead of mindlessly reaching for processed foods in the supermarket or running through the McDonald’s drive thru, I am actually thinking about the food I eat. Where did it come from? Who is producing it? What is in it? How is it processed? What is the true cost of eating it?

I’m beginning to realize how much of a toll the big business of food production has taken on our nation. Instead of valuing hard work and the skill that comes from years of trial and error and experience, we value speed, efficiency, and convenience. And, the more I learn, the angrier I get. I’m done placing value on convenience and cost-effective shopping. I’m ready to put my time and energy and money where my mouth is (literally!). Today I placed a large order with a local butcher shop, who gets their meat from local farmers. It cost more than going to Wal-Mart or Kroger or Meijer, but I’m willing to step up and vote with my money, to say to this local butcher and local farmers, “I value you and your time and your skill.”

I’ve also been purchasing produce from a local vendor. As I spend more money on food that I now believe to be of higher quality, I find that I’m valuing my food more. I’m more mindful when I eat. I’ve become more thankful for the good, and more likely to refuse the bad. As I think about the cost of my food, not just monetarily but also in time and human effort, I am less likely to waste it. Wasting it seems like slap in the face to the person who toiled to bring it to my plate, and to my husband and I, who work hard for the money to purchase it. I never would have imagined this outcome, but now that I’m living it I can’t believe that I ever lived any other way. (I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I’m not sure how else to put it.)

Anyway, thanks for this post and for all those who commented. I look forward to returning and reading more!


Subsidies would not be necessary if farmers received a fair price for their goods. In 1941, congress passed the War Stabilization Act, guaranteeing the purchase of storable commodities (grain, fuels, metals, etc.) at 100% the cost of production (parity). This made small, solvent family farms possible.

When Eisenhower killed parity in 1953, what would have been 25 solvent families on 80 acres each of grain, hay, vegetables and meat gradually became 1 debt-burdened family on 2,000 acres of corn.

The retail value of grain (ie bread) hasn’t really changed. It’s just that the lion’s share of initial price has shifted away from the family farmer and toward speculators (commodity traders, who are dominated by agents of grain cartels), finishers and traders (the cartels, who also dominate shipping and milling).

Urban America used to add value through manufacturing. Today it’s little more than an orgy of gambling and entertainment. We urban people have little right to call taxes “our money” since our ability to earn a living in advertising, real estate and finance is a by-product of a fantasy economy that’s about to fall over the cliff. William Jennings Bryan prophesied: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Our national economy is based on the credit created during and after WW2, and other nations’ willingness to turn their agricultural peasants into 19th century slaves for our IOUs.

I’m not against urban gardening (I’ve got one myself), but agricultural production should be the base of our national economy, embellished by added-value manufacturing and internal trade. Expecting small farmers to be “rugged individuals” in a free market is national suicide, and only benefits the grain cartel. Guarantee a price and let farmers worry about production, and you’ll kill Cargill, Monsanto and much of our debt crisis in pretty short order. Then maybe people like you and I can make pots and pans or solar panels or something, rather than whatever pointless activity we’re up to.

Check out Charles Walters’ “Unforgiven” and Dan Morgan’s “Merchants of Grain” for more background on parity and the grain cartel.

I wouldn’t expect any one individual trying to make a living not to take the same subsidies his business competitors are taking. But rural folks have been receiving indirect subsidies from the urban folks for a long time (red states on average are net recipients of federal money, and blue states are net donors). I don’t have a problem with that per se, because prosperous rural communities benefit us all. However, I do object to the hypocrisy of a group of people complaining about the oppressive burden of a system from which they take out more than they put in.

I agree with you, Gene and Beth, that ultimately it is matter of money, and I would add that the folks with the most money have rigged the game in their favor. This naturally brings them more money which they reinvest in rigging the game some more. Ah, the rich get richer! The clever part is, to keep the rest of us from noticing what is really happening, they have divided us into left and right, conservative and liberal, based upon our cultural values. And it’s working like a charm.

Gene, your observation about the urban-rural division is spot on. Remember the Presidential vote shown county by county? The rural counties of blue states are red, and the urban counties in red states are blue. The only thing that determines if a state is red or blue is the proportion of the population living in urban areas. Under the Electoral College system, who will become the leader of the free world is determined primarily by the level of voter turnout in a few critical counties in a handful of swing states.

I think it is interesting that the local food movement appears to be dominated by liberals. Farmer’s markets in the cities are booming, and everyone it seems is raising city chickens and starting container vegetable gardens on their high-rise balconies. Maybe all these city slickers will have a better appreciation of those rural values. (I remember how angry I was when a rainstorm destroyed my tomato plants. Both of them! I can only imagine the heartbreak of a farmer losing his crop just before the harvest.)

Some day I would love to have a farm like yours Gene. In the meantime, I enjoy your books and now your blog. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, and for being so contrary.

louis c: It takes a very strong character to refuse money, no matter what one’s self reliant philosophy. There were quite a few of us who protested official bribery in the form of subsidies and a few who downright refused to be bribed. (I confess that I took the wool payment subsidy for awhile, and when I finally realized that was wrong, my wife said I was too idealistic and took it anyway and I did not object.) When every one else is taking subsidies, not to do so puts one at a distinct disadvantage economically with other farmer competitors. Plus the flow of huge sums of money into agricultural counties (it is quite considerable) like mine is seen by bankers, newspapers,schools, churches and retailers as a blessing and the more “capitalistic” they proclaimed to be, the more they approve. Plus, the biggest recipients, large landowners, are also the most influential people in the community when it comes to public opinion. Sadly, we are all susceptible to bribery and the wealthier one is, the more susceptible one is. Gene Logsdon

Louis, that’s a very good question! Unfortunately, in my experience (having always lived in rural areas), when rural values and the prospect of big money collide, money nearly always wins for most folks. I suppose it may be linked to the survival instincts of some people; to the competitive if-he’s-got-more-then-I want-some-too mentality; to lack of foresight (yes, these broiler factories or feed lots or Monstroso-Devils will bring jobs but they will degrade the land, water and air in the process, and if you had paid better attention you would have seen that possiblity) or to sheer laziness. No question it’s easier to drive down to the grocery for your chicken than to feed and water it,fend off the predators and butcher it, quickly, cleanly and humanely. But the latter gives you a visceral connection with what you put on the dinner table and a true respect for the intertwining nature of life. Those molecules of the grain you raised became the chicken you roasted for dinner and are now part of you–and eventually will go back to the soil to grow something else. When you live this way, you can’t sanitize death, and too many Americans are terrified of dying. So maybe, carrying this stream of thought to its semi-logical conclusion:), the real reason rural people take the money is because it can in some subtle way distance us from the daily presence of the Grim Reaper?

You are so right! I’ve been on the farm for less than four years, and my viewpoint has changed so much already. For example, I used to love every animal and almost be a vegetarian. Last fall, I killed my first deer and ate it while thinking happily of how much safer my garden would be this year.

Even though I only came to the realization a few years ago, it always makes me laugh when people have no clue that most male animals in agriculture are bound for slaughter. You love milk and consider yourself a vegetarian? Did you know that that cow has to be bred every year, and half the calves are male and good for nothing except meat? You want “vegetarian” chickens? Did you know that chickens are primarily insectivores in nature and really like a good hunk of meat now and then?

I found this piece to be very thought provoking. Of course I think the local food movement is a good thing, if for nothing else than making all the food consumers like me realize just how much is wrong with our agricultural policies and subsidies. As a card-carrying liberal, my question for you is this – why haven’t the red states, with their rural values (which include I assume include self-reliance and fiscal discipline) done more to staunch the flow of federal dollars to the agricultural sector right in their backyard?

jonathan middlebrook April 21, 2010 at 9:43 am

Yup! My dear friend Darca just gave me a wonderful present–a bucket of worms, now doing their natural thing in my garden plots, which have hardware wire liners, to keep the gophers at their distance.

Well done. Beth and I both commented on the way home from Xavier that the question on urban farming was the one, and only one, that didn’t get addressed head-on like it deserved. Thank you for revisiting it. The call to try to see things from the perspective of others is always helpful and powerful when done mutually. I liked the critter illustrations. I have “baptized” my share of live-trapped raccoons and opossums, clubbed a few in time sensitive situations and dispatched a hawk with a pitchfork who was INSIDE my chicken house killing a hen. It has always made me uneasy. Moral quandries are always among our constant companions, but listening to each other lessens the us/them mentality.

Yes, there are signs of hope–our northern California city of a bit of 100,000 (no, of course I don’t live there, I live in a little community of 400–when everyone is home–30-odd miles away) has on this week’s city council agenda the repeal of a zoning ordinance that would allow city dwellers to keep chickens on any size lot. And the certified farmer’s market is planning to go year round. Me, I’m focused on getting the garden in–once it dries out enough–and the milk cow due to calve next week, and the pigs, one which will become barbeque in three weeks, one of which we plan to breed. And the brood mare who will arrive next month. Then there are the chickens, and the new goslings… which reminds me, we need to do something fatal to the blasted bobcat that keeps hanging around. Life in the country is a lot of things, but dull is not one of them!

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