In Part 1, I wrote about some movies that helped me learn more about how the food system in America works, and some of the alternatives to it. I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned so far in preparation for taking a Permaculture Design course this fall. For Part 2, I’m going to look at books I’ve read on my path of learning, starting – as many young farmers and environmentalists have – with Wendell Berry.
Berry is a farmer and writer from Kentucky who has published more books than I could even count – essays, poetry, novels. I’ve read many of them throughout the years – The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of essays around agrarian themes; The Unsettling of America, which critiques American culture and its environmental problems through the lenses of farming and community; A Place on Earth, one of a series of quiet and profound novels set in a fictional small Kentucky town; Farming: A Handbook, a poetry chapbook with a beautiful and revolutionary picture of the agrarian life. The very first thing I ever read of his was, in fact, a poem, given to me by a college friend my first year. It’s worth copying in its entirety here.
The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
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.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Reading it now, fourteen years later, I see shades of religious and gender-role belief that I no longer subscribe to, but still – the effect that this had on me then, one of illumination to the idea that there were many different ways to go, many different value systems, than the ones I’d been presented with, continues to ring true. Wendell Berry was also part of the motivation for my first day of volunteer farm work a couple years later (another part of the motivation was that I had a crush on the young lady who invited me). And to this day, whenever I need a re-orientation, if I start to feel like I’ve been out in the world a bit too much – or worse, if I feel like I’m not out in it enough – I sit down with a Wendell Berry poem or essay.
Several years later, after college, I came across Michael Pollans’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Now, whenever I talk with an organic farmer, or gardener, or even just a “foodie”, Michael Pollan always comes up – but back then, I had no idea who he was. All I knew was that this was fascinating reading. In the first section, he traces a path through the industrial food system by following corn (I remember remarking to a coworker at the time, “I can’t believe I just read 50 pages about corn, and it was fascinating!”); in the second he looks at large-scale organics; in the third, small-scale sustainable agriculture; and in the fourth, hunting and gathering. This was the first detailed analysis of how most of our food works in this country (a summary of which is provided by our corn buddy up above), and also the first real delineation of some of the alternatives. So this is what organic farming is about!
Joel Salatin is one of the biggest characters in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and also one of the biggest characters in alternative agriculture. In the book, Pollan visits Salatin’s “grass farm” in Virginia and describes how the cattle, chickens, sheep, and pigs are raised in ways that mimic nature and restore ecological health. I was intrigued, and so I looked at Salatin’s own books. One jumped out at me, as its title answered a question I’d begun asking myself: You Can Farm. This one is a nuts-and-bolts description of what it takes to start and run a profitable farming operation. As I read it, even the intimidating parts talking about how much work it all was and how many sacrifices I’d have to make, I thought, this farming thing still sounds good to me. And so I did it, and for three years I was a farmer – two as an apprentice, and one as a CSA manager.
Most recently, I read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Barber is a chef, at a restaurant on one of the fanciest farms in the country, and he writes with the perspective of one, critiquing not just the conventional American diet and agricultural system, but also the farm-to-table movement. He envisions a meal based on what the local ecosystem can provide, not what conventional agriculture churns out or what foodies demand. Many of his examples – such as a region in Spain that produces the best pork in the world because of the landscape the pigs live in, or a farm in upstate New York where they also eat their cover crops – move agricultural production more in the direction of Permaculture. It’s this progression that I’m most interested in studying in the Permaculture Design course.
So, that’s a sampling. Here are a few other books I’d recommend for learning about the food system and ways to change it:
Food Fight, by Daniel Imhoff – this is an overview of US farm and food policy, which, like it or not, influences everything we eat.
Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg – a kind of Omnivore’s Dilemma for the sea, Greenberg examines how the fish we eat affects the oceans that surround us.
The Contrary Farmer, by Gene Lodgson – part how-to-farm, part how-to-think-about-farming, Lodgson foresees and advocates for small-scale cottage farming and tells of his own family’s farm.
A Nation of Farmers, by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton – this book is a kind of Jeffersonianism for the new millenium, encouraging backyard gardening and hyper-local food production as the way forward to a new food system.
The Resilient Farm and Homestead, by Ben Falk – this is the first Permaculture design book I read, and it’s about an experimental whole-systems-design homestead in Northern Vermont!
The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball – a romantic narrative in which a city journalist falls for a tall, handsome farmer named Mark, with whom she eventually starts a whole-farm CSA. What’s not to love?