WENDELL BERRY Excerpts from Home Economics

Mendo Island Journal — From WENDELL BERRY Excerpts from Home Economics (1987) The small family farm is one of the last places—where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker—and some farmers still do talk about “making the crops” — is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need… The family farm is failing because the pattern it belongs to is failing, and the principal reason for this failure is the universal adoption, by our people and our leaders alike, of industrial values, which are based on three assumptions: 1. That value equals price — that the value of a farm, for example, is whatever it would bring on sale, because both a place and its price are “assets.” There is no essential difference between farming and selling a farm. 2. That all relations are mechanical. That a farm, for example, can be used like a factory, because there is no essential difference between a farm and a factory. 3. That the sufficient and definitive human motive is competitiveness — that a community, for example, can be treated like a resource or a market, because there is no difference between a community and a resource or a market… Here we come to the heart of the matter — the absolute divorce that the industrial economy has achieved between itself and all ideals and standards outside itself. It does this, of course, by arrogating to itself the status of primary reality. Once that is established, all its ties to principles of morality, religion, or government necessarily fall in place. But a culture disintegrates when its economy disconnects from its government, morality, and religion. If we are dismembered in our economic life, how can we be members in our communal and spiritual life? We assume that we can have an exploitive, ruthlessly competitive, profit-for-profit’s-sake economy, and yet remain a decent and a democratic nation, as we still apparently wish to think ourselves. This simply means that our highest principles and standards have no practical force or influence and are reduced merely to talk… As a nation, then, we are not very religious and not very democratic, and that is why we have been destroying the family farm for the last forty years — along with other small local economic enterprises of all kinds. We have been willing for millions of people to be condemned to failure and dispossession by the workings of an economy utterly indifferent to any claims they may have had either as children of God or as citizens of a democracy. “That’s the way a dynamic economy works,” we have said. We have said, “Get big or get out.” We have said, “Adapt or die.” And we have washed our hands of them… Finally, I want to say that I have not been talking from speculation but from proof. I have had in mind throughout this essay the one example known to me of an American community of small family farmers who have not only survived but thrived during some very difficult years: I mean the Amish. I do not recommend, of course, that all farmers should become Amish, nor do I want to suggest that the Amish are perfect people or that their way of life is perfect. What I want to recommend are some Amish principles: 1. They have preserved their families and communities. 2. They have maintained the practices of neighborhood. 3. They have maintained the domestic arts of kitchen and garden, household and homestead. 4. They have limited their use of technology so as not to displace or alienate available human labor or available free sources of power (the sun, wind, water, and so on). 5. They have limited their farms to a scale that is compatible both with the practice of neighborhood and with the optimum use of low-power technology. 6. By the practices and limits already mentioned, they have limited their costs. 7. They have educated their children to live at home and serve their communities. 8. They esteem farming as both a practical art and a spiritual discipline. These principles define a world to be lived in by human beings, not a world to be exploited by managers, stockholders, and experts.


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