The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry

Book CoverThe Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry (Sierra Club Books, revised edition 1996)

It so happens that in The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry eviscerated agribiz boosterism among USDA officials. Berry has lots of fun quoting a speech by a ‘70s-era USDA apparatchik sounding very much like Tom Vilsack [US Secretary of Agriculture] today: “true agripower … generates agridollars through agricultural exports … once again growth in U.S. farm productivity is on the rise … With additional income from exports, U.S. farmers are able to purchase more household appliances, farm equipment, building supplies, and other capital and consumer goods.”

Berry is withering in response, mocking the speech’s “self-congratulation,” its “confusions of purpose, the complacency, the jargon, the sprains and ruptures of sense, the ignorance or ignoring of consequence, the social and economic prejudices ritualized in progressivist clichés.” Berry continues:

“Agripower,” it will be noted, is not measured by the fertility or health of the soil, or the health, wisdom, thrift, or stewardship of the farming community. It is measured by its ability to produce a market surplus, which generates “agridollars.” It is to be measured by “productivity, combined with processing and marketing efficiency.” The income from this increased production, we are told, is spent by farmers not for soil maintenance or improvement, water conservation, or erosion control, but rather for “purchased inputs.”

Wendell Berry is emerging as a figure who is much-saluted but little-heeded by those in power. Yet his critique is as relevant today as it was in 1977.

(Source: Tom Philpot, Grist, in his piece on President Obama’s dual ag policy: USDA Chief Flatters Industrial Agriculture, Obama Wendell Berry)

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