If you hang around the surviving family farms enough, you end up asking yourself the same question Wendell Berry asks in his penetrating essays. As rural communities grow poor, land is abandoned, family farms die out, jobs vanish and the rural young are forced to the cities and suburbs to work, the issue isn’t just why we as a society are abandoning our farmers, the issue is much broader.
For years, economists and government regulators have argued that there are too many farmers, and they are producing too much food, that there were too many people on the farm. The mechanized, computerized, information and serviced based global economy demands cheap labor working in lousy and insecure jobs in cities to produce the new products of the modern era. Consumers have embraced the Wal-Marting of the country, and all that matters when you put something in your mouth and belly is price.
So farms and rural communities have been emptying out for decades, and maybe there are too many economists.
The great farm-to-city migration and catastrophe has been good for the corporate economy. It’s not all that mysterious to figure out why they are making so much money and everybody else isn’t. The farmers have been replaced by machinery, energy, chemicals, credit, information and other goods and services from the agribusiness economy, which mass produces food and ships it to faraway places and consumers. The departure of so many people and jobs has left most rural areas in shambles. There is no good work, no bandwidth, schools struggle, volunteer fire companies can no longer find volunteers and the soil is either eroding or given up to development.
When I go and visit Ed Rouse and his family on Big Valley Farm, I always leave angry, watching them labor and struggle.
How did the farmers get to be so marginalized? They keep land open, nurture the soil, make food that their neighbors might eat, provide nourishing homes for animals, work day and night. What doesn’t that matter?
What are these good people for?
Wendell Berry asks if their greatest dignity is to be displacement and unemployment?
Is the creation of bad jobs and the diminishment of human dignity and security now our social goal?
Is this what people do?
It would seem that is so in a country that puts such a premium on labor costs, low wages, higher and higher profits, no benefits, higher productivity, the displacement of work to other countries, and the absence of any kind of security. Who in Washington is filibustering for Ed Rouse, and the way of life that is eroding faster than good topsoil?
If you live in the beautiful country, you see that rural life is in desperate need of restoration, the legacy and great scar left by the vanishing farms and farmers.
We know what low wages are for. And customer service. And P & L statements to stockholders. And the tossing of loyal people into the street.
So what are people for?