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Country life

Commentary | The ninth column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

In my next two columns, I intend to write about two places the next conservatism needs to consider: the countryside and cities. Perhaps because most conservatives, including myself, live in suburbs, we don't think about rural life or cities very often. But there are good reasons why the next conservatism should think about both.

Earlier generations of conservatives were agrarians. They thought that life on a family farm was a good life for many people. It built strong families and communities, communities where faith and morals could flourish. I believe that is still true, and I therefore think that bringing back the family farm as a viable way of life should be an important part of the next conservatism.

Some people may object that such a program is simply not possible. The family farm cannot be made economically viable in today's world. I am not certain on that point. I do know that most of the billions we spend each year for agricultural subsidies go to support big agribusiness, not family farms. What if we changed that? What if instead of subsidizing factory farming, we provided financial support for people who were trying to start new family farms? Such support should not go on forever, but if it were in the form of a revolving fund, it could help them get started.

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This is also a situation where we, as conservatives, need to learn from others. One place to start is with the Amish. The Amish are cultural conservatives. They live according to the beliefs most conservatives espouse: Christian faith, strong families, close-knit communities where people depend on each other, communities based on the church.

The Amish are also successful, often prosperous, family farmers. One of my colleagues has a friend who is an Amish farmer. He has a herd of 40 to 50 dairy cows. He recently told my colleague that he will get about $75,000 worth of product from his cows in a good year and buy only about $5000 worth of feed for them. $70,000 is a decent income from 50 cows. Mostly, his cows graze. He is also organic, which means he isn't spending lots of money on pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The next conservatism can also learn from the organic farming movement. Many people, including some conservatives, want organic products and are willing to pay a premium for them. That helps the farmer receive a fair price for his products, one that makes his farm viable. As conservatives, we should not see cheapness as the highest virtue. Russell Kirk wrote, "So America's contribution to the universal 'democratic capitalism' of the future . . . will be just this: cheapness, the cheapest music and the cheapest comic-books and the cheapest morality that can be provided." He might have added the cheapest agricultural products, regardless of what that does to agrarian life. That is not the direction in which the next conservatism should go.

Agrarian life is a whole culture, not just a way to make a living, and we should seek to protect that culture and make it available to more and more families.

A recent article in Farming magazine, "Conversations with the Land" by Jim Van Der Pol, gave insight into that culture:

Recently I sat in a church mourning the passage of another farmer from a world that can ill afford to spare even one. I thought of Leonard's love of farmer talk . . . the telling again of stories connected with people and places in a long and well lived human life . . .

"See," he would tell me after naming all the farmers who have exchanged work together in his circle, "nobody every kept track of who spent how much time doing things for which others. Everyone just figured it would work out. It always did."

Leonard was in his farming and his life a maker of art, a husband to his wife and to his farm, a human creating in the context of Creation itself. . .

Beyond the family farm itself, the next conservatism should seek to make the countryside available to as many Americans as possible. The Mennonites have a wonderful program where they bring inner-city children to their farms for part of their summer school vacations. What a tremendous and health-giving change for kids who have never known anything but asphalt and crime! Many cities and towns now have farmers' markets, where people in the city and the suburbs can buy fresh farm product directly from the farmers. Both the farmers and the city-dwellers benefit.

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