Rediscovering our inner farmers


In an open letter to the next president published in The New York Times Magazine last month, food writer Michael Pollan argues "we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." Calling for a host of reforms, from ending agribusiness manipulation of federal policy, to redefining food, to turning the South Lawn of the White House into a vegetable garden, Pollan wants nothing less than a wholesale transformation of the American-and by extension, the world's-food system.

It's a tricky issue, if only because many of Pollan's solutions rely on the same toolkit-government sticks and carrots-that helped destroy the American farm, rewarding politically connected agricorporations at the expense of local community and self-sufficiency. It's a perpetual faith of the modern liberal, I suppose, that government bureaucracies can do things well if only the people overseeing them have the right intentions.

Still, Pollan has a long list of "stops" that, even if his recommended actions are ignored, would surely help matters: Stop subsidizing monoculture, stop prohibiting food imports, stop flooding foreign markets with cheap food, stop rewarding land-grant colleges for developing newer and better ways to drive the small farmer out of business, stop feeding schoolchildren junk food. I, for one, am a big fan of government stopping any number of its activities.

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As for action, I'm thinking about what Pollan's critiques-as well as those of the prophet-farmer who has inspired thousands like him, Wendell Berry-mean for how my family lives. Maybe it's just insecurity stemming from the current economic meltdown, or perhaps a latent agrarianism, but I find myself looking at our land and wondering how we might pull food from it. I never learned much about farming, I don't know the first thing about hunting, and I'm a pretty poor fisherman. I think I'd like to get better at all of them. I suppose there are many reasons: doing my part to squeeze oil out of the food chain, drawing close to creation, improving our diets, doing good work with my sons, acquiring and passing along what one day may once again become survival skills. I'm haunted as well by something Berry wrote in one of his Home Economics essays, that you are free to the extent that you can provide for yourself. If you have to hand over money to people to do even the most basic things for you, then you are ultimately dependent.

So this winter I'll be talking to local farmers and reading some gardening books and possibly learning how to use a bow. It promises to be a glorious disaster, and I'll be lucky to emerge next fall with all my fingers and toes intact. But I'm increasingly convinced that it's just as important to teach my sons these things as to teach them how to read well, how to use logic, how to see the world. I suppose in that I'm just rediscovering what our forbears knew, that a life of work in creation should not be separated from a life of the mind. There's no federal policy that will achieve the rejoining of those dying arts, but maybe many of us can, a family at a time, in our own homes.


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