Since WWII the governing agricultural doctrine in government offices, universities and corporations has been that “there are too many people on the farm.” This idea has supported, if indeed it has not caused, one of the most consequential migrations of history: million of rural people moving from country to city in a stream that has not slackened from the war’s end until now. And the strongest force behind this migration, than as now, has been the economic ruin on the farm. Today, with hundreds of farm families losing their farms every week, the economists are saying as they have been saying all along, that these people deserve to fail, that they have failed because “they are the least efficient producers,” and the rest of us are better off because of their failure.
It is apparently easy to say there are too many farmers, if one is not a farmer. This is not a pronouncement often heard in farm communities. Nor have farmers yet been informed of a dangerous surplus of population in the “agribusiness” profession or among the middlemen of the of the food system. No agricultural economist has as yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.
The farm-to-city migration has obviously produced advantages for the corporate economy. The absent farmers have had to be replaced with machinery, petroleum, chemicals, credit and other expensive goods and services from the agribusiness economy, which ought not to be confused with the economy that used to be called farming.
But these short term advantages all imply long term disadvantages, both to country and to city. The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country. And that our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that, as the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were during the time of the Dust Bowl.
At the same time the cities have had to receive a great influx of people unprepared for urban life and unable to cope with it. A friend of mine, a psychologist who has frequently worked with the juvenile courts of a large Midwest city, told me that a major occupation of the police force there is to keep the “permanently unemployable” confined to their own part of town. Such a circumstance cannot be good for the future of democracy and freedom. One wonders what the authors of our constitution would have thought of that category, “permanently unemployable.”
Equally important is the sustainabliltiy of the urban food supply. The supermarkets are, at present, crammed with food, and the productivity of American agriculture, is at present, enormous. But, this productivity is based on the ruin of both the producers and the source of production. City people are unworried about this, apparently, only because they do not know anything about farming. People who know about farming, who know what farmland requires to remain productive are worried. When topsoil losses exceed the weight of grain harvested fivefold (Iowa) or twenty fold (the wheatlands of eastern Washington), there is something to worry about.
When the “too many” of the country arrive in the city, they are not called the “too many.” In the city they are called “unemployed” or “permanently unemployable.” But what will happen if the economists ever perceive that there are too many people in the cities? There appear to be only two possibilities: either they will recognize that their earlier diagnosis was a tragic error, or they will conclude that there are too people in country and city both – and what further inhumanities will be justified by that diagnosis
The great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary for the long term preservation of the land and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.
In the country, meanwhile, there is work to be done. This is the inescapably necessary work of caring for and restoring our farms, forests, and rural towns and communities – work that we have not been able to pay people to do for forty years and that, thanks to our forty year “solution to the farm problem,” few people any longer know how to do.
It’s been almost thirty years since Berry wrote this essay. Since then big agro has expanded into countries like Brazil. Into lands that were never intended for large scale, intensive monoculture style agriculture. Companies like Monsanto and Dow have perfected crops that can be poisoned and survive.
Berry wonders what will happen when the economic powers that be decide that there are too many people in the country period. Well, we’ve seen some of the answers in the last election cycles as varying percentages of our fellow citizens are labeled as a drain on the economy, as freeloaders, as leeches. Ironically, the same group that tells many of their fellow citizens that they’re worthless insists on adding more kids to the population through their opposition to family planning and the rights of women to make their own health care decisions.
The destruction of our land, water, forests and sea coasts exposes American Capitalism’s dirty little secret. There is no room for the future in the balance sheets. My profits are paramount and if it takes every last tree to do it now, then that’s what we’ll do.