Towards an Agrarian Ethic in Divided Times

In a very real way, the Farm School links Boston and the North Quabbin region. As a “family farm for the coming generations,” it is a contact point, an essential opening in what has recently emerged as the front line in the U.S. culture wars.

Much has been made of the role of rural decline in the postpartum evaluations of Trump’s election. The discourse of “red states and blue states” has evolved into “red counties and blue counties,” highlighting the urban-rural cultural and economic divides of the country. In the “media elites” post-election scramble to understand the rural conservatism that brought Trump to power they have discovered a strong base, in a forgotten geography, who feel that their way of life is under siege.

Underneath the resentful rhetoric of government neglect and economic decline that city journalists are just now discovering, are towns and neighborhoods with rich histories, proud communities and agricultural traditions. With modernization, mechanization, standardization and a cultural shift towards placeless-ness, these areas are genuinely facing a certain kind of cultural and economic annihilation that threatens an essentially American way of life. This is the case that Wendell Berry has been making for years as he has watched his rural, agricultural way of life deteriorate: that there is a corresponding moral and spiritual decline associated with disconnection from place, community and good work–that something essential is lost when livelihoods are no longer derived from the knowledge, care and loyalty it takes to tend land well.

A danger, in the Trump era, is for media characterizations of rural areas suffering from economic and population decline, like Orange and Athol MA, to become alienating, abstract and divisive. By exaggerating and focusing on the cultural, economic and political differences between rural and urban livelihoods, and making them seem irreconcilable and un-relatable, the narrative drives us toward a cultural and political impasse that stunts our national capacity to engage with land and community in the manner that will be demanded of this generation: activated, regenerative, connected and visionary.

The narrative that links political conservatism with rural areas and progressivism with urban areas may be demographically accurate today, but it does a disservice to the youth generation of our country who–motivated by social justice, the local food movement, climate change, love of nature, family, community, and longing for good work and a life full of texture and tangible contribution­–want to connect back to the land. If young, educated and liberal people continue to concentrate in cities and neglect rural communities, it will perpetuate a lack of the understanding, credibility, empathy and respect that is necessary to build a future in which rural and urban communities and land can all flourish in mutual support.

These tensions did not begin with this election, but it has brought them into the national spotlight. The people of rural places have stood up and demanded consideration and support. They have sought a political solution to their experience of neglect, isolation and cultural insignificance. The rest of the country needs to pay attention and respond. Not only for the sake of national unity and inclusion, but also because there is value in these rural areas, and in the agrarian culture that has characterized them, that is essential to preserve and to cultivate in all of our communities, and in our lives personally.

The ideal of the rural ethic put forward by Berry as “ecological agrarianism,” is characterized by strong ties to work, land and local community. Providing opportunities to revive and activate this ethic in the next generation is essential not only for the survival, but for the creative renewal, of rural areas and it has something to offer urban communities as well. Farming offers a unique opportunity for students from many different life paths to experience and develop this agrarian ethic because farm work is humble, essential, immediate and particular. The agrarian ethic–earned through the heartbreak, joy and hard work of farming and life close to the land–enriches the people who choose this life, and through them, the ethic has the potential to enrich the communities they chose to inhabit and contribute to.

 At The Farm School, student farmers learn first to farm by farming. Our training is practical, rigorous, and real. Students familiarize themselves with agricultural skills and concepts that are transferable, portable to other places and other contexts, but they learn them in a setting that is dramatically particular–such that connection to the place of The Farm School, the farm land, wild lands and the community, is an essential part of their grounded experience. The year students spend working, learning and living at the Farm School is immersive, and deeply personal– sun rises and sun sets are both etched intimately on hearts, and trowels and hoes leave hard callouses on hands. Farm work becomes a practice of reverence for place and relationship as the deep ethic of the Farm School, paying nostalgic homage to rural agrarian culture, infuses students. It is an invitation to surrender into meaningful work, affection for community and connection to land. These are values that characterize the type of person Wallace Stegner would have described as “stickers,” folks who know how to love a place, invest in it, and to live in it within the limits necessary to preserve it rather than destroy it.

These are qualities we need in our leaders, food system organizers, artists, teachers and community members: care for land, respect for good work, love of people. Our country needs more farmers, desperately, especially farmers with experience in the kind of small scale, sustainable and organic farming on marginalized land with diversified enterprises that we practice at the Farm School. And, as much as we need this new generation of farmers who can thoughtfully engage with land and community alongside their production, we also need community organizers. We need agricultural sector leaders who can help pioneer the future of food, farming and rural revival guided by their own place-based knowledge, and the strong relationships they have built with their neighbors. In cities we need lawyers, teachers, advocates, religious leaders, business people and consumers who understand and empathize with the work and values of small scale farming-who have earned an authentic appreciation for the real skills of agricultural literacy: field-tested hard work, surrender to the seasonal demands of land and place, and the cycles of dependency and contribution that make for close, reciprocal community.