Wendell Berry’s essays “What Are People For? ” and “The Work of Local Culture” both examine the farming profession, which has in recent years been demeaned as the rural population falls and large “agribusiness” replaces smaller family farms. Berry argues in both pieces that farming is not an outdated lifestyle, but a necessary profession. In “What Are People For? ” Berry discusses the exodus from farm to city since World War II, attributing it to failures in agriculture.
However, he disagrees with claims that failed farmers deserve their lot, or that the farm population has a large surplus; he comments that “It is apparently easy to say that there are too many farmers, if one is not a farmer” (123). Berry maintains that “our farmland no longer has enough caretakers” (124) and that the rural exodus has harmed both urban and rural America alike. Agribusiness has not only harmed small farmers but also the soil itself, and displaced rural people are not often absorbed into the urban economy.
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Berry sees farming as a necessary occupation, which is needed even more urgently in light of soil erosion and other damage done to fertile agricultural land. It is not simply a job or lifestyle, but a crucial stewardship of nature. Farming is a skill, and well-managed farms and healthy soil are proof; agribusiness’ reliance on machinery and destructive methods may be “modern” but ultimately counterproductive. What people are for, he implies, is to work and maintain the land.
In “The Work of Local Culture,” Berry makes a more developed argument in favor of human stewardship of farmland and claims that a “good local culture” of farm people is required to perform this important work. He sees farmers not simply as a rural dweller, but as skilled professionals better able to manage agricultural land than big businesses, because they possess intimidate, detailed knowledge of the land, from the weather to its natural processes and its smallest attributes. Land is becoming rapidly despoiled, and only knowledgeable farmers can remedy this danger.
“Practically speaking,” he writes, “human society has no work more important than this” (155). Farmers form the “local culture,” which he defines as “the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used” (166). It is based less on money than on community, shared knowledge and experiences, and rapidly vanishing skills of managing the land. The local culture can and must educate others in how to maintain and use fertile land, generate its own economy, and maintain its sense of community.
Farming is more than a job, but also an important part of a rural way of life that is vanishing rapidly (and should not). Himself a farmer, Berry sees farming not simply in economic terms, but almost as an art or craft, requiring skills and attention to more than just economics. He does not pit city against country and argue for the latter’s superiority; instead, he sees their interdependence and spends relatively little time condemning urbanites.
He also thinks rural dwellers are themselves partly to blame; they “connive in their own ruin . . . [and] allow their economic and social standards to be set by television and salesmen and outside experts” (157). Berry’s essays convey the importance of farming as a vocation devoted to caring for the land and providing a foundation upon which society is based. It involves more than simply growing food or raising livestock; it forms the foundation of rural communities and entails important skills required to keep land productive.
In his view, agribusiness and modern economics are no substitute for the skills of a traditional farmer equipped with intimate knowledge of the land He does not disparage cities or modernity, preferring instead to firmly define and defend the agrarian way of life as the weakened foundation of American society – a foundation that urgently needs repair. Berry, Wendell. What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
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