Agriculture is a business, a life style, and a “conversation with the universe.”

Americans take agriculture for granted despite loud pronouncements on the importance of a healthy farming community to the nation, generally made by self-appointed champions. These declarations go unheard by most people who feel little personal attachment to modern agriculture. Part of the problem may be that the spokespersons use an economic (its big business) or lifestyle (support the family farm) argument to try to convince others of the critical need for a healthy agriculture. While most people generally understand intellectually that agriculture is both big business and a lifestyle, few are likely to connect personally to either of these two descriptions. As a business, American agriculture is extraordinarily efficient and as long as food is affordable and plentiful, people will not spend much time thinking about agriculture. As a lifestyle, Americans generally value the "idea" of the family farm but being more than two or three generations away from direct involvement in farming they have little personal commitment or interest. On the other hand, Americans may be able to develop a more personal understanding of agriculture as a means to connect with the earth, as "a conversation with universe." This conversation begins with the simple act of eating.

Wendell Berry (1) wrote that "...eating is an agricultural act. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true." Everyone living has no choice but to participate in agriculture through the act of food consumption. This can be either a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy -- or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with the earth and thus with all of Creation. According to Berry "when food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous."  This amnesia prevents humans from valuing the contribution agriculture makes to their lives as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

How we eat is an expression of our commitment to larger social values, such as community and democracy. Berry writes; "...we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that neither can we be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free." Berry presents a few ideas on how we may each free ourselves from this amnesia. He suggests that we:

·                        participate in food production to the extent that we can,

·                        prepare our own food,

·                        learn the origins of the food we buy,

·                        deal directly with a local farmer, and;

·                        learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden "wastes", as a necessary means of reconnecting humans with the earth.

The nature of our interaction with the earth is an expression of how we see ourselves as human beings. A highly mechanized and specialized agriculture while being efficient in the short- term disconnects humans from the earth, making us masters of the planet allowed to mine and pollute the ecosystems which support all living beings. While people might prefer a more complementary relationship with the earth and an agriculture working in harmony with other species, they have been convinced we must "farm fencerow to fencerow" to be efficient. Francis Moore Lappe' (2) asks: "why do we tolerate rules of economic life that violate our sense of the sacred, of justice, of love itself?" At the heart of this question is the conflict between the world we want and the world we know. She answers her own question with the statement "we avoid seeing or admitting the impact of market economy through a mental packaging of our ideas about ourselves. The essential trick is believing that we are each really two people - the one moral and the one economic."  Perhaps it is our intuitive understanding that modern agriculture serves the economic self at the expense of the moral self that causes us to look away when the champions of American agriculture loudly proclaim it to be the envy of the world. We are unable or unwilling to face the dichotomy between what we need for our moral self and what we desire for our economic self.

 Lappe' proposes a solution. She writes: "only as we leave behind this false notion of the 'economic self' will we be able to critique and resist economic rules that violate our deepest intuitions about our most basic human values and needs, including . . . our need to cherish the sacred (including our land), our need for fairness as the very basis of community, and our need for love expressed in solidarity with our neighbors." Agriculture represents the most fundamental and comprehensive of all interactions between the human species and the earth and could nurture the moral self while supporting the economic self as well. Instead the form of agriculture we currently practice actually prevents humans from personally experiencing a connection with the earth.

Wes Jackson (3) describes our awareness of the earth as a technologically mediated, rather than a personal experience. He writes "Astronaut Edgar Mitchell has often been asked what it was like to experience the moon. He replies that he was too busy being operational to experience the moon." According to Jackson, we have become "...more operational, with less and less time to experience the earth." Buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket or eating at fast food outlets do not add to the personal human experience of the earth.

 The disconnection between the human species and the earth is supported by our Cartesian view of the universe that divides wholes into parts and gives priority to the importance of the part (humans) over the whole (the earth). Science is particularly good at dividing wholes for the purpose of study. Unfortunately when we do this we lose the understanding of those characteristics that only occur as part of the whole. For example, it would be foolish to try to understand the "speed" of one part of an airplane, such as its wing. It is equally as foolish to try to understand the health of a human organism or an agricultural ecosystem by studying its parts.

The science of Sir Issac Newton is built upon an understanding of a mechanical universe in which whole systems can be dismantled for study, modified and put back together. This mental model influences most professions and is quite useful when the area of study is actually mechanical. However, people and ecosystems are not machines but born of an organic universe in which the parts are all interdependent components within a hierarchy of increasing complexity. The hierarchy of atom, molecule, cell, organ, organism, species, ecosystem, and beyond, provides a framework for understanding the interplay among components at each level and among levels, including the human/ecosystem interaction. In this system, higher levels depend on lower levels for their mechanism (function and structure), while lower levels look to higher levels for their purpose. In this schema for example, the mechanism of a human organ such as a kidney exists at the level of its component cells, but its purpose at the level of the human organism.

A parallel system provides a framework for understanding the relationship between farmers and the larger society. Wes Jackson (4) writes "what is happening to the farmer and the farm is a faint foreshadowing of what is to come to the culture at large. The farmer is not an atomistic unit or satellite, sitting off to one side, needing repair. Neither is the farm. Agriculture in the largest sense cannot be repaired independently of culture and society. Vulnerability and helplessness begin with the fields, which are subject to erosion and pollution. Next most vulnerable and helpless are the people who work those fields... This is an inverted pyramid of vulnerability that begins with the farmer, and widens as we move upward to include the larger society." In Jackson's model, the mechanism of society is determined by the component parts (farmers, consumers, etc.), but the purpose of farming is the sustenance of human society and perhaps of the earth itself. Unless all of the human species attend to the health of farms, farming and agriculture's support systems, the entire planet will remain in jeopardy. If this understanding were widely accepted, it would be far easier than it is today to convince people of the importance of a healthy agriculture. Many people of course would argue that agriculture is healthy today.

Agriculture is highly efficient and successful when considered at its own level. At the next level however, the level of purpose, we can see that it fails in the sense that it causes a continual eroding away of the capacity of the earth to support life, including but not limited to human life. An agriculture that destroys both natural and social systems fails to achieve its own purpose. Wendell Berry (5) writes; "an agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it and that provide it with models. A culture cannot survive long at the expense either of its agricultural or its natural sources. To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal." The "problems" of agriculture must be addressed at the level of the relationship of the human species with the earth, not simply the instrumental level of its own mechanisms. This is a spiritual quest. An examination of the problem might begin with the Creation story in which God creates the earth and non-human creatures, and then realizing the job wasn't quite done creates humans. This story separates human species from other species, from the earth, and from the universe. Unless humans develop a cosmology in which they are a part of, rather than apart from the rest of creation, it is unlikely that either the problems of agriculture will be solved or the moral self, well served.

Agriculture is both an economic and a moral act. Americans (and most of western society) worship the economic act, while ignoring the moral implications. Aldo Leopold (6) on the other hand said that we must understand an act as "... right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." If we consider humans as apart from the biological community, than we cannot farm according to Leopold's dictate since agriculture is the most invasive of all human activities. On the other hand, if humans are a part of the biotic community of which he speaks, then a stable and beautiful relationship becomes a human goal and therefore a goal for agriculture. Few examples can be found of agricultural activities today that tend toward "integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community."  Perhaps Allan Savory's Holistic Management, or Wes Jackson's perennial grain and polyculture experiment at the Land Institute, would qualify.

Leopold does not stand alone in his vision of a successful agriculture. E.F. Schumacher (7), wrote that agriculture must fulfill at least three tasks: "to keep man in touch with living nature, of which he is and remains a highly vulnerable part; to humanize and ennoble man's wider habitat; and to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed for a becoming life." In this statement he acknowledges the need to serve both the economic and the moral self. Schumacher continues; "I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are not merely neglected but systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival." An agriculture based on an understanding of humans as a part of nature is essential to prevent damage to both the global ecosystem and the human soul.

 This view was stated clearly by Vaclav Havel in his 1990 address to the U.S. Congress when he said: "we are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted... We are still destroying the planet..." Few humans today see themselves as a part of creation. Religious "heretic" Matthew Fox (8) proposes a panentheistic view of divinity in which "God is found in all things and all things in God." He writes; "to relocate divinity in the depths of nature and of the self is to reencourage an entire civilization to listen to its creative powers and to allow those powers to emerge once again." Even Aldo Leopold spent most of his life believing in the divine right and superiority of the human species, rather than "divinity in the depths of nature."

Aldo Leopold was an analytic, scientific manager of natural resources for most of his career (9). Toward the end of his life however, he published The Sand County Almanac, in which he proposed a moral equality among all species that at first seems at odds with most of his career. This mature perspective on management of natural and farming systems represents a faith in science couched in a strong moral foundation. Leopold proposed an "integrated theory of environmental management" that would allow management of species within the context of ecological wholeness. In Leopold's experience, single species management in German forests, the American rangelands, or on U.S. farms brought ecological disaster. Late in his life, Leopold called for management of forest and farming systems to be done within the context of the next higher level of complexity in an ecological hierarchy.

If agriculture is to be examined within the next highest level of the hierarchy, human culture itself must be understood within the context of that which is "higher than humans." This might be the study of the relationship between humans and the global ecosystem, surely an important area for science. Another view might look at the relationship between the human species and the next level, which might be called divinity, God, nature, the cosmos, Tao, harmonic connectivity, or otherwise. Our relationship with the cosmos is expressed through our interaction with the earth and the other species that co-exist on the planet. The dominant form of this interaction with the earth is agricultural. By learning to interact with the earth appropriately through agriculture, human kind may not only avoid further destruction of the planet but also save its own soul, but this can only happen one soul at a time. Wendell Berry (8) writes "the only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way... one must begin in one's own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions."


American agriculture has been eminently successful at displacing millions of people from the land, thus reducing the likelihood of a personal relationship with the earth. We need to discover ways in which individuals may reconnect with the sacredness of the earth through agriculture. We need new ways to engage in this critical “conversation with universe."

    The Universe is sacred.

    You cannot improve it.

                Lao Tsu (10)

(1) Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

(2) Moore Lappe', F. 1990. Food, Farming, and Democracy. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

(3) Jackson, W. 1990. Making Sustainable Agriculture Work. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

(4) Jackson, W. 1987. Meeting the expectations of the land. IN: Alters of Unhewn Stone.

(5) Berry, W. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Press.

(6) Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac.

(7) Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful.

(8) Fox, M. 1995. A mystical cosmology: toward a postmodern spirituality. IN: Wrestling with the Profits: Essays on Creation Spirituality and Everyday Life. HarperCollins.

(9) Norton, B.G. 1991. Making the land ethic operational: toward an integrated theory of environmental management. IN: Beyond the Large Farm: Ethics and Research Goals for Agriculture. Westview Press.

(10) Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu (circa 600 B.C.); translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Vintage Books (1989).


John M. Gerber. January 1997 (revised slightly in 2003).  Please provide feedback on this article by contacting the author at