scholars and rogues

Local Hero

From time to time I wander over to Front Porch Republic, or What I Saw in America, or some other crunchy-con site, to see how they’re getting on. I can’t really tell yet–there still seems to be a fair amount of negative reaction from some of the more mainstream conservative sites (mainstream being a relative term here), ranging from disbelief to outright hostility, but leavened with some befuddlement–what are these folks up to? Well, I can’t claim to be an expert here, but it seems to me that they want to rescue conservatism from what it’s become. Specifically, the modern corporatist form of conservatism that seems to pervade the Republican party and the conservative news establishment, including thinktanks like the American Enterprise Institute. The problem, from the crunchy-con perspective, is the corporatist mind-set that has taken over the movement at the expense of localism. Globalization is not all it’s cracked up to be, in other words.

I’m way overgeneralizing here–there’s lots of other stuff gong on as well, including a broad range of opinion on issues such as abortion. But it’s interesting to me that some many of these young writers–and they are young, as a rule, or certainly younger than I am–have adopted Wendell Berry as one of their intellectual mentors. Because as anyone familiar with Berry’s work is aware, Berry is the philosopher of the local. I’ve been reading Berry for decades now, and his place in modern American thought is still a bit of a mystery. He’s written one of the best American novels of the century (A Place on Earth), a number of volumes of pretty good poetry (particularly Farming: A Handbook), and most importantly, a series of essays over the years that stand as a testament to sound conservative judgment.

Now, when did Berry, the arch-Luddite opponent of modern agribusiness, militarism and word processors, become a conservative? Well, I think pretty recently, judging by some of the commentary I see occasionally on blogs like the ones cited above. What has always struck me as odd is the fact that modern conservatism–at least as embodied in the Republican party since Reagan–hasn’t been particularly interested in, you know, actually conserving anything. Now, I’m a linguist by training, so I take words and their meanings seriously, and this has always struck me as important–if you’re conservative, what does that mean? I mean, what do you want to conserve?

It appears that I’m not the only one who has these concerns, and a number of young conservatives–or people who get lumped into that category, anyway (like Daniel Larison and Patrick Daneen and Katherine Dalton)–seem to be having the same uncertainties. So it’s an outright pleasure to see Berry taken seriously by thinkers outside of the environmental movement. Berry’s work, which is above all concerned with the notion of community and what can rend it asunder, is now appearing regularly as a point of reference in such blogs. As Katherine Dalton commented several months ago:

Well, we are all localists here, watching our national economy stagger and moan. Is there any room for a conversation about local economies? What would a local economy mean?

The fact is that the service economy often exploits the land economy, the way a plate seldom exploits a chicken leg, and so my analogy breaks down. But the land economy is the economy we really live from. We can’t eat financial advice, or insurance, or increased computer capacity, any more than we can eat air. As human animals we have to eat food and have clothing and shelter. Whatever service may be offered to bring us those essentials, none of those essentials is itself a “service,” but is instead a concrete thing that one way or another comes out of the ground.

Yet we operate in this country as though the land economy were unimportant, unnecessary, and even an economic drag. Experts and business executives of all sorts regularly make the argument that the United States should get out of the business of making shoes, or cars, or growing wheat, to concentrate more profitably on the services in which we so excel….The assumption is that we will never have trouble obtaining from others the food or shoes we disdain to provide for ourselves.

The Land Economy. She sounds just like Wes Jackson, doesn’t she, bless her heart. Or like Berry. Because what Berry is mostly concerned about is how we have displaced ourselves from the land in America, and the fact this this has enormously negative consequences that we are still, as a society, in denial about. And they show no signs of getting better.

I think this Berry mania is great. From my viewpoint, America has inflicted a number of wounds on itself the past several decades in the name of “free markets,” still clinging to the myth that there is actually such a thing. Berry isn’t much of a fan of these, actually. What he is a fan of is the dignity of work (remember that?), and the notion that we should take care of ourselves, particularly how we care for the land that supports us. And that we should have local knowledge–about the land, of course, but also about how to do the things we need to do to occupy the land–how to maintain and sustain it in particular. Well, at a time when externalities are catching up with us rapidly in any number of areas (global warming being the most obvious), we really need to pay more attention to what Berry is saying. And that means a return to the local.

Like many others, most of my parenting years took place in the suburbs. So before we moved to London in 1998, we lived in a pleasant leafy suburb of Boston called Hingham (founded 1637, and the guy who still plows my driveway is descended from one of the original families–it’s a town that pays attention to such things). There’s a lot to like, and not like, about Hingham, just like any place else. What we liked while we were there was the fact that it was gorgeous, we were able to buy a two hundred year old fixer-upper, I was able to commute to work by boat, the town had a great public library–the things that are important to suburban parents. But it was also a somewhat rural place when we got there in 1991, or had parts that could pass as rural. And immediately to the south of Hingham it got more rural. And one of the high points, at least for us, was getting milk delivered in bottles from Hornstra Dairy, which had been around for a while, and was local. And fourth-generation John Hornstra delivered our milk–in bottles. And I still remember Hornstra bringing us, every December, the best eggnog we’ve ever had. The Hornstra family actually sold off the local dairy operation years ago, but they do sole-source their milk from a single farm in New Hampshire, so it’s still local and, by the way, hormone free, and good for you, too.

The general area is a lot less rural now, and this has manifested itself any number of ways. One has been the sheer volume of homebuilding over the past two decades. This is true not only in Hingham, but throughout the country. There was a time when New Jersey calling itself The Garden State actually meant something. But homebuilding in suburbs often leads to a loss of agricultural land–we saw it in Massachusetts, and in New jersey before that. The local Hingham farmstand, Pushcart Farms, which sold the corn that they grew across the street, sold up while we were still there. Since then, several other farmstands in surrounding communities have also gone. My daughter, who still lives in Hingham, last year went looking for farmstands in the area–the nearest one was a good half hour drive at least. This has been a general trend in America–the pushing away of agriculture, as if it’s somehow interchangeable with other economic activities, like suburban development. It’s not, but we don’t want to admit it.

It’s not that agriculture in the area is gone. The Marshfield Fair still goes on south of us every year, with its pies and various variety of roosters and whatnot, and the 4-H club is still active down there. But it continues to get further and further away from the rest of us. This is true in the UK as well, although not nearly to the same extent. There has been considerable industrialization of agriculture here too, and the supermarkets do carry fruit from, say, Chile, just as in the US. But there is still a localism that seems pretty much gone now, or at least in danger of being lost, in America. We have our vegetables delivered weekly from Devon–we know what farm they come from. Our local butcher, before he retired, would get his meat from one farm up north. In fact, most butchers in the UK can tell you what farm, or farms, their meat comes from that week. And practically every town has its own weekend market with local meat and produce–the neighborhood we live in in London has several within easy bus stop distance from home over the course of the week. In part, this is because Britain is still an island, and this has allowed a certain localism to remain. And it’s not that large physically, certainly as compared with the US, which does make a difference. But it’s not just that. To the continued fury of the US policymakers (and “conservatives”), Europe has persisted in treating agriculture as different from everything else, and has continued to try to maintain a certain degree of localism in agriculture. Small farms continue to populate the landscapes here in a way that they don’t in the US. You literally can’t drive around the UK or most of Europe without seeing animals somewhere.

But there’s a rearguard action going on here, coming from people like John Hornstra. Now, I can’t say whether Hornstra has read Berry, but it doesn’t matter. They’re clearly on the same page. Because what Hornstra is now trying to do is bring back some agricultural localism to an area that is in danger of losing it completely. Hornstra recently bought a farm in the next town, and he’s got plans:

When John Hornstra bought Loring Farm this past June he already had a vision for the long forgotten parcel of land.

If things go his way, the new Hornstra Farm in Norwell could become a place for families to bring their kids, neighbors to pick up their milk and locally grown vegetables, and residents to enjoy the charm of a revitalized New England farm.

“I’ve wanted to buy this property for about 20 years,” Hornstra said. “There are only a few of these farms left. Since it’s protected, it can only be used for agriculture or else it probably would have become a subdivision long ago.”

Hornstra purchased the 80-acre farm on Prospect Street on June 4 for an undisclosed amount from the Prime family.

For years, Loring Farm has been protected by the state under conservation statutes that dictate the property only be used for farm or other conservation uses.

Now, this isn’t a slam dunk. But with the appropriate regulatory support from the state, it’s pretty likely that this will happen. Imagine–not just trying to maintain what’s there, but expanding it, and turning it into something of a local supplier. Note that he’s not just creating a little dairy amusement park/petting zoo here–this will be a working enterprise, and Loring farm is already a steady generator of food, although not in huge amounts. You can drive by the corn and pumpkins they grow as you head down Prospect Street. But the enterprise can be grown. Hornstra goes on:

I’ve always wanted a dairy farm since I was a kid,” Hornstra said. “I was so young when ours was sold, but I remember riding my bike at 5 a.m. to Crest Farm in Hingham to work on the weekends.”

Hornstra said he hoped that if his Hingham farm became successful enough he could finally buy a dairy farm of his own locally.

“I want this place to be a show place, to be a picture of that New England farm, with cows grazing, people having picnics and families coming to show their kids the animals. This is a really exciting project and I hope to make it something the public can embrace and enjoy.”

I no longer expect large victories. We should not underestimate how hard it will be to break the grip of agribusiness and processed food companies and supermarket chains. But small ones are still there to be celebrated. Go John!

Categories: scholars and rogues

10 replies »

  1. As someone who grew up — and was a journalist for 20 years — in a rural county of Massachusetts, much of this resonates with me. I have watched my former home county surrender much of its land economy (principally farms) to housing with subsequent consequences on land values and property taxes.

    The irony is you’d think this would be a principal Democratic issue. But the Dems are just as corporatist as the GOP.

    Thanks for the read, wuf.

  2. Great post, great insights. Lately every where I turn something reminds me of AFFLUENZA, which I recently completed. We really have lost all contact with our environment, and it gets harder and harder trying to imagine how that contact might be re-established.

  3. And yes, this should be a Democratic issue, but they’re as hopeless as the Republicans. Think Tom Friedman.

  4. Outstanding, thanks.

    Eat local. I’m lucky in that i’m good friends with a young farmer, and that there’s a community of such people in the area. Being that the climate is rather extreme, small farms tend to concentrate on livestock. (That’s outstanding, as local meat is the hardest to find.) He’s got the Berry ethos, as his mother and father before him, and while he’s some years from maximum production there are good things happening out at the Ohmstead.

    We’ve talked here about the difficulty that some have in gardening beyond the token, but even the token is enough to make the reconnection that wufnik, the crunchy-cons and John Hornstra are talking about.

    The best thing you can do as a modern American is to find and join a CSA. (community supported agriculture) Really, it’s capitalism. You invest up front and get the return on your investment in food.

  5. While i agree that this should be a Democratic issue (though keep in mind that the titular heads of the Democratic Party since 1992 are from the home of big ag, and have always been quite cozy with it), i’m not surprised that it’s got just as much, if not more, traction with conservatives (as opposed to Republicans).

    In my anecdotal experience, those with conservative social and political views are more likely to get their meat from part-time farmer neighbors, raise some if themselves, kill some it in the wild, and put in a vegetable garden as big as a football field. Liberal seem more likely to shop for out of season “organic” produce at retail locations or harangue a farmer who’s offering a whole flat of strawberry starts in exchange for one jar of jam at the end of the season. (The harangue was because the farmer couldn’t be sure if the stock plants that the cuttings came from were “organic”.)

  6. “What has always struck me as odd is the fact that modern conservatism–at least as embodied in the Republican party since Reagan–hasn’t been particularly interested in, you know, actually conserving anything.”

    You are largely correct here. But if you go back a little further to such conservatives as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, and the stream of American conservatism they represent, you’ll find much more that’s in line with “crunchy” and conservationist thinking. I’ve often said that if all Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons” accomplished was to get conservatives to read Kirk again, it did all of us a great service. The problem with a lot of contemporary conservatives is that their memory and experience doesn’t go back any further than Reagan. The crunchies, thankfully, are changing that.

  7. We are living on Martha’s Vineyard.There are local farms and farmers markets selling produce and meat and farm products during the growing season…. They hire the local kids to do the work and help underwrite their educations.. They bring an honesty ethos to the fore by doing good work and works……

    We need more of this type of endeavor….. Perhaps someone from MIT or just a dedicated thinker to come up with a solar greenhouse that uses solely solar energy, or almost solely solar… This type of technology could extend the viable season and the viability of farms that now are not viable as local producers of desirable foods….. Escargot too perhaps….

  8. Thomas: mostly solar greenhouses are fairly easy to build. Four seasons for northerners is something of a stretch, light wise, when considering fruiting crops like tomatoes. But a lot of food could come out of such a structure. The problem is financial: the cost of land and the initial cost of greenhouse construction (though a rigid greenhouse can last decades with nothing more than preventative maintenance). What comes out of a system like that will have to compete with a far inferior product at a cheaper price.

    When i see the acres and acres of flat roofs in big cities, i see what should be greenhouse platforms. Bring the gardens and farms into the city. Like this: