Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer: prophetic voice to a disintegrating culture
The Mad Farmer is a reoccurring character in Berry’s poems. The Mad Farmer serves as Berry’s poetic response to the changing cultural and agricultural times he conveys in his expose of modern agriculture, The Unsettling of America.
Since World War II America has made astonishing changes to the way food is planted, grown, harvested, and consumed by its citizens. The industrialization of agriculture, starting as a convenient way for companies and the government to convert chemical and industrial supplies left over from the war effort, has become the de facto means of food production within our country. An undercurrent of peaceable revolution has rippled across this country following the wake of industrial agriculture, and the sentiments of this revolution are expressed poetically in Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems.
By 1968, Billard cites that American farmers were already spreading 40 million tons of chemical fertilizers, or 260 pounds for each acre under cultivation. These figures, along with the disturbing demographical fact that “in 1910 our farm population accounted for a third of the U.S. Total. By 1969 it was a mere twentieth,” convey the sociological phenomena that lead Berry to make the following point:
“The concentration of the farmland into larger and larger holdings and fewer and fewer hands— with the consequent increase of overhead, debt, and dependence on machines— is thus a matter of complex significance, and its agricultural significance cannot be disentangled from its cultural significance. It forces a profound revolution of the farmer’s mind: once his investment in land and machines is large enough, he must forsake the values of husbandry and assume those of finance and technology. Thenceforth his thinking is not determined by agricultural responsibility, but by financial accountability and the capacities of his machines. Where his money comes from becomes less important to him than where it is going. He is caught up in the drift of energy and interest away from the land. Production begins to override maintenance. The economy of money has infiltrated and subverted the economies of nature, energy, and the human spirit. The man himself has become a consumptive machine.”
Thus the Mad Farmer character in Berry’s poetry performs the actions of a revolutionary farmer as outlined in Berry’s philosophical works. The Mad Farmer is a prototype and archetype at the same time: because he holds to the old ways of nature, energy, and the human spirit in a world where money is the only economy and machine the only means of consumption, while at the same time pushing us toward a brave new world of sustainability
“The Mad Farmer Revolution” poeticizes what a “revolution” of farming would be, which is Berry’s way to rewrite the wrongs of industrial agriculture. As the bonds of the local community unraveled with the industrialization of agriculture farm towns across America simply boarded up and became ghost towns.
There is power in a single plow (click image for source, montage: J Fowler)
The Mad Farmer character seeks to tie the disparaged community back together with the bond that brought them together in the first place: growing food to survive. The Mad Farmer ties the cornerstones of the community together through the act of plowing:
“He plowed the churchyard, the minister’s wife, three graveyards and a golf course. In a parking lot he planted a forest of little pines… He led a field of corn to creep up and tassel like an Indian tribe on the courthouse lawn.”
Berry firmly believes that the loss of land to corporations and powerful conglomerates cemented the separation of men from the land and moved them into specialized roles utilizing technology and a reliance on machines for food and living instead of themselves and the community. The movement from community reliance to a reliance on corporations is evident in the size and power of major agricultural corporations. Twelve companies control 95% of American poultry production. Companies like Conagra and Cargill, which is the second largest private company in America, control vast amounts of the food supply which are then given to companies like Pepsi and Kraft for production and placement in supermarkets.
According to USDA statistics quoted in Frederick Kirschenmann’s “The Current State of Agriculture: Does It Have a Future?” Sixty one percent of America’s “total national agricultural product is now being produced by just 163,000” of America’s two million farms and “63 percent of that production is tied to a market or input firm by means of contractual relationship.” The agricultural production of the 1.3 million farmers who sell their food directly to the market accounts for just 9 percent of total national agricultural production.
Corporate America agri-business has fed us a revisionist history of food that tells us it’s okay and natural that our garlic comes from China, our pears come from Argentina, and our sheep come from New Zealand instead of from the people who live next door. The Mad Farmer seeks to replace the power of mechanical agribusiness conglomerates of America with farming in the local community. The Mad Farmer “sowed and reaped till all/the countryside was filled/with farmers and their brides sowing/and reaping.”
The Household is the Microcosm of All Community (original art by Jean-François Millet (II))
Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” makes clear the aims of the true farmer and agrarian: to rewrite our culture. The Mad Farmer warns that mass-marketing, profit, and middle-class’s insatiable need for consumption will lead us into a mindlessness and carelessness that allows us to be manipulated and controlled by politicians and corporations. The Mad Farmer thus advises us, when feeling suffocated by the overwhelming powers to not revolt with arms but to “Be like the fox/who makes more tracks than necessary,/some in the wrong direction./Practice resurrection.” This illustration is the way Berry seeks to rewrite the ills of modern industrial agriculture. We must do so by plowing the village green and by practicing resurrection in the places the generals and politicos have frustrated and fragmented with machines and chemicals: the home and our local community.
The home was once a place of domesticity in its most egalitarian sense, as Berry writes,
“a man who is in the traditional sense a good farmer is husbandman and husband, the begetter and conserver of the earth’s bounty, but he is also midwife and motherer. He is a nurturer of life. His work is domestic: he is bound to the household. But let “progress” take such a man and transform him into a technologist of production (that is, sever his bonds to the household, make useless or pointless or “uneconomical” his impulse to conserve and nurture), and it will have made of him a creature deformed, and as pained, as it has notoriously made of his wife.”
Berry sees in the effects of the “exploitive industrial economy” that both men and women “are suffering for the same reason: they are in exile from the communion of men and women, which is their deepest connection with the communion of all creatures.” This is why the Mad Farmer desires that farmers and their spouses go off as pairs to begin households, for the household is the microcosm of all community. If there is disunity in the household then there is disunity in the local community and the culture in general. Berry sees the reversal of the exploitive industrial economy and agribusiness beginning with the reversal of land trends in America. The first amendment to the “Mad Farmer Manifesto” is a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “… it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”
The landholders, a household held together by more than sexual energy and economic obligation, but by a desire to mutually care for each other as caretakers of their home and land, is the rewriting of current agricultural and fiscal policy: to not trust the people with the means of production, but to only trust corporations. This means that the Mad Farmer must go to the margins, to live in a way that is good for home and earth but peculiar to a culture that has lost its way.
The chapter “Margins”in The Unsettling of America provides examples of the Amish, organic farmers, and participants in “unorthodox agriculture” that are continuing to provide community and good living through the means of agriculture. Fortunately, since Berry wrote those words, the ability to participate in unorthodox agriculture has grown considerably. I live in the New York City area, and in the past few years the New York Times has provided such examples of unorthodox agriculture as Community Supported Agriculture, Green markets and farmers markets, street corner dealings for raw milk that look like drug exchanges, the raising of hens in Manhattan apartments, the local eating trend that places money and responsibility back into the community instead of into the coffers of agribusiness and conglomerates, the rise of organic produce, and the growing of herbs on window sills and patio decks. There is still a long journey ahead of us though, and the Mad Farmer insists we enter into these margins even if it means we are going against the perceived wisdom of our age. In “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” Berry opens the poem with these lines:
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it.
The prevailing advice in Berry’s day came from the Secretary of Agriculture: “Get big or get out.” Berry argues the opposite. He argues for a grassroots, community driven, agrarian minded approach to agriculture that in spite of the best “advice” will work precisely because it worked until we started to change it about 100 years ago. Agrarians are strong and unequivocal that this is not anti-technology, anti-progress, or nostalgic in any way. What the mad farmer wants is the ability to progress culturally, agriculturally, and technologically in ways that do not destroy the economies of nature, energy, and the human spirit for the sake of wealth and greed. And if we have to become unorthodox, strange, or peculiar, then so be it.