The new Harper's features a short essay entitled "The Necessity of Agriculture," in which Wendell Berry says that it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the love of farming. "No doubt there are people who farm without it, but without it nobody will be a good farmer or a good husbander of the land. We seem now to be coming to a time when we will have to recognize the love of farming not as a quaint souvenir of an outdated past but as an economic necessity."
But Berry fails to acknowledge the social reality of farming. Agriculture used to be fundamentally penal in nature (and prison farms still exist). When God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, he said, "Cursed be the ground because of you. In sorrow you shall eat from it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistle shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." Farming has always been the work of slaves and serfs.
Among the 6,000 people of Ur in 2000 BC, 2,500 were agricultural laborers. Of these, a number were overseers and supervisors. Only the lowest in social rank actually tilled the fields. This has remained constant for about 4,000 years now. Why did the manorial economic system, the system of serfdom, remain in place from early Roman times through the late middle ages? It is because farming ranked as one of the least pleasant of tasks.
Berry quotes a marvelous passage from Goethe's Faust in which Mephistopheles praises farming as "a natural way to make you young." That is, indeed, the devil speaking, for God certainly never said anything like that. It's a very attractive and romantic notion, hatched by eighteenth-century idealists, and quickly put into practice in farming communes throughout Europe and the United States. The Amish and the Mennonites still live by this creed; so do, to a lesser extent, the Israeli kibbutzim. Long may they prosper and increase! I buy locally grown food, I love to visit farms like these, and I certainly sympathize with Berry's points.
But why doesn't Berry praise mining instead? After all, metal has been fundamental to human life just as long as agriculture, both mining and farming have been the tasks of the lowest ranks of humans, and both were successfully industrialized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to reduce the proportion of the population employed in these degrading tasks. But do you ever hear about the love of mining?
Farming may long remain a chore which few people can love. More power to them. Perhaps they'll win in the end, as Berry and I hope. But if history has anything to say about the future, most farming will remain a task performed by slaves, serfs, peasants, and machines.