The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Agriculture


 Richard Cartwright Austin is a Presbyterian minister who farms in Dungannon, Virginia, and teaches environmental theology with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center. His four-book series on Environmental Theology includes a biblical theology (Hope for the Land: Nature in the Bible), a study of nature spirituality (Baptized into Wilderness: a Christian Perspective on John Muir), a philosophy of ecological relationships (Beauty of the Lord: Awakening the Senses), and recommendations for personal ethics and public policy (Reclaiming America: Restoring Nature to Culture).

Dick owns a membership farm in southern Appalachia from which he ships maple syrup and a Peck of Pretty Peppers nationwide. For information on books, farm membership, and farm products, write Chestnut Ridge Farm, Route 1, Box 318, Dungannon, VA. 24245. Copyright 1994: Richard Cartwright Austin

The Reverend Austin contributed the following essay to Environmental Review.

The Spiritual Crisis in American Agriculture

     The spiritual crisis of modern agriculture is deeply embedded within the other levels of crisis affecting rural culture in the United States, and indeed around the world. Therefore, I will set the spiritual crisis in the context of the economic crisis of agriculture, the ecological crisis of agriculture, and the political crisis of agriculture. Elements of the spiritual crisis affecting modern agriculture will appear in relation to each of these.

      I define agriculture broadly: it is the culture that emerges from human cultivation of the Earth, the culture that guides our continuing relationships with land-based systems of life upon which we depend for sustenance. Agriculture is a distinctive fusion of economics, technology, ecology, politics, place, and spirit. Modern agriculture reflects the deepening crisis of Western culture as a whole and, indeed, it contributes to that crisis. The farm is no refuge from the ills of America, Sadly, it exemplifies many of them.

Economic Contributions to Spiritual Crisis.

    The economic crisis of agriculture was recently made comprehensible by Stewart Smith, staff to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress, who now teaches agricultural economics at the University of Maine. Smith prepared the chart below that traces the growth of farming-related industries, in constant dollars adjusted for inflation, from 1910 to 1990. American agribusiness, a $75 billion enterprise in 1910, has grown four-fold to become a $300 billion enterprise today, stating the growth in constant 1984 dollars.

     Smith divides agribusiness into three sectors: (1) marketing, (2) farming, and (3) inputs. The biggest growth has been in marketing, the upper sector on the chart. This includes all businesses that receive produce from farms in order to mill, slaughter, finish, package, prepare, transport, and market foods to consumers. Agricultural marketing of US produce has grown from a $35 billion industry in 1910 to over $200 billion today.      

The bottom sector on the chart shows the value of inputs purchased by farmers, such as tractors, machinery, tools, fuel, seeds, fertilizers, and farm chemicals. While not so huge a business as marketing, the agricultural input sector has in fact sustained the fastest rate of growth during this century. Farmers purchased $11 billion of inputs in 1910. By 1990, farmers were purchasing nearly seven times that amount, spending $75 billion a year.

     The middle sector on the chart represents farming itself. It shows the economic value added by farmers through their own work with the land: that is, the value of what farmers sell, less the costs of what farmers purchase in order to farm.      We can see that farmers' contribution to agribusiness has not grown at all during the century. Farming was a $30 billion enterprise in 1910. It is no larger today. While farming did grow to become a $55 billion enterprise by the end of World War II, the value of farming has been steadily shrinking since 1945. Indeed, while farming comprised 40 percent of agribusiness in 1910, farming the land is barely 10 percent of American agribusiness today. Farming itself is now dwarfed by the industries which supply farmers, on the one hand, and by those, on the other hand, that span the gap between farmers and consumers.

     The principal reason for the economic decline in farming is that farmers have been persuaded to reduce their productive role. That is, they have been persuaded to buy things they used to provide for themselves, and they have been persuaded to sell raw commodities to others to finish rather than finish and market produce themselves. As farmers have reduced their economic role, their rewards have declined as well.

     Modern farmers have become accustomed to purchasing more and more inputs to replace their own labor and ingenuity. Rather than raising work horses and mules, modern farmers buy tractors. Rather than growing feed, they buy fuel. Rather than using cover crops and manure to generate fertility, farmers buy fertilizer. Rather than tilling and hoeing for weed control, they buy herbicides.      Modern farmers also sell more bulk commodities and less food ready for human consumption. The profits from preparing food for market now go to others. In 1910 most farmers sold a significant portion of their production to local retail establishments, bartered one product to a neighbor for another that they need, or performed retail services themselves.

     The farmer who worked my farm two generations before me delivered eggs to families and traded chickens to the local grocery for other supplies. He also ground his neighbors' corn for their animal feed and their kitchen cornmeal. Now most farmers sell nearly everything they raise to bulk buyers. Few grow much of their own food or trade for supplies in the neighborhood. The families of wheat farmers eat Wonder Bread. They have no grinding mill, and they are too busy to bake.      Farmers made these changes in a search for greater profits. Indeed, yields per acre have improved, but the farmer's direct contribution to the value of his produce has diminished. The cash outlay to grow a bushel of corn - in machinery, fuel, and fertilizer - increased; while the cash return for a bushel declined as farmers had to sell most of their increased production to bulk buyers rather than directly to customers, neighbors, or retail outlets. Furthermore, in order to reap the rewards of machinery, chemicals, and specialization, each farmer required more land.                

Here we encounter our first indication of spiritual crisis. Remember that, in the Bible, God's Tenth Commandment specifies, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house or thy neighbor's field." Nevertheless, following the Second World War, government agencies with money for farmers, land-grant universities, extension agents, bankers, equipment dealers, and seed salesmen, all told farmers that they must covet their neighbor's fields and, indeed, tear down their neighbor's houses, in order to farm efficiently. "Get big, or get out!"

     Most pastors, theologians, church leaders, philosophers, and lovers of rural community remained silent, and some even endorsed this advice. Strong, ambitious farmers, their guilt assuaged by the rationalizations of experts, bought out the weak, who moved, often unprepared, to our great cities.

     A few farmers are making more money, but there is no more economic activity on America's farmland as a whole than there was in 1910. Indeed, year after year, economic life has drained away from farms, rural communities, and small towns, as fewer farmers tend larger farms, with more capital at risk, buying less from local suppliers and selling less to local communities. Modern agribusiness has systematically depleted, impoverished, and destroyed the farming sector and its surrounding communities for the benefit of those whose machinery, fuel and fertilizer the farmer must buy, and those who transport, process, and package the farmer's crops for distant markets.

     If the rural economy is to improve, farmers must reduce inputs - substituting their own labor, ingenuity, and biological knowledge for some of the fertilizers, chemicals and machinery now purchased elsewhere. Secondly, farmers must return to the processing and distribution of commodities for regional markets so they can recapture some of the value added to their produce in the marketing sector. These changes are community oriented. They are also labor-intensive.

     Therefore, the third requirement for rural revitalization is that more people tend smaller farms, that they form neighborhood networks of support to reduce the costs and risks of farming, and that they create diverse product niches within their regional economy. It turns out that, for our economic survival, farmers need neighbors as much as we need land. For rural communities to prosper, Jesus' commandment to "Love thy neighbor" must overcome greed for thy neighbor's land.

Ecological Contributions to the Spiritual Crisis    

  The ecological crisis of agriculture can be seen in the decline of species on the farm, the deterioration of living communities, and the destruction of life-support systems. The human species has orchestrated this decline, but we are also a principal victim. There are fewer and fewer people on the land, while rural villages and market towns decay as well. Those who remain are less self-sufficient, more dependent upon goods and services from distant suppliers.

     A comparable situation pertains for species and living systems at every level. There are fewer animals on the farm. Work horses and mules were evicted from most farms long ago. Now cattle and poultry are being removed from farmland and concentrated, for much of their lives, in fetid feedlots or factory confinement buildings. When livestock is evicted, then fence-rows are removed to create the larger fields that must be managed with chemical sprays. This destruction of shelter evicts birds and small mammals, while those who remain are poisoned by the chemicals.

     When farmers specialize in order to capture the efficiencies of large equipment and to meet the demands of wholesale markets, they replace crop diversity with monocultures or two-crop rotations of genetically uniform grains. Wild plant species are suppressed with herbicides.  The fundamental biological nature of farming has been stood on its head by a century of industrialization. In traditional agriculture, healthy soil and sun's radiant energy fed the plants that became grasses for livestock, grains and other foods for humans. Indirectly, the sun provided the horsepower needed for cultivation, since draught animals lived on grasses and grains grown on the farm they worked. Such a farm was an ecosystem, modified by the farmer's ingenuity to convert solar energy into food and fiber to meet human needs. It was a net exporter of energy, in the form of useful foods and fibers, to the rest of human society.  This is no longer true. The modern farm consumes more energy in tractor fuel alone than it delivers in crops for human consumption, while the energy required to make farm equipment and, in particular, the energy in commercial fertilizer, multiply this input many times. Once a net producer of energy for human society, agriculture is now a net energy consumer.

     Recently Bob Bergland, former Secretary of Agriculture, told me that from the seed entering the ground to the biscuit entering your mouth it now requires fifteen calories of petroleum energy to deliver one calorie of food energy. When, in the next generation, oil reserves are depleted and fuel prices rise, modern farming will become economically untenable and, finally, physically impossible. The world's food systems could collapse if we do not convert to alternative production strategies.      The most serious destruction caused by modern agriculture is hidden below our feet. Farming systems that rely upon the suppression of life and the substitution of artificial fertilizers, kill the soil. Worms are depleted, microorganisms decline, soil tilth diminishes, less water is absorbed, flooding and erosion increase.      In many farming regions the water table is so contaminated by nitrogen fertilizers that farmers must drink bottled water, and nearby town water supplies are also threatened. In the Midwest, rainfall in some seasons includes measurable quantities of Roundup and other herbicides. The Earth's life-support systems that have sustained the development of all species and the emergence of humanity are now beginning to rain death down upon us.

     I remember an August morning when I drove along back roads in western Ohio. The gently rolling landscape was silent and no creatures could be seen. The planted fields were growing either corn or soybeans. Although many fields were fallow, there was no livestock grazing them. Some farmhouses were well maintained, but there were no vegetable gardens. I looked for human activity, but in my two-hour drive I did not see any men, women, or children in gardens, around the barns, or in the fields - even though this was the cool of the day. Life had left the landscape. Agriculture was dying.

     A few mornings later, 100 miles to the northwest, I drove down other back roads near Shipshewana, Indiana. Most of these farms belong to Amish families. The landscape was alive. Horses and dairy cattle could be seen on every farm, and on many there were pigs or sheep, chickens or geese. The roadsides hummed from insects, rabbits darted into the brush, birds sang on the fence posts, and the fresh air bore various aromas - most of them pleasant. Beside every farmhouse was a large vegetable garden with a beautiful flowered border. Children were outdoors weeding the gardens. Men were adjusting equipment in the barnyards.      Nearly half the farms displayed signs advertising some service performed on the premises: "Harness Shop," "Small Engine Repairs,""Quilts for Sale,""Miller's Greenhouse,""Firewood, Landscape Timbers, Fence Supplies," even "Yoder's Book Store." Along the gravel roads a steady traffic of horses and buggies carried men and women upon various errands. The landscape was alive, agriculture was thriving, and the scene was beautiful.

     According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of US land devoted to farming has declined from 57 percent in 1970 to 51 percent in 1990. Nevertheless, farmers are still responsible for tending half of all the land area in the United States. In response to a deepening ecological crisis, farmers must decide to abandon warfare upon nature. We must learn again the techniques of cooperation with living systems.      This brings us to another significant dimension of the spiritual crisis of American agriculture. Modern Christian churches have not, as a rule, valued livestock and wildlife, plants and natural systems, as members of God's creation worthy of moral regard and protection. We have not recognized other creatures as participants in the community of redemption. We have not given to farmers, or to our other parishioners, the guidance, inspiration, and support that people need in order to care thoughtfully for the Earth and its living communities.      It is odd that we have not done so, for the Bible that we treasure is quite inclusive of nature. In the first chapter of Genesis, God's delight in the species and systems of life shines through the day-by-day narrative. When announcing the covenant of redemption as flood waters receded from the Ark, God spoke plainly to Noah's family:      "I now make my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, all birds and cattle, all the wild animals with you on Earth, all that have come out of the ark."

     The covenant God offered through Moses created not just a Holy People but also a Holy Land. Sabbath law gave rights for rest, renewal, and provision to ox and ass as well as citizen, slave, and alien - to the poor of the land, but also to the very ground itself.      The Gospel of Mark tells us that, after his baptism, Jesus retired to the wilderness and spent time with wild beasts, while Luke reports that when Jesus first stepped into Peter's boat, the slack nets were overwhelmed by fish crowding close. Saint Paul argued in Romans that as God's new children learn through Christ how to manifest the image of God to nature, "the universe itself" will be so revived as to "enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God."

     John, in his Patmos vision, foresaw that in the final days when Christ, the Lamb Triumphant, opens the Book of Life, every creature will join in praise because all will be beneficiaries: "all the living things in creation - everything that lives in air, and on the ground, and under the ground, and in the sea."      How this full gospel got squeezed down through the centuries into a message which is sometimes little more than defensive, anthropocentric escapism - that is too long and complex a story to tell  here. It is sadly true, however, that those with an evangelical compassion for nature have been minorities within the Christian tradition.

     During the settlement of North America, Quakers tried to express their vision of making peace with nature and its native inhabitants, while several Anabaptist groups established communities with rigorous agricultural ethics: Nevertheless, most Christian communions had social ethics but lacked environmental ethics: that is, they had little sense that the community of moral regard included livestock, wildlife, and the land itself.      There was little religious outcry at the abuse of land and the extermination of species that accompanies the expansion of white settlements across America. During the nineteenth century there was, indeed, a flowering of communities on the margins of American society - some religious, some socialist - that attempted more responsible relationships with the land: the Shakers, the Amana Community, the Mormons, and many whose names we no longer remember. But by the mid-twentieth century, only the Amish and Mennonites offered disciplined resistance to the transformation of agriculture in "agribusiness."      Indeed, the stewardship ethics that many American rural churches advocate today depend upon a profound irony. Were it not for instruction from the federal government, these churches might not retain even a minimal land ethic. When Dust Bowl winds lifted topsoil off farms across the plains during the Great Depression, an energetic Soil Conservation Service (SCS) turned to rural churches for assistance.

     The SCS took a utilitarian conservation philosophy developed by Gifford Pinchot, wrapped it in biblical images, and marketed "Land Stewardship Sundays" to pastors so they, in turn, might motivate farmers in their congregations to protect soil during the national emergency. To this day, thanks to this federal program, most rural Christians have some understanding that "stewardship" applies to the land.

     When, in 1959, I began my first pastorate in a five-church, rural Pennsylvania parish, I was contacted by a regional SCS agent who invited me to an annual conference for new pastors. There I was given training and literature to help me interpret land stewardship to the congregations I served. Although I had attended a leading Protestant theological seminary, this was the first time I heard land stewardship mentioned in a Christian context. Not long after, this federal training for pastors was discontinued.      I have since come to the conviction that stewardship is not an adequate category to express Christian ethics toward natural life and living systems. Jesus instructed his hearers in the stewardship of the fruits of the harvest and, by analogy, of other gifts and talents. However, most biblical language addressing our duties to land and natural life is less instrumental, more personal and relational. The more common biblical categories of interpretation are covenant and Sabbath, pollution and community. Stewardship ethics, as taught to us by the SCS are utilitarian. They objectify nature and, with the best intentions, reduce living creatures to commodities.

     Christian farmers need ethics that are more comprehensive than that. We need language that supports us when we experience the life on our land as part of our family, to be nurtured for its own sake, as well as its usefulness to us. We need language of respectful regard toward indigenous creatures that may be of no use to us, but yet share a place with us. Rural churches need images that help them embrace the full community of life within the congregation of praise. They need encouragement to see that reviving natural systems is part of the work of redemption.      For most of us, it is still a long journey to recover a faith that might respond adequately to the ecological crisis, the crisis of God's creation, within which we find ourselves.

Political Contributions to Spiritual Crisis

To uncover remaining dimensions of the spiritual crisis, I want to return to the political crisis of agriculture. This crisis is quite a bit more profound than such problems as the declining political strength of rural areas or the manipulation of farm policy by special interests. The political crisis is this: Americans are loosing our birthright to land, while western agricultural imperialism is destroying rural culture throughout the world.

     The promise of farmland helped to build America. From the days of Thomas Jefferson and for 100 years thereafter, any diligent person (or, at least, any person attached to a white male) could homestead farmland and, often with great struggle, fashion a decent life. America's rich blend of agriculture and industry offered wide opportunities to the ambitious and to the restless. Those who found rural life sterile could head for the cities; those frustrated by urban life could seek out the frontier. The opportunity to farm was an important social safety valve, a significant American birthright.

     In 1910, 32 million Americans lived on farms and, though many were tenants, the majority owned the land they lived on. By 1970 farm residents had declined to 10 million, and by 1990 to four-and-one-half million. Of these, only one million are active farmers. Now 250,000 farms grow 85 percent of the food and fiber produced in the United States.      Indeed, the largest group of farmers in America today, over 3 million strong, are seasonal and migratory farm workers who have no hope of tending land of their own. It is not truly efficient to replace farmers with machines when, as a result, the descendants of farmers huddle in urban ghettos, unemployed and severed from their birthright, while millions more who would love to farm for themselves must labor for others at minimum wage.

     In the Bible, God's commandment not to covet your neighbor's land was balanced with evangelical realism about farm consolidation. God knew that some people would in fact covet, while others would fail at the arduous task of farming, or be overwhelmed by misfortune. Over time, more and more land would inevitably be owned by fewer and fewer people.      Therefore, in the articulation of Sabbath law, God not only asked that debts be forgiven every seven years to slow this trend toward consolidation, but God also proposed land reform - Jubilee at the fiftieth year - when all might return to ancestral land, divide farms afresh among a new generation, and begin again.

     Land reform is difficult to achieve, of course. The Hebrew Scriptures document only one clear instance of broad reform under Nehemiah, and a few partial reforms. Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus proclaimed such a Jubilee in his first sermon at Nazareth:      "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for [God] has anointed me. [God] has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favor." Luke 4:18-19      In my book, Reclaiming America, I proposed a scheme for land reform consonant with American traditions. I call it "reopening the frontier." It is an orderly program, within our constitutional system, to acquire corporate lands and distribute them to any landless American who is willing, after appropriate training, to settle land and tend it with care. Today, in response to the spiritual crisis of agriculture, I suggest that churches have a role in pioneering such land reform strategies.      America needs examples of rural communities that are just, sustainable, and rich with life's diversity. We need models of redemptive strategy. Working examples of wholesome rural communities might persuade other communities to attempt reform and they might inspire the public to re-assert its birthright to America's land, forcing government-sponsored land reform.

     Christian denominations have a huge investment in rural America. Our churches spread profusely across the land and cluster in small towns. Most of these churches are dying along with the communities they serve. In addition to churches, there are hundreds of Christian colleges founded to serve communities that are now shadows of their former selves.      Christian denominations maintain camps, conference centers and theological seminaries as well - a range of rural institutions unrivaled by any other sector except the public school system. Most of these institutions are withering for lack of people, purpose, and funding. Rural Christendom is dying, but we have offered no resistance and proposed no reconstruction.

     For a start, in selected rural areas Christian churches, colleges, and institutions must band together to fashion an evangelical strategy to redeem the land, restoring it to life and community. Redemptive strategies include:

 The goal of this redemptive strategy is renewing the community of life: more people on the land and in surrounding towns, productively employed serving each other; healthier soil; more diverse crops for regional markets; more livestock raised on the farm under humane conditions; more wildlife, wild edges, and wild places; more small businesses, home crafts, and entrepreneurial activities; greater community sufficiency.

     If churches can help to achieve such results in a few places, the word will spread that a good life is still possible in rural America. More women and men will ask for access to land, and the political system will have to take notice.      Indeed, if Americans did something right on our own land, the whole world would notice. Sadly, America does not in truth feed the world; rather we contribute to world starvation. Contrary to the popular image, the United States is not a net exporter of food. We import more food, primarily fruits, vegetables, and beef, than we export, primarily grains.      In the Philippines, thousands of peasants have been evicted from subsistence holdings so land barons could replace crops for local consumption with pineapples for the American market. In Brazil the army was employed to force peasants from their farms so entrepreneurs could consolidate giant farms that raise soybeans for European cattle feed.      In Mexico, the government has cut back support for peasant agriculture in order to finance irrigated industrial farms that employ migrant workers to raise vegetables for the American winter market. The Indians and peasants who revolted in the province of Chiapas understand very well that modern agricultural policy is forcing them from their land - to subsist as migrant workers or to rot in urban slums.

     The so-called green revolution that developed high-yielding hybrid grains for Third World agriculture has also fostered the consolidation of peasant farms and reliance upon fertilizers, chemicals, and irrigation. The green revolution destabilized rural cultures, stimulated birth rates, and created hunger among the millions forced into urban penury.      Most of the subsidized grain we sell to Third World countries is fed to cattle which are sold back to industrial countries. Some of it, including some free Food for Peace, has been used deliberately by the US Department of Agriculture to depress the production of native grains in poor countries so that their populations become dependent upon American exports.

     During the nineteenth century, Christian missions were often the naive handmaidens of imperialism, confusing Western culture and technologies with the gospel itself. Christian missions today are often more sophisticated. Missionaries, working for indigenous churches, frequently encourage sustainable agriculture and appropriate technologies, and warn against the wholesale adoption of Western ways. Christian churches in many parts of the world are working to protect traditional cultures and threatened communities, even when that means protecting other religions.

     Nevertheless, in the post-Cold War world everything American is hugely seductive. If rural cultures are to survive anywhere on this globe, Americans must demonstrate at home that such cultures are important and that they can thrive. If Americans allow our own landscape to die, as our farmland is dying today, we cannot expect others to act more wisely.

     In summary, the spiritual crisis of agriculture requires these things of us:


Copyright 1996 Environmental Review