Food Issues Book Club - Nature as Measure from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Who's ready to dive in to Wendell Berry's essays on farming and food?  Exciting!  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm going to switch up the format a bit and only have summaries for this book (...probably).  Some posts may also have some thoughts at the end.  We'll see!  Also, note the year for each essay, and the time periods are important and telling.  I can tell you up front that reading my summaries will not, in any way, replace the wordsmithing of Mr. Berry.  I strongly suggest you read his words for yourself!  OK, let's do this.  :)

Bringing It to the Table: Nature as Measure, 1989


In the 1940s, in some parts of the country, farms were small and diversified and well supported by their communities.  Decades later those lands have become depressing, devoid of variety and full only of "cash-grain."  The communities have become aged as the young decline to follow footsteps, and so the community support systems have declined as well.  The knowledge of how to care well for the land has been lost, and that loss is visible.

Despite the loss of knowledge and quality, tobacco farmers face increased demand.  Though tobacco isn't food it's grown as food is: it follows that the same loss of know-how but increase in demand will happen with food crops.  "The fact is that we have nearly destroyed American farming , and in the process have nearly destroyed our country."

This destruction has come about because we have cared only about production, believing that technology will keep up with endless increase.  "We have been winning, to our own inestimable loss, a competition against our own land and our own people."  The resulting food surplus gives us false security.  This focus on production ignores two requirements just as important as - and crucial to - continued production: that land be used well, and that people know how to and are able to use it well.

We must replace the standard of production with the standard of nature.  "By returning to 'the nature of the place' as standard, we acknowledge the necessary limits of our own intentions... The appropriate measure of farming then is the world's health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure."

Because the singlemindedness of production takes as much as it wants by any means necessary, exhaustion is inevitable - of both the land and its people.  By engaging nature instead, a conversation grows between farmer and farmed.  When the farmer is willing to listen, nature will tell what she can let thrive.  "In a conversation, you always expect a reply."

Farming in line with nature requires knowledge of the land, a small scale, and a supportive community.  Farming for production leads only to exhaustion.  "The inability to distinguish between a farm and any farm is a condition predisposing to abuse, and abuse has been the result."


I am not a farmer.  I've planted a few successful flowers in the yard, and when I was a kid we had a small vegetable patch that I loathed working in.  So when I say that Berry is SO TOTALLY RIGHT in his ideas about farming, it's not based on personal experience.  It is, though, based on somewhat extensive schooling and personal research on systems ecology.  Not to mention the fact that more and more leading minds are now - decades after Berry's writings on the subject - beginning to realize that fighting against the earth, forcing from it what we "need," is a short term proposition.

This essay lays out themes about farming sustainably that will repeat throughout Berry's essays on farming, making it an excellent starting point for the collection.

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