Food Issues Book Club - Renewing Husbandry 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...

Bringing It to the Table: Renewing Husbandry, 2004


Industrial agriculture took hold rapidly because "by the measures it set for itself, it was wonderfully successful."  The shift is seen easily in the change from animal-drawn plows to the use of petroleum-driven tractors.  While older generations shunned the new machines for their compacting the soil, young farmers in the 1950s embraced them for their speed.  After five decades it has become evident that, though frustrating, the limitations of the Old Ways of farming are actually beneficial in the long term.  "[L]imits are not only inescapable but indispensable."

More important than the change in method of farming was the accompanying change in how farming was thought about.  For a farmer to continue to see himself as a steward of the land after mechanization was possible, but required an effort not frequently seen; this has resulted in a loss of husbandry.  "Husbandry is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us."  One effect of our disconnection from husbandry is that farmers have been convinced that they should no longer feed themselves.  "The result is utterly strange in human experience: farm families who buy everything they eat at the store."

A shift away from husbandry is reflected in agricultural language: rather than soil and animal husbandry, we now teach soil and animal science.  This has led to a drastically oversimplified understanding of farm work.  Where soil husbandry understands soil as a living matrix, a being greater than the sum of its parts, soil science sees an inanimate compilation of components.  The health of the soil, then, is no longer considered since health is a concept seen as applying "only to living creatures."

Animal science, likewise, "forgets, almost as a requirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as fellow creatures of the animals."  That oubliessance is what allows us to use animals like cogs in a factory, "which like the concentration camp, is a vision of Hell."  Proper husbandry of animals, at its most basic, feels good.  Warehousing animals requires the shutting off of feeling.

"It is strange that a science of agriculture founded on evolutionary biology, with its practical emphasis on survival, would exempt the human species from these concerns."  Whereas agricultural husbandry strives for local adaptation and local coherence on a farm, agricultural science has tried to turn these on their heads - forcing land to unnatural production through technology.  "Our recent focus on productivity, genetic and technological uniformity, and global trade - all supported by supposedly limitless supplies of fuel, water, and soil - has obscured the necessity for local adaptation."  Such use of force against the land and animals can only be a short term endeavor.


In this essay, Berry surprises me in his discussion of animals.  While in other essays he describes his disdain for CAFOs and the like, this is the first in which he has given any acknowledgement that animals might have feelings, and that respecting their feelings is good for people.  He seems to stand a fair distance past the "I don't want to know where it comes from mmm bacon" consumers of the developed world, and yet is still miles from where vegan activists would want him to be.  It raises the question I ask myself so frequently: do we, the vegan movement, count him as an ally on the subjects on which we agree, or cast him out whole because he doesn't meet us where we stand on all fronts?

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