Rod Dreher

It took Sharon Astyk’s blog post about the demographic crisis in agriculture (she’s now blogging on Science Blogs, by the way) to crystallize in my mind what rubbed me the wrong way about Caitlin Flanagan’s disparaging Alice Waters for her Edible Schoolyard program. Excerpt:

On Science Blogs there’s a lot of discussion (good and valuable) about the importance of science education and preparing young people for careers in science. In the culture at large, there’s a lot talk (good and valuable) about the coming demographic shift in which we will need a lot more nurses, doctors and specialists in elder care. There is almost no discussion whatsoever of the even more pressing crisis in agriculture – the profound need to train young people to grow food. The assumption has been that technology and resources are infinite and the path to ever-fewer farmers and offshoring of agriculture will continue indefinitely.
Even more than the “technology and cheap energy will save us” assumption that is so prevalent and wrong in our society is another underlying assumption, even more destructive. It is that because agriculture is unskilled labor, work suitable to people who aren’t qualified for better and higher things, we will simply be able to handle this through market forces – as low wage jobs disappear in one area, those people will just become farmers. But that’s ridiculous on several levels. The first is that low wage workers can’t buy land, and often can’t even rent it. But the more important one is this – agriculture is highly skilled, highly thoughtful, important work that requires an enormously varied skill set. I know this because I’ve been trying to acquire it for most of the last decade, and I now finally feel like I know enough to describe what I don’t know. Learning to farm was considerably harder than academia, than learning multiple languages, reading Kant or writing publishable papers. It was also a hell of a lot more fun, but that doesn’t diminish the difficulty of understanding an ecological system that you depend upon.
Let us say that we will need only 5% of the US population to become farmers. But since the vast majority of farmers are facing retirement within the next two decades, and under 35 farmers are such a tiny percentage, that means we will need to train 30-50 times as many young farmers in the next two decades as we have been doing. The numbers could be substantially higher. But where would even those small numbers of farmers come from? Even if the younger farmers were to have a lot of kids and encourage them to stay on the farm, that doesn’t resolve the problem.
So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society – while we’ve always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn’t happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that’s the problem we face.

Read the whole thing. Flanagan’s assumption that growing things is crap work that no US immigrant who aspires for his children to rise into the American overclass would want them to learn how to do was what was eating at me. So to speak.

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