At the end of this month, my wife and I are moving to the family farm just outside of Shepherdsville, Kentucky. This is not where I expected to end up. Throughout my life I have been encouraged to do a lot of different things, but moving to a small farm was never one of them. I was expected to leave for college, go to a prestigious graduate school and then go on the national job market, moving to whatever city offered the best job.
I am, by my nature, given to asking questions. The bigger and more important the question, the better. I chose to major in philosophy, a field notorious for offering lots of questions and few answers. I later added a religion major for the same reason. I wanted to know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
My undergraduate college, Centre, encourages its students to become global citizens. I love Centre College (as does everyone who went there – we’re #1 in Alumni Happiness), and studied abroad frequently, but I now think that the emphasis on global citizenship may be misplaced. To be a citizen of the world one must first be a citizen of a place.
The questions of life, the universe, and everything do not have grand answers. But they do have individual and particular ones. As Wendell Berry puts it in his novel Jayber Crow, “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.” (1)
There are three reasons my wife and I are moving to the farm to live out our questions. In philosophical terms one could label them ethical, aesthetic, and existential reasons. In more everyday language, we are moving to the farm because we believe it is the right thing to do for the planet and human society, because the farm is beautiful, and because the farm (and associated community) infuses our lives with a sense of meaning.
Ethically, one of the first things I learned about in philosophy was the hidden costs of our current system of food production. Meat is produced cheaply, but at a terrible cost in terms of environmental degradation, animal suffering, and public health.
These hidden costs are not the fault of a few bad corporations or individuals at corporations, but rather the natural result of the commodification of agriculture. Turning animals and the land into mere commodities subject only to the laws of minimizing costs and maximizing benefits will inevitably lead to the misuse of both the land and the animals (human and nonhuman) that inhabit it. Wendell Berry writes:
To be well used, creatures and places must be used sympathetically, just as they must be known sympathetically to be well known. The economist to whom it is of no concern whether or not a family loves its farm will almost inevitably aid and abet the destruction of family farming. (2)
I study economics as part of my graduate training in public policy. I have no intention of becoming an economist who ignores the love of a family for its farm as an irrelevant detail that can safely be excluded from my model of the economy.
The farm is also extremely beautiful:
The beauty of the farm, however, is not only a physical beauty. There is also beauty in the farm’s ability to sustain itself over time. The farm is not reliant upon constantly increasing inputs and outputs in order to maintain growth, but instead, if treated well, can provide a home and life for generation upon generation . Wendell Berry writes:
…our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather are inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible. For example, an eco-system, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. (3)
Finally, the family farm is a source of meaning for both my wife and myself. It is not just a farm, it is the family farm. It serves as a central gathering point for the Raley family. It is a place that has been given a meaning by the people who inhabit it.
The farm is also a way of life. It is one that does not make the distinction between work and pleasure that is so prevalent in modern society. Instead, work and pleasure are combined in the activity of farming. One last quotation from Wendell Berry:
That there can be pleasure industries at all, exploiting our apparently limitless inability to be pleased, can only mean that our economy is divorced from pleasure and that pleasure is gone from our workplaces and our dwelling places…More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement……Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world? (4)
Indeed, what could be better than the opportunity to live and work in the presence of this world, this family, and this community?
(1) The quote is from a fictional character in Berry’s book Jayber Crow. Having read Berry’s essays and being familiar with his thought, I believe it is correct to suggest the character is speaking for Berry in that passage.
(2) From Berry’s essay, “An Argument for Diversity”
(3) From Berry’s essay, “Faustian Economics”
(4) From Berry’s essay, “Economy and Pleasure”