Agriculture as Art

Why we must change the way we view the role of farmers in society

Whether or not you know the person who grew or raised what you eat every day, the fact remains that he represents the primary connection between you and the natural world. Because of how agriculture is currently practiced, and because of our societal understanding of what it means to be a farmer, this linkage has come under significant attack in recent decades. Evidence of this fact is all around us: obese, diseased and unhappy, mankind has never been further away from nature, both that of the world around him, as well as his own.

The reality of every eater’s relationship with the grower of their food persists for better or for worse. In other words, an agriculture that destroys nature will destroy the nature of those who consume its yields. Thankfully, the inverse is also true. The importance of land management has fallen by the wayside. Modern farming, like modern economics in general, does not involve stewardship or care, but has become a form of extraction, more reminiscent of mining than of traditional farming. This is, at least in part, because popular understanding of what it means to be a farmer has become too narrow.

On a seemingly unrelated note, an inverse trend has taken place in the world of art, where the meaning of the word ‘artist’ has become too vague. This prompted me to consider the following question: is there such a thing as artistry in agriculture? 

This question is somewhat like wondering if a sewage installation constitutes a contribution to the canon, or whether a clever carpenter has authorial intent. The categories are opposed: the manual nature of the one seems to exclude the cerebral nature of the other. Because of the primacy of his position, however, the farmer occupies a category of his own.

Both farmers and modern artists produce some physical output intended for consumption or display. But when we define the farmer as merely a yield-harvester, he ceases to be a farmer in the true sense. Rather, he becomes a slave to an entirely different sort of operation: one that does not pretend to conduct itself in the natural world. Its elements are inert and abiotic, and its apparent telos is eventually to have no farmer at all, but to replace him with an artificially intelligent robot programmed to maximize output. 

Beauty begets abundance. The material that the farmer ships off the farm in exchange for money is secondary to what should be his primary concern. His natural primary concern is the farm itself. As famous farming guru Joel Salatin always says, “the average farm must become aromatically, aesthetically and sensually romantic.” If we were to alter the incentive structures currently in place so they emphasized the cultivation of the beauty of the farmscape over mere productivity, abundant yields would follow naturally. 

For this to happen, diversity must replace homogeneity in the landscape. The American (and, more broadly, Western) agricultural landscape is one of homogeneity. This is not a coincidence: agriculture always precedes and reflects culture, and our culture continues to careen toward an imagined world of enforced sameness and grey averageness. Excellence and distinction are threats to this disordered world order, and so must not be tolerated. Instead of endless miles of corn and soy, there should be endless miles of biodiverse pastures, dotted with a wide array of fruit and nut-bearing shade trees, with willow-surrounded rain catchment ponds holding water in all the valleys. 

The aesthetic effect will be park-like, similar to that of the Spanish Dehesa system. Not coincidentally, it is this system that photosynthesizes the most solar energy (given its multiple layers of photosynthetic capacity) and captures and infiltrates the most rainfall. With these ‘first things’ of agricultural production rightly stored in the roots and green tissues of plants, we enable ourselves to run this stored energy through intensive animal-based systems of various sorts. (I previously detailed how this can work for waterfowl and herbivorous livestock.) In short, by prioritizing the aesthetic beauty of the farm, the farmer simultaneously reinvigorates his soils and increases his productivity. 

The temperate savanna is the closest thing we have to the ideal human landscape. Preferably situated on a range of rolling foothills, or even extending onto steep mountainsides, perhaps the nearest extant example to it (aside from the Dehesas) is found in certain parts of the English countryside, with its extensive networks of hedgerows, open crop fields and pastures dotted with oaks. Indeed, these landscapes are so picturesque, so universally pleasing to the human eye, that any reasonable person would consider the benevolence of God and assume that they occur naturally. But a savanna does not occur naturally; it requires intensive and careful human management to prevent its ecology from either collapsing into desert, or overgrowing into forest. 

It is cosmologically fitting that the most beautiful landscape is that which calls for the most direct and involved human participation. The environmental Left offers an understanding of this in various guises: an anthropology of acrimony between man and his planet, the highest possible aspiration of which is ‘neutrality’, a parallel existence devoid of contact, in which human beings will, one day literally, hover contactlessly over the surface of the earth. But in such a world we would lose the will to live and reproduce, as so many already have in today’s world. Our ties to land and sea — our impact upon them and theirs on us — can be veiled, distended, and even offshored at our peril, but they can never be fully severed without cutting ourselves off from human nature itself. 

It is up to us, and us alone, to offer an alternative vision; one centered on a theory of nature with man always and necessarily at its center, exercising beneficent dominion over his surroundings and all the beautiful beings that dwell therein. This theory of nature is not cultivated by experiencing the natural world through weekend visits to national parks, but rather at the very root of our existence, first and foremost through agriculture and the subsequent national gastronomy. But this requires a reordering of how we understand the farmer’s role in society. To relegate his status to that of the ignorant rube debt slave cannot be tolerated any longer. Too much depends on him, and will always depend on him as long as we remain human.

Cover art: “Farmer with a Pitchfork” by Winslow Homer

William Wheelwright is a writer and an American farmer.

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