On Farming, the Internet and Funny Hats

This is a picture of me wearing a hat I made:

A “Scott Pilgrim” hat I made.

It was made from the same pattern used to make the hat used in the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The woman who did the work of adapting the hat drawn in the comic to something that could be made for a movie made her pattern available (for a small fee) on ravelry.com, a social network for knitters and crocheters.

I’m writing this post right after finishing a dinner which included mushroom leek risotto which I made while reading (risotto the real way involves a lot of stirring and pour in broth a little at a time) Bringing it to the Table by Wendell Berry. The book is a collection of essays Berry wrote over several decades on the topic of farming and food (Not entirely incidentally, Wendell Berry caused a stir and inadvertently started a flame war after writing his essay “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” back in 1987). I ate my risotto out of a bowl that was hand made, though I don’t know by whom, that I picked out at the Empty Bowls charity event I attended on campus last semester. Along with the risotto I had some lentil soup (which I’m sorry to say only came from the organic section of Food Lion) served in a bowl that was hand made by a friend.

In his 1986 essay “A Defense of the Family Farm”, Berry says

As Gill says, “every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist.” The small family farm is one of the last places – they are getting rarer every day – where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker – and some farmers still do talk about “making the crops” – is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one.

People like to make things. We feel a deeper sense of connection to others when we use tools and wear clothing made by someone’s hands. In this essay Berry is cautioning against losing this rich tradition embodied in the family farm to the industrial agriculture complex. Now, in 2013, it is sad to say is cautionary foresight was well placed. Especially in the United States, and increasingly elsewhere as our “efficient” agricultural methods spread, we have become a society that is nearly thoroughly disconnected in all the ways that matter from the one thing that our very survival depends on: our food.

In his essay “As We May Think”, Bush asked “What are the scientists to
do next”. After the end of a scientific enlightenment of sorts, brought on by the War he asked if we could turn the tremendous scientific energy towards something more constructive. One of the many results of the technological advancements made during the war was a radical transformation in the way we grow (and subsequently think about) our food.

It had been know for some time that plants needed at least nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (N-P-K) to grow (it turns out to grow well they need much more, but at the time, we were patting ourselves on the back for unlocking the mysteries of plant life). Once the war ended there was an abundance of nitrogen (a component of TNT) that needed to be put to good use. The need was so great that it was made available to farmers (in the form of ammonia) for cheap, so cheap that it made economic sense to switch to this commercial product instead of continue with the tried and true method of spreading manure.

Along with this change came others. Because synthetic fertilizers could be produced and transported and spread in large quantities, and due to changes in the Farm Bill to promote food security farm sizes grew and crop diversity shrank. With less diversity less skill was needed and the number of family farms in the U.S. dropped dramatically, from around 6 million immediately after WWII to just over 2 million in the early 1990s. Earlier in the same essay Berry writes

With industrialization has come a general deprication of work. As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore. We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment.

This was 1987, remember. Our current job crisis is certainly more complicated than the loss of family farms, but with the destruction of 4 million family farms came the loss of at least twice that many skilled full-time jobs.

All in the name of industrial efficiency.

What’s interesting though is like Berry said, we like making things with our own hands. And we know we like making things with our own hands, we just haven’t had much reason to after industrialization was purported as a solution to all the drudgery involved in actually practicing a skilled craft.

But like me and my hat, eating home-cooked food out of hand-made bowls, food made with ingredients purchased directly from farmers, we haven’t yet completely lost all our skills, they’ve just become hidden. Something we practice in the privacy of our own home.

I am cautiously optimistic that yet another layer of technology may in many ways help us build a stronger craft-based economy. Sites like Etsy have given artisans and people wanting to buy artisanal products a means to connect directly, without going through a middleman, eliminating an undesirable layer of indirection between the products we use and the people who made them.

Can the Internet help us reconnect with what we truly value: each other?