Berry on "Does community have a value?"

Gil Hardwick gil at
Sun Oct 22 14:58:18 EDT 1995

Here is the extract finally from Wendell Berry, _Home Economics_, pp
187-90, that I have been looking for. Sorry to everyone if it appears
just a tad long for e-mail transmission, but its tremendous value as an
astute critical comment on modern farming practice far outbalances the
passing inconvenience. 


  Even so cursory a description of one of the old local subsistence
economies as I gave at the beginning of this essay reveals that its
economic assets were to a considerable extent intangible: culture-born
knowledge, attitudes, and skills; family and community coherence;
family and community labor; and cultural or religious principles such
as respect for gifts (natural or divine), humility, fidelity, charity,
and neighborliness. Such economies, furthermore, were mainly sun-
powered, using plants and the bodies of animals and humans as "solar
converters". By means of neighborhood, knowledge, and skill, they were
turning free supplies to economic advantage. Theirs was an economy
that took place, largely, off the books. The wonderful fact, then, is
that those emotional and spiritual values that are now so
inconsequentially associated with the idea of community were economic
assets in the old communities, and they produced economic results.

  This finding can be corroborated by an example that is contemporary,
though somewhat more removed from my own acquaintance and culture.
David Kilne and his family, who are members of one of the Amish
communities in the hilly country of eastern Ohio, have a farm of 123
acres that, even in the present hard times, is successful, both
economically and agriculturally. It is one of those farms that, in my
thinking about agriculture, I have used as a standard.

  Of the Kline's 123 acres, seventy-five are arable, twenty-nine are in
permanent pasture, ten are forested, five are in orchard and gardens,
and four are occupied by buildings. The major money-making enterprises
of the farm are a dairy of twenty-three Guernsey cows (with about an
equal number of heifers), and seven brood sows and a boar. The field
crops, raised mainly to be fed on the place, are hay, corn, oats, and
wheat. There are also the orchard and gardens, fifty laying hens,
fifty pullets, fifty roosters for the table, and seven hives of bees.
The farm combines commercial and subsistence enterprises, and its
subsistence or household economy is obviously strong, producing some
marketable surplus. In addition to the family's subsistence, this farm
has been grossing about $50,000 a year and netting $25,000 to $30,000.
In 1985, the gross was $47,000, and the net $25,000. In the midst of
an agricultural depression, this is a startling accomplishment. Again,
it is an economic result that is only somewhat computable; it is
accounted for in part by the religious, cultural, family, and
community coherence that is still maintained by the Old Order Amish,
whose way of life, including their technology, makes possible the
maximum utilisation of natural (therefore cheap of free) energy and
fertility. A FULL accounting of David and Elsie Kilne's economy would
have to consider, as well, the extensive substitutions of natural and
cultural gifts for purchased supplies.

  That David Kline is also an excellent conservationist and a
naturalist, who may delay hay-cutting in order to allow the bobolink
fledglings to leave the nest, makes him even more useful to us as an
example. For a part of the Amish understanding of good work, built
into their technology and methods, is this respect for nature. Farming,
to the Klines, is the proper husbanding of nature, a stewardly care
for the natural intgrities and processes that precede and support the
life of the farm.

  David once attended a conference on the subject of community. What
is community, the conferees were asking, and how can we have it? At
some point, later in the proceedings, they asked David what community
meant to him. He said that when he and his son were plowing in the
spring he could look around him and see seventeen teams at work on the
neighbouring farms. He knew those teams and the men driving them, and
he knew that if he were hurt or sick, those men and those teams would
be at work on his farm.

  Conditioned as we all are now by industrial assumptions, we must be
careful not to miss or to underestimate the point of David's reply: it
is a practical description of a spiritual condition. With the Amish,
economy is not merely a function of community; the community and the
economy are virtually the same. We might, indeed, call an Amish
community a loving economy, for it is based on the love of neighbors,
of creatures, and of places. The community accomplishes the productive
work that is necessary to any economy; the economy supports and
preserves the land and the people. The economy cannot prey on the
community because it is not alienated from the community; it IS the
community. We should notice, too, that David has described the economic
helpfulness, the charity, that is natural to the life of a community -
and free to members - that has been replaced, among most of the rest
of us, by the insurance industry.

But let us go a little further and speculate on the relation between a
subsistence-based family economy, such as the Kline's, and a local -
say, a county - economy. It is easy to assume, as I have said, that a
subsistence-based family economy would be bad for the larger economy
of the locality or county. But let us put beside the Kline farm an
industrial Ohio farm of 640 acres (or one square mile), and let us say
that this farm grosses $200,000 and nets $20,000. (I think that those
are safe figures for our purpose, for midwestern industrial farmers
have often found it impossible to net 10 percent of gross.) This square
mile of land is one farm, farmed by one family, and therefore dependent
on large-scale equipment. For years, as the people have been leaving
the farms and the farms have been getting larger, the suppliers and
servicers of farm machines, which have also been getting larger, have
been withdrawing toward the larger towns. Now industrial farmers must
sometimes drive astonishing distances for parts and repairs. For the
farmer of a large industrial farm, the economic centre has thus moved
beyond the local community, and we must suppose that a large
percentage of his operating cost goes outside the local community.

  But a square mile of even reasonably good land would contain five
farms more or less the size of the Kline's. If we suppose that the
families would average three children each, this would increase the
human population of the square mile from five to twenty-five. Such an
increase in population implies a reduction in the scale of equipment,
which in turn implies an increase of business for local suppliers and
mechanics. Moreover, the population increase implies an increase of
business for local shops and businesses of all kinds. If we use the
Kline's farm economy as a base and suppose that the five farms average
$50,000 a year gross and $25,000 a year net, then we can see that they
increase the gross income of the square mile by only $50,000. But,
individually, the five farms each would net $5,000 a year more than the
large farm, and together they would increase the net income on the
square mile to $125,000, an increase of net over the large single farm
of $105,000.

This comparison is not entirely speculative; Marty Strange says, for
instance, that in Iowa, in the years 1976-1983, small farms achieved
"MORE output per dollar invested" than large farms. "In fact", he
says, "the larger the farm the lower the output per dollar invested."
However, since my comparison must be at least partly speculative, I
can hope only to suggest a possibility that has been ignored: that
strong communities imply strong local economies and vice versa - that,
indeed, strong communities and strong local economies are identical.


"A generation has arrived which happily seeks out Norman Lindsay ...
because in our drab and dangerous march to nowhere he is that rare,
wonderfully reassuring and luminous event, a genius; perhaps the only
authentic genius Australia has ever had." 
                                                 Godfrey Blunden 1968

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