Agriculture: The long View Part 2 – Agrarianism as a Sustainable Vision

By David Zirnhelt –

I credit my mother with encouraging us to continue learning. I would be (and still am) inspired by heady ideals like “world peace” and using diplomacy rather than bombs to achieve noble ends like a “better society”.

Hay bales dot the landscape near Horsefly, BC. Photo: Lisa Bland

Hay bales dot the landscape near Horsefly, BC. Photo: Lisa Bland

That lead me to studying international politics and seeking a career as a diplomat. Twice I refused opportunities to follow that career in favour of seeking elected political careers where I could work with others directly in a democratic context to create political will to adopt the solutions to what many saw as fundamental problems.

If I had to live my career over, I would not want to stop my formal education after my social science degrees. I hated the quantitative revolution, which measured everything in policy and politics. There was no room for normative values—no qualitative assessment, no value-based political pursuits.

The science part of policy science left me a bit “dehumanized” as the language of the day in the 60s and early 70s would express it. Knowing what I know now I would have pursued the study of agriculture. Instead, if I wanted to get on with practising solutions, we would just need to do it. There were, after all, many solutions in the last book we read. If more solutions were to come, we could practise them as well.

My heart was in the return to the land and wanting to build and operate a cattle ranch, but a modern one in the sense that the management would be founded in the awareness of the emerging ecological crisis.

One of those problems was “developing” resources (like land, which is essentially inherited from “nature,” which had inherent sustainability characteristics), without diminishing the productive capacity through time.

We needed to practise and prove the solutions to the problems confronting us!

One of the first solutions would be to ensure humility as a core value in agriculture.
This might well involve the virtue of humility for both individuals and for our human species: all nature glorifies creation.

If you are a Christian, and I think every Trumpite farmer is, then nature is/was God’s creation and needs to be respected deeply and blessed. Instead, back in the 13th century after Christ, the truly nature respecting beliefs (epitomized by Saint Francis of Assisi) gave way to a basic view that mankind shares God’s transcendence of nature. Lynn White wrote of this in 1967 in “the historical roots of our ecological crisis”.

The Jeffersonians (President Jefferson) view the ideal society as one where the majority ruled (ie. Democracy). Farmers were after all the majority of the US citizens at the time.

Jefferson is considered a founder if agrarianism.

I quote from Wikipedia:

M. Thomas Inge defines agrarianism by the following basic tenets:

• Farming is the sole occupation that offers total independence and self-sufficiency.

• Urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy independence and dignity and foster vice and weakness.

• The agricultural community, with its fellowship of labour and co-operation, is the model society.

• The farmer has a solid, stable position in the world order. He “has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial.” The harmony of his life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society.

• Cultivation of the soil “has within it a positive spiritual good” and from it the cultivator acquires the virtues of “honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality.” They result from a direct contact with nature and, through nature, a closer relationship to God. The agrarian is blessed in that he follows the example of God in creating order out of chaos.

We now understand that there is more order in nature than in industrial farming practices, which create more “chaos”. We are part of nature and should start behaving as though we are.

Another of the problems of Jefferson’s philosophy (which is an extension of the lack of humility I noted above) is that he failed to incorporate Native Americans and African Americans into his world view.

Our modern solution to the present industrial view of farming is to respect that civil rights and minority rights are equally important to the rights of farmers to produce in a democratic way. We can’t just assert as Jefferson did in his notes on the State of Virginia (1785): “…those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.”

Farmers are now a minority and civilization has become urban.

This modern view of a new Green Revolution has with in it the tenets of “sustainable agriculture” as embodied in the 1990 US law: Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act.

This definition is quoted from, Laura Lengnick, Resilient Agriculture: cultivating food systems for a changing climate, published by New Society Publishers, 2015.

“Sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production system which has a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

• Satisfy human food and fiber needs

• Enhance the environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends

• Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources
and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and control

• Sustain the economic viability of farm operations

• Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

My revelation came when 10 years into the development of our ranch Allan Savory published a book on holistic resource management entitled just that. That book has inspired changes to the way we do the business of farming.

This article and the previous one in this publication have set the stage for a little more on the solutions to the crisis in industrial agriculture. The agrarian view of the world has to incorporate more of the rights of minorities and nature’s creation into its philosophy.

David and his family ranch in the Beaver Valley where their boys have a small sawmill that supplies their Zirnhelt Timber Frame construction business at the 150 Mile House. David served in government as an elected representative for 11 years, two of them serving as Minister of Agriculture in BC. He also chairs the Industry Advisory Committee to the Thompson Rivers University Applied Sustainable Ranching Program.

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