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As We Teeter Toward The Tipping Point: A Rural Advantage

The Sower“I am convinced that sustainability is the defining question of the 21st Century,” John Ikerd said one icy afternoon in the depth of February, weeks before the Gulf of Mexico exploded into an infernal industrial mess of oil, gas, and chemical dispersant.

Ikerd, a senior statesman among American agrarians, was addressing a conference hosted by the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society in Lincoln. He earned a standing ovation for his definitive, imperative, and impassioned remarks.

Ikerd painted a convincing word picture of how sustainable food production systems can and should be employed to restore health to our bodies and minds, to restore vitality to the land, and to restore long-term stability to our economy. This healing potential, he said as he sounded a conference keynote, is a rural advantage. America would do well to take note.

The very day Ikerd spoke, Bob Herbert wrote an op-ed column titled “Time is Running Out” for The New York Times. “We’ve now lost 8.4 million jobs in this recession, and a vast majority of them are gone for good,” Herbert reported. “The politicians are clambering aboard the jobs bandwagon, belatedly, but very few are telling the truth about the structural employment problems in the U.S. and the extremely heavy lift that is necessary to halt our declining living standards and get us back to an economy that is self-sustaining.”

Noting that our economy has been thrown desperately out of whack by frantic, debt-driven consumption, speculative bubbles, and exotic financial instruments, Herbert reported that living standards are sinking swiftly in the USA, and that there is no coherent long-term vision or plan for reversing that ominous trend.

Almost as if he picked up on the same thought train as the Times columnist, but basing his response on a lifetime of work advocating for clean, truly economic agriculture, Ikerd in his speech said that the issue which has potential to bring this all into focus is public health – specifically the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, allergies and asthma. All these illnesses are related to diet, and our diet is directly related to the way we cultivate the land and raise our animals. It’s all linked.

Now gluttonously congested with agrichemicals, processing and genetic-mechanical initiatives, that link has led to some staggeringly expensive consequences. Health care spending devoured 17 percent of the entire U.S. economy last year according to the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Just a few years back it was only 5 percent, 6 percent, and then 7 percent.  But over the same time period that our diets and our land have been dosed with chemicals, hormones, processing and GMOs, our health costs have ballooned to the present onerous 17 percent. Soon, according to the projections of the Federal Centers, health care will be devouring 20 percent, and then 22 percent of our annual economy. That’s money we could be spending on lots of other things we need.

“For the last 50 years,” Ikerd said, “our focus has been on producing a lot of cheap stuff – with chemicals, herbicides and GMOs. But the decline in human health has paralleled this.” Putting the paradox into a sound bite, he said, “Our country is now both overfed and undernourished.”

One day before Ikerd spoke and Herbert wrote his column for the Times, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Nebraska conference that consumers who buy directly from food producers keep 90 percent of food income in the agricultural sector, supporting their neighbors who are local, sustainable growers. Fortenberry also made the connection between clean, healthy food and the kind of good health that could dramatically shrink health-care costs.

John Ikerd, Ph.D.John Ikerd really drove the point home with his facts and his rhetoric. The tipping point will come, he said, when we realize that the economic and environmental health of the nation depends upon, and is directly related to the physical and mental health of the people, and that that is related to the health of the soil and the way we cultivate the land.

As with other American agrarians, Ikerd sees the potential of clean sustainable agriculture to be the vision and the plan that leads us out of recession and pollution and into the future with clean food, healthy bodies and minds, a vibrant environment, and a stable economy built on something real and enduring.

“The tide is changing,” he said at the end of his talk. “It takes healthy people to maintain healthy soil and to bring healthy food from the land. There is a new purpose for people to be out in rural areas now, to repopulate our farmlands and to create healthy soil, and healthy food that will lead to healthy people. We need to rebuild from the soil up, and we can do it. Where are we going to find the jobs of the future? They are on the land. There’s a whole new concept of society emerging that is based on local, clean healthy food. That’s the rural advantage.”

N.B. -  John Ikerd published a new book online in April: A Revolution of the Middle

steven mcfadden_1
7/14/2010 6:36:11 AM

Indeed, all is not lost, Vickie. There better be some hope for the cities, for I live now smack dab in the middle of one, happily I might add, though I am a country boy by long experience. Still, I feel the enlightened agrarian impulse, whether expressed in the countryside or the city, is the emerging hope of the present and the future -- for the health of the land and the people.

7/13/2010 8:56:52 PM

Hi Steven, I remember Mom saying she never went hungry in the depression because they lived on a farm and had everything they needed there to eat. But yet other things were not quite so plentiful -like clothes and shoes. So it was good but not perfect. She also remembers many homeless men knocking on their door for dinner after they found that Grandma was a generous lady. As a city dweller I believe you can live and eat well in the city by gardening or eating local grown food. I do not believe we should all live in the country to accomplish that. (To me though that would be just fine). I believe jobs will come back just as they did before -Steve don't worry -all is not lost. vickie

steven mcfadden_1
7/13/2010 1:08:08 PM

Hi Mountain Woman - Thanks for your comments. By all means, the answer is not just transplanting city folk to the country for all the reasons you enumerate, although out here in the Heartland of Nebraska and other states, our villages have been depopulated over the last 20-30 years, and could definitely use an influx of people who know how to live on the land, or are at least open to learning. Like Ikerd, I feel that will happen for a host of economic and environmental reasons, some harsh, and that eventually the industrial models of 'working the land' will give way to enlightened agrarian ways of 'living with' the land. Thankfully, the move toward Urban and Suburban Agrarianism is well under way -- and I was happy to be able to present dozens of models of what is happening in my book, The Call of the Land. But more and more models and innovations keep coming forward, even since the book was published less than a year ago. Great hope in this.

mountain woman
7/13/2010 12:56:18 PM

Interesting article. There is a definite interest in Vermont in eating locally produced food and agritourism has become very popular but with that popularity comes skyrocketing food prices and I'm glad we produce our own. I do worry though about romanticizing farm land and perhaps causing an exodus to the country of people who really belong in the city. When land is lost to sprawl or even small acreage plots, it's gone forever and so many people who move to the country demand the services they had before. It's always a struggle in Vermont where we fight to keep our land free from development. We need to revitalize our cities with roof top gardens, community gardens and other methods of keeping our cities vital, healthy population centers and we need to discourage sprawl to precious farmland. Nothing irritates me more than seeing a mega-mansion plunked down in the middle of once beautiful, fertile soil. How do you encourage people to live lives based on less consumption when they are bombarded with images of excess every day? And how will we feed an ever expanding population without the massive farming we have now? This is a topic of great interest to me and it would be most enlightening to perhaps have a round table discussion on the challenges facing us as we move forward.

k.c. compton
7/12/2010 11:01:49 PM

Steven, thank you for this excellent post. I started reading it and thought, "Hey, this guy's a reporter!" Good to know my instincts still serve me. I wish I had already gotten set up on the farm my kids and I dream of owning together, however. I worry that the point will tip too soon, too soon. Dave--I hear you're going to come see us soon. Looking forward to that. And the point you make about America being a nation of city dwellers is correct--however the "urban farm"phenomenon is changing the equation. I fully see cities in the future in which food is so local you just go up to your roof top pick dinner from the vine and harvest a few eggs for the evening omelet. When our nation began, cows, sheep and chickens certainly occupied our urban landscape (I wonder if Mrs. O'Leary's cow messed it up for urban livestock for a century or so?) and I think the next 50 years will see them become a part of city life again. Won't THAT be cool? --K.C.

chuck mallory
7/12/2010 10:07:30 PM

@Steven, thank you for your good writing and shedding light on this. Ironic how America was primarily a farming country and now there are so few family farms, only heavy corn and soybean production by large commercial farms. No big employment problems then, in the old days. I guess I dream we will at least return to a country filled with local organic farms and lots of people working them--and people eating local.

steven mcfadden_1
7/12/2010 4:15:00 PM

Hi Dave - I live in the shadow of the Sower, and can see him up there scattering his seed even as I sit and type. A falcon family has taken to nesting a ways down below his feet, so he's got company up there atop the capital building. In the blog post above I am mainly reporting what others have said -- John Ikerd, Bob Herbert and on -- rather than writing my own views. I've was a news reporter for a long time, so that's a habit hard to break. But ultimately I do agree with the notion that Ikerd put forth that as things wobble and collapse -- as they are -- there is an advantage to the rural life. The sophisticated, sustainable, agrarian or rural life is in fact -- as personified by the kind of people who read Grit and implement the ideas -- the hope of the present and the future. That's my view. That's why -- like you and the other Grit bloggers -- these are the things I am interested in and choose to write about. The industrial mess in the Gulf of Mexico is, alas, driving the point home relentlessly just now. Folks are lucky that there is Grit and other places like to turn to for clues and guidance about the way forward. Thank you for your comments. You have so many worthwhile insights to share. - S.

nebraska dave
7/12/2010 3:56:58 PM

@Steven, by the way I love the picture of seed sower. I visit the Capitol Building quite frequently. For those readers that are not aware, the seed sower is a statue on top of the dome of our State Capitol (Nebraska) building.

nebraska dave
7/12/2010 3:53:11 PM

@Steven, I agree with all you have said but unfortunately America has become a city dwelling consumer nation. I wish that our thirst for more would turn around but I don’t think it will until it hits us in the pocket book. It seems to me people have excepted the higher gas prices and are driving just as frivolously as before they thought it was a tragedy the price of a gallon went above a dollar. I’ve been to many Central American countries and seriously we still do have relatively cheap gas here compared to their prices. Our country is so extravagant in the way we live. We will spend more on a fast food dinner for the family here than a Central American family will for an entire week. Understand I love this country and thoroughly enjoy its conveniences. As I’ve stated in other replies before, I sure like the hot showers and the flush toilets, and I hope you are correct in stating that the consuming trend is changing or we will have to learn all over again how to survive and not enjoy the good life we have now. I understand about the unemployment but other countries have unemployment rates that are three and four times higher than ours. I’m not saying that we should just be grateful for how things and not be concerned about what’s happening. This country is still the best in my humble opinion. I believe there are a lot of things we could do to make this country even better and getting back to our grass roots heritage living certainly is one of them.