Cultivating an Ecological Conscience
Essays from a Farmer Philosopher
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Series: Culture of the Land
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
All of my friends and colleagues have, of course, been a vital and integral part of my journey, and without them I doubt I would ever have recognized the richness of my own experience. With respect to this particular collection of essays, I owe a special debt of gratitude to one friend and colleague, without whom the essays would have continued to be separate moments...
In the mid-1970s, Fred Kirschenmann told a class of graduating seniors that education is like a baseball mitt. You might think mitts are to protect your hand and education is to help you get a good job, he said, but the true purpose of baseball mitts is to extend your reach so you can catch balls you would otherwise miss. Likewise, education helps you extend...
I have never written anything with the intent that it be published as a collection of essays. Most of what I have written over the years has been in response to requests for papers that were given as speeches or published as articles in magazines or journals, or to address issues that concerned me. Accordingly, this collection may appear disjointed. When I reflect upon my writing, however, I see that it represents a...
PART 1. Working at Home: Lessons from Kirschenmann Family Farms
Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves
I am indebted to Gene Logsdon, who reviewed this volume of essays, for suggesting that I write one additional paper on the subject of “Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves.” He was suggesting, I think, that he would like to know more about what transcendent thoughts go through my mind while I am doing mundane things like castrating calves on my farm.
On Behalf of American Farmers
A little less than two years ago, I left a career in higher education and returned to my birthplace in North Dakota to manage our family’s farm. My decision was motivated by the conviction that the field of agriculture poses some of the most formidable challenges in today’s world. While worldwide food shortages and global population explosion present stagger-...
Pilgrimage to a Barnyard
It’s hard to be sure now, and it was hard to be sure then. Part of the struggle has always been not being sure. The beginning was lonely. No one else was doing what I was doing. No neighbor had left a budding career in higher education to undertake the task of managing a farm in an isolated area under difficult economic conditions. Converting a farm from accepted,...
Low-Input Farming in Practice: Putting a System Together and Making It Work
A practicing farm is always different from a theoretical farm or a research farm. A theoretical farm represents the manner in which a farm might work or ideally should work. On a research farm, a piece of the farm is isolated, reduced to its simplest form, and analyzed under controlled circumstances. A practicing farm may be shaped by ideals and guided by research, but...
A Transcendent Vision
I’m a third-generation Russian German farmer; my ancestors have deep ties to the land. In the eighteenth century, following the Seven Years’ War, the Russian czar recruited a group of German farmers to immigrate to the Volga River region of Russia, promising virgin, fertile farmland. This was true, but he failed to tell them the land was inhabited by outlaws that the...
Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture is often presented as an alternative to conventional agriculture. Framing the issue in that fashion leads to the conclusion that sustainable agriculture is simply another way to farm, or another way to produce food. However, sustainable agriculture may be part of a much more comprehensive change in society. Some have referred to this more inclusive...
The Role of Independent Beef Producers in Rural Development
Suddenly everyone is interested in developing us. The January/February 1997 Kerr Center newsletter announced that it was adding “rural development” to its program.1 The lead article in the newsletter points us in a rural-development direction, but it cannot possibly lead to any real rural development. It suggests that the beef industry’s problems could be solved...
Foreword to Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches
As a farmer, I have had a relationship with wild things that has been fraught with ambiguity. I grew up believing that wildness was the enemy of agriculture. I didn’t like blackbirds eating our sunflowers, coyotes attacking our calves, or weeds robbing our crops of nutrients and moisture. So I had an almost instinctive inclination to tear all the wildness out of our farm. I was...
On Being an “Objective” Farmer
I was born in a farmhouse south of Medina, North Dakota, a small rural town that is now struggling to survive. My parents began farming on that land in 1930, so they spent their first years as a young farm couple in the midst of the Dust Bowl. Those were hard times that taught harsh lessons. At times my father wasn’t sure he would be able to feed his young family.
Being at Home
...means being in an apartment or house or condo where we usually sleep and where, once in a while, we eat meals with our family members or watch television. Home is mostly an enclosure that protects us from the rest of the world, sometimes with help from security personnel and technology. The “homeless” are those who are deprived of such amenities and find themselves...
The Pleasure of Good Eating
For most of us the pleasure of good eating probably consists of chowing down on a steak, a delicious pork chop, fresh vegetables with taste-bud-exploding flavors, or a savory tree-ripened peach that melts in your mouth. But in truth, the pleasure of good eating consists of much more than tasty treats. When I was growing up on our farm in North Dakota, almost every-...
Is Sustainability in Our Energy Future?
On December 18, 2005, I finished the first draft of the year-end economic analysis of our North Dakota farm in anticipation of filing our 2005 tax return. One number stood out with unpleasant clarity: our total farm fuel bill for 2005 was just over $30,000. In 2004, it had been just under $20,000. Yes, we added 110 acres to the operation, but we also bought a new trac-...
A Journey toward Sustainability
When I started to transition our North Dakota farm to organic production in 1977, the concept of sustainability was not yet in the public domain, nor had I heard of it. At the time I also was unaware that a special market existed for organic production. I was motivated entirely by the fact, brought to my attention by my former student David Vetter, that well-managed...
PART 2. Cracks in the Bridges: Inspecting the Industrial Food System
On Learning to Farm Ecologically on the Prairie
No one would argue that major changes are taking place in agriculture. The question is, of the many directions agriculture could take, which will best serve farmers and society? The choices facing us are really just two: industrial agriculture or ecological agriculture. Industrial agriculture is primarily driven by a productionist ideology, in which increasing production...
Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? And Is That the Right Question?
Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman and political economist, published a treatise in 1798 that riveted the world’s attention on the “problem” of human population growth.1 Malthus argued that population growth was bound to outstrip food production, because human population would increase geometrically while the food supply could only grow arithmetically. Malthus’s...
Biotechnology on the Ground: What Kind of Future Can Farmers Expect, and What Kind Should They Create?
A pragmatic assessment of any technology is complicated by the cultural love affair with technology that we have nurtured in our society since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. By now, farmers must comprehend that not all new technologies will be beneficial. Indeed, Willard Cochrane demonstrated how new technologies can be detrimental to farmers with his...
Questioning Biotechnology’s Claims and Imagining Alternatives
The controversy surrounding transgenic technologies appears to be based on different assessments of the technology’s merits. Proponents argue that transgenic technologies will help us feed the world, cure diseases, and solve many other problems facing the human species. Opponents argue that the projected benefits are exaggerated and that the technology poses many risks...
Why American Agriculture Is Not Sustainable
A pervasive criticism of sustainable agriculture is that without a commonly accepted definition of sustainable agriculture, there is no basis for an intelligent discussion of the issue. Some argue that because there is no universally agreed-upon standard set of sustainable farming practices, the entire concept is suspect. The problem here is not lack of definition, but flawed reasoning.
What Constitutes Sound Science?
Marion Nestle has argued that the public no longer receives the best scientific information regarding diet and health. Nestle is a renowned nutritionist with years of experience working on nutrition and dietary guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She outlines in her provocative book, Food Politics,...
And Then What?: Attending to the Context of Our Innovations
David Hurd, former CEO of the Principal Financial Group, told an audience that, as the head of his company, he had learned to insist on an important procedure. Whenever anyone in his company suggested any kind of innovation, he would ask, seven times, “And then what?” This simple exercise, he contended, saved his company from many unintended negative consequences...
Food as Relationship
In his classic study of soil fertility, An Agricultural Testament, first published in 1940, Sir Albert Howard presented his case for connecting problems with food and health to a failure in soil management. The key to proper soil management, he argued, was “the law of return,” which is returning all wastes to the land (preferably properly composted). It was the return...
Is the USDA Accounting for the Costs to Farmers from Contamination Caused by Genetically Engineered Plants?
I would like to thank the chair, Representative Kucinich, the ranking member, Representative Issa, and the members of the subcommittee for this opportunity to speak on this matter which so greatly affects the livelihoods of the U.S. organic producer. My name is Frederick L. Kirschenmann. I am a professor of religion and philosophy currently serving as a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold...
Placing the Pew Commission Report in Context
When I accepted the invitation to serve on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, I knew it would be a controversial undertaking. While the meat and animal industries have made huge investments in infrastructure to create the mainstream industrial farm-animal production system—and while they quite rationally want to protect that investment—a...
Redefining Sustainability: From “Greening” to Enhancing Capacity for Self-Renewal
“Going green” seems to be the new sustainability slogan designed to save the planet. Th e question is: if we all go green, will that get us to sustainabiity? A typical dictionary definition of “sustain” is “to maintain,” “to keep going,” “to keep in existence.” As a broad overview, that is a useful definition, because it calls into question exactly what it is that we want to maintain.
PART 3. Envisioning an Alternative Food and Farming System
What’s an Education For?
A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about an incident that had taken place between his father and himself when he was a young lad. As Bernie tells the story, he and his friend were playing catch in their backyard. Bernie said that he had what could generously be described as a “bedsheet with fingers on it” for a baseball glove, a glove that had been handed down...
Resolving Conflicts in American Land-Use Values: How Organic Farming Can Help
Why do Americans, and especially American farmers, use (or abuse) the land the way we do? I assume land is used in accordance with a set of values, expectations, and perceptions developed over time. That may seem so obvious that it appears trivial, but it is an important point. All too often we approach land-conservation issues through the concept of “good guys” versus “bad guys.” The “good guys” plant trees, install grass...
What About the Next Twenty Years?: Or “It’s Turtles All the Way Down”
Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, tells a delightful story about a well-known scientist who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. In the lecture, the scientist described the universe, with the Earth orbiting around the sun, and the sun, in turn, orbiting within a vast collection of stars called a galaxy. When he concluded his lecture, a little old lady in the back of the...
Rediscovering American Agriculture
The quincentennial of Columbus’s voyage to the New World produced many provocative reevaluations of American history. This seems a good time to take a fresh look at what has happened to agriculture in this part of the world since 1492. Doing so, I think, will reveal that interpretations of our agricultural history have been flawed. Most of us grew up with the...
Spirituality and Cooperatives
Using the word “spirituality” is a problem in our largely secular culture. This problem is rooted in our cultural inclination to compartmentalize things: separating mind from matter, facts from values, and science from religion and art. Such compartmentalization leads most of us to be suspicious about introducing spirituality into business. We assume that spirituality is a “reli-...
In Search of Objectivity, or How to Create a Credible Certification Program
Certification programs in search of credibility have attached themselves to the concept of “third-party” status like a magnet to clean metal. Food customers want assurances that organic certification is reliable. Many leaders in the certification network have responded by assuring the public that if a certification program has “third-party” status, it can be trusted and is...
On Becoming Lovers of the Soil
As farms and farmers continue to disappear from the landscape in many parts of the world, citizens have increasingly begun to ask themselves whether they should become more concerned about farm issues. This is a good question. Why should we be concerned about what happens to farms or farmers? After all, food is more abundant and available in global su-...
Challenges Facing Philosophy as We Enter the Twenty-first Century: Reshaping the Way the Human Species Feeds Itself
I’d like to begin with a disclaimer. While my academic training is theology, my energies in the past twenty-five years have been devoted to farming. And while I have tried to emulate Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the ideal American farmer who is also a philosopher, I confess I have not risen to his standard of farming by day and reading the classics in Greek at night. So...
A Pig’s Tale: Marketing Stories for New Value Chains
In conventional business circles, niche markets are suspect because they are vulnerable; they are too small, powerless, and helpless to matter. Niche markets are considered high-risk ventures that will not survive. We admire major mass markets that control billion-dollar inventories. Economies of scale reflect economic power, and economic power suggests market resil-...
A Bright Future for “Farmers of the Middle”
The notion that the middle class is somehow the bedrock of American civic society has deep roots in our culture. In 1774, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the very survival of the Province of Pennsylvania depended on “the middling people”—the “farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen of this city and country.” Franklin argued that “mistaken principles of religion” com-...
Revitalizing Rural Communities: How Churches Can Help
There is a popular perception in America that rural communities are places of failure, a perception apparently shared by rural communities themselves. By the late 1980s, most rural citizens in the Midwest harbored the notion that their communities were dying. The metaphor that dominated the thinking of rural community residents was the “corpse.” Rural citizens believed...
During the past 150 years, we fully incorporated our food system into the industrial economy. Accordingly, the industrial principles of specialization, simplification, and consolidation now dominate our food web—production, processing, and distribution. However, our food system will likely undergo significant changes in the decades ahead. This industrial food system has proved incredibly successful. Yields of...
Using What We Know to Make a Difference
In academic circles we often explore problems in great depth but fail to come up with creative ways to solve problems. Consequently we end up knowing a lot about problems but little about how to solve them—so we often end up failing to make a difference. As I wrestled with this challenge it occurred to me that there are at least four questions that we might fruit-...
It was a little over twenty-eight years ago that a young writer from The Farmer/Dakota Farmer magazine came to interview you at your farm in North Dakota. I was that writer, and I recall our visit very clearly, including the nearly completed earth-shelter home you were building on your beloved prairie. I came away very impressed with what you were doing with...