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  • Naming Fields:The Loss of Narrative in Farming
  • Ryan Dennis (bio)

Each field had a name. My great grandfather's horses grazed on the Corral Piece. Our old neighbor used to keep a few colonies on the Beehive Field when he was alive. One plot was called the Lime Pile Field because the county stored road supplies on its headlands in the '60s. The lime pile was gone from that field long before I was born, but still, I knew its name.

When my grandfather retired in 2008, half of our land was sold to one of the large farms nearby. Later, when my father could no longer make a living dairy farming, he rented his remaining land to them. Now, every month or two a parade of large equipment rolls into our small valley in New York State. They seed, cut, or chop in a single afternoon what used to take us weeks to do ourselves. Heavy trucks barrel down our dirt roads all day, back and forth to the center of their operation miles away, silage flying out and settling on the shoulder. Then they are gone again. I doubt they are there long enough to make any memories or have any stories to tell. I don't know what they call the fields that used to be ours.

I had never heard the term "factory farm" until I attended university in Iowa in 2004. In the Midwest, the size of crop and hog farms had been growing quickly by then; many of them were already owned by corporations. The land is hilly in western New York and parceled into twenty-acre fields. It is not suited for large-scale agriculture, particularly in dairy farming. However, when my parents quit farming in 2014 the average dairy herd size in the Northeast was 348 cows. Several years later, most 500-cow farms found themselves too small to survive.

To those of us who once farmed, the rise of commercialized agriculture feels like a recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, literature tells us different. Literary scholar Jan Wojcik traces the debate back to Varro's De Re Rustica at about 40 BC in the Roman Empire. In writing a discourse for his wife on the best farming practices, Varro begins with a fabricated drama between fictional farmers. On a festival day, several farmers stand outside the Temple of Tellus, debating the nature of agriculture. Gaius Fundanius, whose name, Wojcik tells us, translates as "Down to Earth," insinuates that while it is important to be able to make a profit farming and support yourself, it is more imperative that the land be "healthful." It becomes apparent in the text that Fundanius is not just referring to the quality of the land, but its effect on the farmer himself. He ups the ante by suggesting that anyone who wants to farm solely for money and not for [End Page 126] the autonomous lifestyle it offers has obviously lost his wits. Gnaeus Tremelus ("Genuine Quivering Swine"), however, states: "the farmer should aim at two goals, profit and pleasure. [. . .] The profitable plays a more important role than the pleasurable." Varro identifies two separate agricultural ideologies—social capital and economic capital—and initiates a dualism that persists in agricultural policy discussions today.

Two millennia after Varro, this dichotomy in defining agriculture's value still exists. More recently, and most famously, the roles of Fundanius and Tremelus were taken up by author Wendell Berry and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz at a 1977 debate at Manchester College in Indiana. Butz, in this case the Genuine Quivering Swine (and Jane Smiley did name a fat pig after him in her 1995 novel Moo ), was an outspoken proponent of agribusiness and pushed such policies when he served in office. Speaking in a decade when many small American farms were going out of business, he refused to deem the situation a crisis. Instead, he insisted that change comes at a cost. "Butz's Law of Economics—it's a very simple one—Adapt or Die. It's a harsh one. But those who cling to the moldering past are the ones to die." Although many of Wendell Berry's...


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pp. 126-134
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