My wife and I went apple-picking a few weeks ago at an orchard here in Michigan. What this actually means is that we went to an apple orchard to get cider donuts and happened to bring a bag of apples home. After the sugar spike subsided and I was able to think clearly again, I began observing the people around me. It struck me that these people, so far removed from the land, had no idea what the farm actually meant. Apple-picking wasn’t a recognition of their heritage – it was a cultural statement that enabled them to bring a little piece of nature back to their lives without understanding true husbandry.
In a letter to John Jay in 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.” Two years later, in a letter to John Blair: “The pursuits of agriculture [are] . . . the best preservative of morals.” Five years later, in a letter to David Williams, he said that “agriculture . . . is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect.” Finally, he wrote his diary that “the small landowners are the most precious part of a state.” In case you didn’t catch that, the writer of some of our country’s most foundational documents believed that farmers were the core of a virtuous society.
You might argue that I’m advocating that we should adopt an 1830’s agrarian lifestyle. But don’t misunderstand me. I am fully aware that it is impossible for our society to return to that life. I merely mean to (1) point out the significant gap that has opened between the founders’ conception of society and ours and (2) propose that perhaps the best thing we could do for our society is to return to the land in whatever capacity we can.
Ok, you say, but “returning to the land” sounds disconcertingly vague. How does it benefit society at large? As Wendell Berry says, working the land makes us aware of the ecosystems and processes that made us. Farming reminds us of the larger picture of the natural world. It instills in us values that computer programming, investment management, and data compilation cannot. These are the values of patience, consistency, and husbandry (referring to the process of growing and cultivating, not a marriage role), and they are not easily obtained in the digital whirlwind that we call “modern society.” These are the virtues that Jefferson referred to as the foundation of a virtuous society. He did so with good reason, for patience, consistency, and husbandry are essential to personal and communal maturity. While some thinkers (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2016/06/02/can-private-vice-produce-public-virtue/) attempt to make a hopelessly unsupported and hilariously one-sided argument that private virtue is unnecessary for a strong polis, even a cursory appraisal of society reveals the gaping holes that are left in place of the oft-ignored parameters of virtuous behavior.
We can now see more clearly that “returning to the land” isn’t vague at all. It is a concrete, intentional effort that we can and should undertake to cultivate in ourselves the characteristics outlined above that contribute to a just society. In this sense, farming has the potential to be an intensely political act. And what better way to live out the privilege of being citizens of a democratic society than to involve oneself in a process that Thomas Jefferson identified as the development of democracy’s foundational characteristics?