Graveyard for silos
Community Featured Justice

Graveyard for silos

The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.
Wendell Berry

On car rides as a child, I used to watch the countryside out the window. As we traveled along highways that cut through what used to be farmland, I remember seeing old barns, now abandoned, and cement silos standing empty at their sides. I always thought those silos looked like old gravestones. The image, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the changes that lent themselves to shaping that landscape.

Despite its difficulties, my dad loved farming. It’s what he grew up doing. It’s what his father did, after he immigrated here from Holland, and it’s what his brothers continue to do. My family doesn’t own the farm anymore, though. The barns, like the ones I saw during those car rides, now stand, abandoned and gutted. For all the satisfaction the work allowed him, raising hogs in an increasingly dismal market led him (along with dozens of other farmers in the area) to sell the land and pursue work elsewhere.

During our last few years on the farm, a couple of families with cash in the bank together set up shop to the north of us, building two mammoth, 2000-sow barns behind ours (which, to give some sense of the difference in scale, housed 125 mother pigs). I ended up working in one of them one summer during college.

Think back to high school history class for a second. During the time of the Industrial Revolution, folks discovered that more products could be produced faster, and at a lower cost, if they were put together not by men and women who had a broad understanding of how the products worked, but by lower-paid individuals who performed only one or two specific tasks all day. And so when Henry Ford first made cars, he went around the country looking for the best cart and bicycle craftsmen, whereas today I have friends who couldn’t tell you how to change your car’s oil, but are employed by major automobile companies — fastening the same dozen bolts all day long.

Agriculture in North America has gone through a similar transformation. I have worked with folks who would probably believe that potatoes grow on trees if you told them, because all they are required to know to get their paycheck is that the green ones are bad for you, that the rotten ones will make a mess of the storage, and that both need to be picked off of a conveyor belt with as much consistency and at the fastest speeds possible. The world of large-scale, industrial monoculture has come to resemble, in many ways, that of the factory on the other end of town.

The death and dying of the small-scale family farm, and the factory-style model that has taken its place,  has resulted in a loss as profound as that of environment, land, and even a means of livelihood. It is a loss of the deep knowledge that was required to care for fields and livestock: knowledge that was a result of years of experience, that was learned from the generation before, that understood and could work with the whole, rather than a single part.

When I was a kid, riding in that car, the world seemed simple. There were the good guys and there were bad guys, and I thought it was pretty clear who was who. With each year that has been added to my life, however, I have become increasingly aware that this little planet is incredibly complex. A loss is a loss, however, regardless of who is to blame. I for one mourn what is lost each time I pass one of those old cement silos.

Flickr photo (cc) by  Vail Marston

This is part three of Nick Shuurman’s farming series. You can find part one here:
Part 1: How farming and faith relate
Part 2: Theology of food 

Part 4: So you think you can farm?