Some Versions of Pastoral

Dream Reaper: The Story of an Old-fashioned Inventor in the High-Tech, High-Stakes World of Modern Agriculture

by Craig Canine
Knopf, 300 pp., $25.00

Another Turn of the Crank

by Wendell Berry
Counterpoint, 109 pp., $18.00

The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma

by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich and Gretchen C. Daily
Grosset/Putnam, 364 pp., $30.00

Growing food was once the consuming professional interest of most Americans; 95 percent of the population, for instance, were farmers at the time of the Revolution. But that interest has long since become a specialty, even a subspecialty. Though farmers still accounted for a third of Americans as late as 1910, this proportion had dropped to one in ten by 1955, and since then, according to Victor Davis Hanson, not a month has passed in which the number of farms in this country has not fallen; by the 1980s, two thousand family farms a week were failing. Today not quite one American in a hundred engages in farming. It’s hard to know for sure—in 1993, the Census Bureau announced that farmers were no longer “statistically significant” and hence could not be counted.

Put aside, at least for a moment, the question of whether this decline is good or bad. One thing it undoubtedly means is that we know less about farming today than ever before—less about the practice of coaxing food from soil, and less about the economics that drives this most basic of industries. We’ve left the farm because certain technological advances have, in one view, freed us from this labor, or, in another light, made food so cheap that it is almost impossible for a family to make a living growing it.

Americans born since the war have spent their entire lives in a condition of food surplus, both domestically and, increasingly, abroad. There have been famines around the world in that time, it is true, and many people suffer from chronic malnutrition—but in general these have been the product of poor distribution, low incomes, and political turmoil. In any event, there’s been no reason for most Americans to pay attention to agriculture, and we haven’t. A federal farm bill providing for huge subsidies, for instance, worked its way through Congress this winter without attracting any interest from the press or the public. Farms hit the front page only when cows begin foaming at the mouth and passing on their symptoms to children, or when local droughts threaten to add a few cents to the price of this year’s bread and pasta.

That may change. The debate over Lester Brown’s forecasts of coming food shortages in China has already been joined in these pages. But his larger point, made most recently in the journal published by his World Watch Institute, is at least as important.1 Viewed as a whole, he points out, the planet’s grain harvest has barely increased in the last five years—a stunning change from the huge annual increases that accompanied the post- World War II green revolution. As a result, nearly half a billion more people have to share the same amount of corn and wheat and rice as was harvested in 1990, so the per capita consumption of calories has steadily decreased. Global stocks of grain stand at forty-nine days’ worth, and since the harvest rates of alternate sources of food such…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.