Readings — From the December 2009 issue

The Necessity of Agriculture

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In Goethe’s Faust, the devil Mephistopheles is fulfilling some of the learned doctor’s wishes by means of witchcraft, which the doctor is finding unpleasant. The witches cook up a brew that promises to make him young, but Faust is nauseated by it. He asks (this is Randall Jarrell’s translation):

Has neither Nature nor some noble mind
Discovered some remedy, some balsam?

Mephistopheles, who is a truth-telling devil, replies:

There is a natural way to make you young. . . .
Go out in a field
And start right in to work: dig, hoe,
Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
Eat the food you raise . . .
Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
And that’s the best way—take it from me!—
To go on being young at eighty.

Faust, a true intellectual, unsurprisingly objects:

Oh, but to live spade in hand—
I’m not used to it, I couldn’t stand it.
So narrow a life would not suit me.

And Mephistopheles replies:

Well then, we still must have the witch.

Lately I’ve been returning to that passage again and again, and every time I read it I laugh. I laugh because it is a piece of superb wit, and because it is true. Faust’s idea that farm life is necessarily “narrow” remains perfectly up to date. And it is still true that to escape that alleged narrowness requires the agency of a supernatural or extrahuman power—though now, for Goethe’s witchcraft, we would properly substitute industrial agriculture.

This process from witchcraft to industrial agriculture does not seem to be especially happy. We could be forgiven, I think, if we find it horrifying. Farming does involve working hard and getting dirty. Faust, perhaps understandably, does not love it. To escape it, for a while at least, he has only to drink a nauseating beverage concocted by witches. But we, who have decided as a nation and by policy not to love farming, have escaped it, for a while at least, by turning it into an “agri-industry.” But agri-industry is a package containing far more than its label confesses. In addition to an array of labor-saving or people-replacing devices and potions, it has given us massive soil erosion and degradation, water pollution, maritime hypoxic zones; destroyed rural communities and cultures; reduced our farming population almost to disappearance; yielded toxic food; and instilled an absolute dependence on a despised and exploited force of migrant workers.

This is not, by any accounting, a bargain. Maybe we have begun to see that it is not, but we have only begun. We have ahead of us a lot of hard work that we are not going to be able to do with clean hands. We had better try to love it.

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