Know Farmers Know Food, Spring 2008


By Brook Le Van





…ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving
a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.
No community whose every member possesses this art can
ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms.

—Abraham Lincoln 1859

Abe said it well. Too bad we didn’t heed his words more
because, unfortunately, in the last 60 or so years we have
gradually become an increasingly more oppressed people. The
oppression I speak of is subtle, yet powerful, and it has gradually
eroded our health and deprived us of great richness in our lives. In
the history of our species we, who live in the “developed” world,
have never been more disconnected from our food.

Most of us don’t know the weathered smile of the person
who grew our morning oatmeal. We don’t know the beauty of
the morning mist rising off the pasture and the tingle of the
down-valley breeze at sunrise where our burger once grazed. In
our entire experiential memory files, we cannot access the hen’s
boast after laying her morning egg or the iridescent glistening of
sunlight bouncing off of a rooster’s plumage in the barnyard. We
cannot find the sound bite of a new born lamb’s first call to its
mother. Most of us have no record of the muscle constriction and
gentle consistent pull required to coax a mature carrot out of the
earth. Where in us is the scent of releasing a turnip from the nearfrozen
fertile soil in autumn?

We are still today mostly what we were when we evolved from
Homo erectus to Homo sapiens during the Pleistocene epic
250,000 years ago. We knew the world then as hunter-gatherers.
We had direct connections to all our food. As we developed we
became pastoralist, and then horticulture began to dominate
our food intake. All this led to agriculture, and as archeological
record so far tells us, our habit of planting and harvesting began a
mere 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. At this point we still knew our

Our relationship with food begins to erode after our discovery
and harnessing of fossil energy. Parallel to our discoveries of new
energy sources and revolutions in mechanizing labor is also an
unprecedented accumulation of wealth for a few, and hence the
concentration of power. These are forces that work very hard to
maintain the status quo, to create and keep the systems in place
that protect the wealth and power as it is.

Our deepest disconnect from food takes off right after World
War II. Tooling up for the war, businesses were called upon by our
government to change from the manufacture of tractors and cars

and trucks to jeeps, tanks, bombers and destroyers. This was patriotic

and we achieved our goals of conquering evil and making things better

off in the world. This, however, left the government indebted to all those companies

that heeded the call to arms.

What we have in 1945 is a whole lot of companies lined up
to produce machines, materials and chemicals and no market for
their products. So the corporations
called in the debt and our government,
succumbing to industry’s pressure,
created policies that supported
large-scale production and mass-marketing
of their goods by establishing
tax structures and financial subsidies
that give them the edge. This giant
industrial machine, no longer focused
on taking out a fascist dictator, went
to war on our air, soil and water in the
form of the new and improved agriculture.

Along comes Earl Butz in 1971, appointed by President
Richard Nixon as Secretary of Agriculture. In his time heading
the Department of Agriculture (DOA), Butz revolutionized
federal agricultural policy and re-engineered many New Dealera
farm support programs. His mantra to farmers was “get big
or get out,” and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like
corn, soy and wheat from “fencerow to fencerow.” These DOA
policies and new industrial farming practices coincided with the
rise of major agribusiness corporations, the declining financial
stability of the small family farm and the collapse of many rural
communities nationwide. In short, and opposite of all the spin
given to this “Green Revolution,” what
happened was that our community’s
and our nation’s food security started
to deteriorate. This brute-force move
toward large-scale broadened the gap
between you and your food, and issues
of trust have emerged that never were
a consideration when you could look
your grower in the eye. Just 100 years
ago, 99 percent of Americans had
something to do with the production of
the food they ate. Now, less than 1 percent does. This deterioration
of our quality of life, what I am calling a form of oppression, has
been orchestrated. But we have also bought into it.
The upshot of all this is that when I get into this discussion with
my interns and staff, we keep coming back to dirt, soil and our
hands in that living medium, and a much more direct engagement

with the production of our food. What we understand about real
solutions is that many of them are going to have to be local —
locally grown food, locally derived energy, local manufacturing.
It is the general relocalization of our economies that is our best
hope for building a strong and resilient nation. And if we are to
regain those deeper sensations that build healthy selves and trust
that our food is safe, then we must KNOW FARMERS if we are

So Mr. Butz, and all your big agribusiness cronies, we have a
different slogan for you. The chant now, coming from the bottom
up and loud and clear, is “Get Local or Get Out.”

Brook Le Van, driven in life predominantly by flavor, is the cofounder
and director of Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit land-based
demonstration and research institute — a Whole Systems Learning
Center — near Carbondale, a place and program devoted to reviving
small-scale diversified farms and ranches, the bedrock of local
food and energy security.