I was picking tomatoes on our small farm in north-central Kentucky when I heard the news of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It took me some time before I understood that what Bob Edwards of National Public Radio was talking about was not a book or movie. I was horrified and frightened when I realized what he was describing was real, but I wasn’t surprised. It seems that I live waiting for the next awful thing to happen somewhere in the world.
Our farm sits near a small town in a world made up mostly of small places—places affected by the policies of their governments but seldom consulted or considered. This place has been my “homeland” all of my life, and my family’s for eight generations. The government that now wants to talk about “homeland security,” an obnoxious phrase, has been working at economically destroying our homeland for a good deal of that time.
Because we now know what we should have known all along—that we are vulnerable to terrorist attack—maybe we are ready to think about what a secure homeland might really mean and how country places like ours might fit into it.
In a New York Times article dated October 28, 2001, Neil Harl, a professor of agriculture and economics at Iowa State University, says that “The terrorists know that the surest way to bring a country to its knees is to attack the food system and water systems.” The problem, the article goes on to say, is that “the food chain is nearly impossible to secure fully because of its massive scale.” People should have been plenty worried about this before September 11, and they should be asking to hear some serious talk about it now. I’m asking, and I have been for 20 years. All I’ve heard from our leaders, elected and otherwise, is talk of hiring more food inspectors. This is ridiculous for many reasons, not the least of which is that the food inspection system is currently failing to find manure on meat, some of which can be seen with the naked eye.
Our country, through its ruinous desire for cheap food, has nearly destroyed the safest food system we could have: farmers feeding the people closest to them. Our current farm policy permits mergers, allows for concentration, favors agribusiness, and teaches that small farms can’t survive, while subsidizing large farms with what amounts to welfare payments. These policies ruin the market for small, independent producers who want fair prices, not welfare. And so what has happened to America’s small farmers has not been inevitable; it has been the result of policy.
The further loss of small farms is not inevitable, either. My uncle John M. Berry, a farmer and a lawyer, says that we must keep bringing these things up because we’re talking about the next generation’s ability to eat. He says politicians won’t take up these questions because there is another election between now and then.
Which brings me back to picking tomatoes on the morning of September 11. When my husband and I bought our farm in 1981, we thought of ourselves as conventional farmers. We had a dairy, raised corn and hay to feed the dairy cows, and raised tobacco. Over the next six or seven years, it became clear that what we were doing didn’t make any sense. We were working ourselves and the farm to death. And so we began a change that is ongoing. We began to ask ourselves some questions that we hadn’t thought of before:
How does our place look?
Is the soil on our farm improving?
Are we keeping the areas of our farm that we’re not farming, such as waterways and woodlands, healthy?
Are we including our neighborhood in our decisions about what we do here?
Are we doing something that we would be glad, and proud, to pass on to our children?
Of course, economics must be considered, and it is. My husband and I, with the help of our three daughters, raise and process pastured poultry (chickens and turkeys), and raise organic vegetables and organic beef. For the most part, we sell products directly to our customers. There is no one in the middle, and trust ensures safety and quality. Our customers trust us to provide delicious, healthy, safe food; we trust them to pay us a fair price. Along the way, many of our customers have become our friends, which is certainly an added pleasure.
Can we imagine a community, a city, a state, a nation, and finally a world running on this kind of real economy? Can we imagine little places like ours as an integral part of a secure homeland? In these days of fear and foreboding, can we not see a better way? After all, what do we need to be secure? Certainly not instructions from our President that patriotism means buying more useless stuff to keep a false economy going.
We need clean food, water, and air. We need decent places to live: healthy cities and a prosperous countryside. That would be real homeland security—and a homeland worth fighting for.