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Losing ground: Farmland preservation, economic ... - newruralism

Losing ground: Farmland preservation, economic ... - newruralism

Losing ground: Farmland preservation, economic ... -

Agriculture and Human Values (2005) 22: 209–223 Ó Springer 2005DOI 10.1007/s10460-004-8281-1Losing ground: Farmland preservation, economic utilitarianism,and the erosion of the agrarian idealMatthew J. MariolaGaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USAAccepted in revised form September 15, 2003Abstract. The trajectory of the public discourse on agriculture in the twentieth century presents an interesting pattern:shortly after World War II, the manner in which farming and farmers were discussed underwent a profoundshift. This rhetorical change is revealed by comparing the current debate on farmland preservation with a traditionof agricultural discourse that came before, known as ‘‘agrarianism.’’ While agrarian writers conceived of farmingas a rewarding life, a public good, and a source of moral virtue, current writers on farmland preservation speak offarming almost entirely in utilitarian terms describing its productive capacity and its economic returns. Proponentsof farmland preservation use essentially the same underlying framework as critics of preservation: an ‘‘economicutilitarian’’ paradigm that purports to eschew normative values and evaluate land use decisions based on economiccriteria only. I argue that, despite their good intentions, farmland preservationists are doomed to piecemeal victoriesat best, because their arguments, which rely on a utilitarian justification and disregard the agrarian ethic, are inadequate.Without expanding its focus beyond farmland to encompass farming and farmers, the movement risks losingboth integrity and effectiveness.Key words: Agrarianism, Agricultural ethics, American Farmland Trust, Economic utilitarianism, Farmland preservation,New agrarians, Urban sprawlAbbreviations: AFT – American Farmland Trust; USDA – United States Department of AgricultureMatthew J. Mariola recently received his Masters degree in the Land Resources program at the Gaylord NelsonInstitute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on agrarian philosophyand farmer identity among conventional and organic farmers.The errors of politicians ignorant of agriculture … can only rob it of its pleasures,and consign it to contempt and misery.– John Taylor, 1813IntroductionAgriculture has been an activity of central significanceto virtually every settled society the world has known.Even in the United States, where farmers have comprisedless than half the population for over a century,and less than 3% several decades ago, the workingfarmstead set in a bucolic rural landscape continues tohold a special place in most people’s hearts. Indeed,public discourse on the value of agriculture stretchesback to our country’s founding and has hardly let upeven as its subject has played a decreasing role in thenational economy.Culture and agriculture are dynamic and interrelatedphenomena. Transitions in the makeup and mores of asociety are closely interconnected with shifts in agriculturalpractice, which in turn relate to shifts in the dialogueon agriculture. In fact, if one examines thetrajectory of the public debate over agricultural policythrough the course of the last one hundred years, onenotices a stark example of such a shift: the very parametersof the debate change quite profoundly around midcentury.In the decades preceding World War II, agriculturewas rendered in grandiose terms as a foundationalelement of American culture and democracy and anexplicitly virtuous activity. It was seen not as an occupationso much as an all-encompassing lifestyle whosepurpose was sustaining families and communities inaddition to fields and pastures. This point of view, takengenerally, defines the stance known as ‘‘agrarianism.’’After the 1940s, however, agriculture was looked onincreasingly as a business venture, a means of productionreducible to basic inputs and outputs and whosesole purpose was raising food. Through this more recent

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