We’re approaching Thanksgiving, our all-American harvest festival. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once asked if it was “really possible to have an honest Thanksgiving in an industrial civilization.” Instead of celebrating the gifts of nature and nature’s God, he worried, the holiday risked becoming a collective pat on the back, since humans thought they mastered nature with their machines. That might be true. But in a development Niebuhr might not have anticipated, some of the most industrialized youth who’ve ever lived are now looking to find honest work beyond industrial civilization.

A surprising number of students I know are going into novel fields, so to speak. They’re working on organic farms scattered across the country: at the shores of Lake Michigan, against the foothills of the Rockies, on a small island off the coast of Washington, even in the post-industrial cities of the Rust Belt. For some, agriculture is a temporary activity. “WWOOFing,” or taking advantage of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is an easy route to a summer, semester or longer period of farm work in exchange for room (or tent) and board. For others, agrarian living is a lifelong vocation.

I haven’t spent more than a day on one of these farms myself, but I can understand their attraction, especially for a set of environmentally conscious, fairly privileged students from professional families. Many aspects of industrial civilization are getting hard to deal with, not just at a global level, but at a personal level as well. The agrarian escape can provide a way out, for individuals who pursue it, though I’m less sure whether it would work for society as a whole.

If you think about it, getting back down to Earth is a logical response for young people confronting the hyperextension of higher education, the joke that’s the job market and the crazed competition that dominates both. It’s no wonder that some of us are forsaking the résumé rush for an occupation that tends to emphasize cooperation, stability and a slower pace of production. No plant is going to complain if you’re a few minutes late with the water.

Farming also involves making real, tangible products — stuff you can sink your teeth into, which citizens of this country don’t do too often anymore. Indeed, many professional students don’t get to do any kind of real work at all. Educator John Dewey warned about the “loss of moral power that arises from the constant impression that nothing is worth doing in itself, but only as a preparation for something else, which in turn is only a getting ready for some genuinely serious end beyond.” When you grow things, though, you can have your crops and eat them too.

Then there’s the political subtext. For many practitioners, do-it-yourself agriculture offers a radical alternative to industrial civilization and its evils — from McDonald’s to climate change. These practitioners see growing food as the first step in a new agricultural revolution that would eliminate the unequal relationship between producer and consumer, shake off supply chains and liberate local communities from global capital.

I have some doubts about that. It can be hard to separate what’s revolutionary from what’s merely therapeutic. The metaphor of “cultivating our garden,” observed by 1960s activist and historian Todd Gitlin, often represents “the traditional middle class way of renouncing the world.” Some student farm workers hint at that notion. “I’m not sure that I can change… politics in Washington, but here I can see the fruits of my labor,” one told a reporter, while another says he’s gained self-reliance, a classic industrial virtue contradicting the natural interdependencies Niebuhr mourned. Meanwhile, the planet burns and 3 million immigrant farm workers in this country lack the rights we take for granted.

The agrarian adventure has promise. We badly need alternative models to industrial civilization. Yet I tend to think the best farms will be the ones that also foster continuous engagement with the society beyond their fences. We require hands to sow the seeds of change, but we also need others to redistribute the harvest they reap.

Joel Batterman can be reached at jomba@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *